Calling the Costa Brava

Within a few years after the patenting of the telephone  (no more than six, according to the Oxford English Dictionary), English-speakers were using call as a verb denoting the use of the new invention. Other languages having equivalent verbs quickly followed suit: German rufen, French appeler, Italian chiamare, Spanish llamar.

Catalan, however, has no one verb that is equivalent to most of the meanings of English call, or Spanish llamar. But it so happens that llamar has a secondary meaning of ‘knock’ (as on a door), which in Catalan is trucar, and Catalans somehow decided to interpret a telephone call as the electronic equivalent of a knock rather that of a call. Hence trucar is the Catalan verb meaning calling on the telephone.

A translation from Spanish that is literally valid but semantically askew is one example of the influence that Spanish has had on Catalan during the two and a half centuries (from 1716 to 1975, except under the Republic from 1931 to 1939) when Catalan was effectively banned from school and official use. I will discuss (a discussion involving some speculation on my part) a more interesting case of such a translation. But far more common than such translations is outright borrowing, of which there are hundreds, if not thousands (Catalan Wikipedia has a special page devoted to them). Younger Catalans — say those under 45, who have mostly attended Catalan-language schools — are often heard to correct their elders’ vocabulary.

The case I want to discuss is the name of the stretch of coast known as Costa Brava. It is well known that the name was created in 1908 by the journalist Ferran Agulló, and that it means — conveniently in both Catalan and Spanish — ‘wild coast’ or ‘rough coast.’ But it isn’t clear how Agulló came by this designation, and here I want to add a bit of speculation.

The first stretch of coast to receive a designation as “(Something) Coast” is, as far as I know, the Côte d’Azur (‘Azure Coast’), generally known in English as the French Riviera, though most of it didn’t become French until 1860. It was then that the historic County of Nice (which contains most of it) was ceded to France by the Kingdom of Sardinia (which soon became the Kingdom of Italy). Before that, the coasts of Nice and of Genoa constituted simply the Riviera.

But the French wanted a name for the coast that was authentically French, without using the Italian word riviera, and this was given to them by a writer named Stéphen Liégeard, in the form of a pun. Liégeard was a native of Burgundy, one of whose famous geographic features is a cuesta known as the Côte d’Or (‘golden slope’). In French, it so happens, côte means both ‘slope or hillside’ (Spanish cuesta) and ‘coast’ (Spanish costa), and so a name designating a cuesta could be adapted, by a change of color from gold to azure, to one designating a coast.

While the English-speaking world held on to “French Riviera” (British tourists had been going there for decades), other cultures adopted the new French name, some in the original form (as in German) and some in translation (as in Spanish). Now in Spanish the cognate of azur is azul (except in heraldry). But unlike French, Italian and Catalan, which have adopted cognates of the originally Germanic blue (bleu/bleue, blu, blau/blava) to mean blue in general, Spanish adopted azul for that purpose, while the specific sky-like hue called azure (azur, azzurro, atzur) is called celeste. Nonetheless, the Spanish (and the Portuguese as well) decided to translate Côte d’Azur as Costa Azul on the basis of sound.

The Catalans, true to their habit of borrowing from Spanish, came to call the Costa Azul by a word-for-word (but not sound-for-sound) translation: Costa Blava. (A direct translation from French would have been Costa d’Atzur).

Now I can’t help believing that the sound of Costa Blava was resounding in Ferran Agulló’s head when he came up with Costa Brava. And so I posit that the name is a pun, ultimately derived from a name that was also a pun.

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One Response to “Calling the Costa Brava”

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