In this blogposting…
*Life in France: The Devil’s Tongue
Now - excelsior!
LIFE IN FRANCE: THE DEVIL’S TONGUE
Oh dear me. Or Oh la vache!, as the French say.
I know I’ve whinged about this before but….
Three Frenchmen and an Englishman go into a French bar. (This is not a joke.) The three Frenchmen engage in animated conversation - naturally - while the Englishman tries to pick up whatever it is they are talking about. The little French he knows suggests that their conversation is either about this year’s salad crop, the performance of the French football team, the new Citroen DS3, the physical attributes of Jane Birkin or a fishing expedition they all went on seven years ago.
In short, the unfortunate Englishman, mishearing and misunderstanding the words, phrases, gestures, shrugs and facial expressions which make up this diabolical system of communication can take little or no part in the hale badinage he is so desperately trying to make sense of.
French is truly the Devil’s Tongue.
Listening to ordinary people speaking ordinary French can be soul-destroying, specially if you’ve been trying to grapple with its deviousness for several months like I have. Its constructions, idioms, fluid emphases, sinuous nasalisations - they all combine to give an earnest learner like me a cross between a headache and nausea. You can get seriously sea-sick listening - and trying to interpret - its seductive and meaningless lilts.
I’ve spent several sleepless nights trying to figure out what it is about French that makes it the Devil’s Tongue. As far as I’m concerned, there are two main culprits.
Firstly, its construction.
French is analytical. It doesn’t like long, complicated concepts strung together; it prefers them to be laid out (as it thinks) simply. Thus ‘Michel’s sister’s vegetable garden’ would need to be, and is, ‘the garden of vegetables of the sister of Michel’. Michel’s sister could grow a crop of potatoes in the time it takes to say that.
This is all because, uniquely amongst European languages, French does not allow nouns to be used as adjectives. Thus ‘peanut butter sandwich’ is unthinkable, as is ‘computer desk’, ‘cigarette holder’, ‘bus stop’, ‘matchbox’, ‘baby-sit’ or ‘Christmas card’.
Whereas English is happy with railway, German has Eisenbahn and Italian has ferrovia - all of which mean more-or-less the same thing - French insists on chemin-de-fer, ‘way of iron’. ‘Sea-sick’, above, is another example. Mer-mal would be too easy; it has to be ‘mal-de-mer’.
This obsessive need to break ideas and concepts down into their constituent parts can sometimes lead the Devil’s Tongue into the most convoluted linguistic cul-de-sacs. The worst I’ve found so far is the French way of saying ‘broadband’; transmission a haut debit.
The other problem - and it’s landed me in trouble several times - is false friends; words which look much the same as English words - sometimes exactly the same - but which mean something different. Occasionally, their meanings are inexplicably different from their English counterparts, as this list shows….
Car does not mean ‘car’ - it means ‘coach’.
Location does not mean ‘location’ - it means ‘rented property’.
Malice doesn’t mean ‘malice’ - it means ‘mischief’.
Agenda doesn’t mean ‘agenda’ - it means ‘diary’.
Manifestation does not mean ‘manifestation’ - it means ‘demonstration’ or ‘protest march’.
Occasion doesn’t mean ‘occasion’ - it means ‘second-hand’.
Personne doesn’t mean ‘person’ - it means ‘nobody’.
Penguin doesn’t mean ‘penguin’ - it means ‘auk’.
Camera only means ‘camera’ if you’re talking about tv or movie cameras; an ordinary household camera is an appareil-photo - how cumbersome is that!
And while I’m in full flow…
Why is there no French word for pie?
Why do the French expressions for 'straight ahead' and 'to the right' sound almost exactly the same? (Tout droit, a droite.)
Why are the words for 'above' and 'below' virtually indistinguishable? (En dessus, au dessous.)
You’re probably wondering why I bother.
Well, I guess the answer is a permutation of... the wonderfully graceful and mellifluous sound of French….the obvious pride its speakers take in speaking it properly and ‘musically’….the stout and shameless way they defend against any corruption of their language….and the warm-hearted and knowing kindness they show to its hopelessly entangled lovers and admirers.
Late in the evening, back in the that bar I mentioned earlier, I remarked that it was getting late. One of the Frenchmen replied cela ne faire rien - loosely ‘that makes no difference’. It reminded me of how close our two nations really were and still are. My Nana, and a great many other people, habitually used the garbled phrase san fairy anne.
How, I wonder, did that particular phrase manage to find its way across La Manche…..?
...will take place on at 1100 on Thursday 16 September. Perhaps we could try the cafe in the Laing? Or the Theatre Royal? Or, if we want to be really ambitious, we could head for ‘Lickety Split’, an ice-cream parlour in Seaham, or Colman’s famed fish and chip shop in South Shields, both of which made it onto a recent Guardian list of the best places to eat at the British seaside. Well done them.
I promise not to go on and on and on about France, its people or its language, so a splendid time is guaranteed for all.
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