Yesterday morning, returning from a walk with Bruno in bright spring sunshine, I enter the small car park adjacent to the village cemetery. An old and weathered-looking fellow, somewhat twisted in appearance, is limping towards his car, parked at the entrance. I greet him, unthinkingly, in Spanish, with a cheerful ‘Buenos días’. He surveys me briefly, before responding, in Catalan: ‘Bon dia’, then adding, in Spanish: ‘Es solo un día.’ – ‘It’s only one day’. This takes some unpacking to anyone unfamiliar with (a) Catalan nationalism, and (b) variations in Spanish around the world. But it poses interesting questions, both sociolinguistic and ontological.
The literal meaning of my Spanish greeting is ‘Good days’, plural. It is standard Castilian, and used throughout Spain. My interlocutor chose to correct me either because (a) I addressed him in Spanish, and not Catalan, in an overwhelmingly Catalan (and catalanista, independista etc) rural area, or else (b) he was making an ontological point about the phrase itself, but even so, one with sociolinguistic intimations. This is a point picked up – in a somewhat different context – in Andrés Neuman’s chronicle Cómo viajar sin ver (How to travel without seeing), soon to appear in English translation from Restless Books in the USA), about the difference between the Spanish and Argentine forms of the greeting – in Argentina they also use the singular form: Buen día. Here goes:
‘I land at Ezieiza airport and automatically, like someone switching radio stations, hear myself speaking Porteño. I repossess, as an outsider, my original dialect. I shift from the assertive Spanish “Buenos días” to the sliding Argentinian “Buen dííía”. Why should the day be various in Spain and exclusive in Argentina? A multinational country greets in the plural, and a centralist country greets in the singular?’
But the gentleman in the car park, I would wager, was making a nationalistic assertion also: he was saying, I believe: ‘You’re in Catalunya: we do things our way’. My mistake was in taking him, at a glance, for the type of elderly Catalan who will nearly always greet a foreigner in Spanish rather than Catalan, partly out of courtesy, partly because for much of their lives it was the only official language of the state. But to emphasise the distinction between Catalan and Castilian in this way is to make a political point.
So, our brief interaction was complex, to say the least. Whereas the comparison Neuman makes is quite generous towards Spain, asserting that its very plurality promotes a broader conceptualisation of greeting, whereas in a centralised state like Argentina, there is only one way to greet and one day in which to make the greeting, my interlocutor makes Spain the invader, its assumed multiplexity a mask for invasion and linguistic colonization. In a small country, whose language was for a long time perceived as a threatened species, the inflexion of a greeting always reveals just a tad more than elsewhere.