The Flower Sculpture by the Rhône
LIFE IN FRANCE: YOGURTI'm going to get myself into a lot of trouble with a lot of people for writing this blog. Tant pis. Here goes...
The French have got themselves a not entirely undeserved reputation for being rather prim and smug about their language - specially when it comes to hearing it being mangled, mispronounced and otherwise misused by foreigners whose great misfortune it is not to have French as their mother tongue. Of which I am one.
So this posting is by way of being my affectionate - yet mysteriously spiteful - rejoinder to all those insufferable French pedants who have corrected my grammar, syntax, vocabulary and pronunciation over the last three years or so.
(It should be said, en passé, that ‘prim’ is the very last thing the French are when speaking the language themselves. The rate at which they insert obscenities - or at least crudities - into their everyday conversation must have given mid-Victorian French teachers in English public schools the vapours.
The nearest translation of cul, for example, is ‘arse’. So when we refer, in England, to a ‘cul-de-sac’, we are calling what is probably a perfectly respectable, middle-class suburban close a ‘bag arse’. Try imagining a No Through Road street sign with ‘Bag Arse’ written under it...
Famously, Merde! is a much commoner expression in France than ‘Shit!’ is in English. If you keep tripping up, the French say that you ‘have shit on your shoes’ and keep dropping things clumsily and you’ll be told you have ‘shitty fingers’. Generally, we polite English speakers have neutralised this into ‘butterfingers’, although it throws a new and disgusting light onto ‘cack-handed’.
Between two impressive French cocks - in snowy Lyon
If an eagle-eared Frenchman or woman hears you allotting the wrong gender to a noun, or conjugating a verb incorrectly, or forgetting that it’s reflexive, or mispronouncing a French place-name or personal name, you will be loudly castigated, humiliated and ridiculed in public for mangling God’s own language.
The French do not, of course, apply these rules to themselves when they are speaking someone else's language. Because they are French, they are allowed to torture any other language to within an inch of its life without being criticised or corrected.
After all, have you ever heard a French person speaking English in anything other than a very, very strong French accent? ‘I speck zuh Ingliss ay leetul. I ‘ave lairn eet een zuh skuil. Ow air yui? I am vairy guid...’
You might think I am being gratuitously unkind to people who are doing their best to speak English. The point, though, is that that is precisely and adamantly what they are not doing. My experience has taught me that the French are perfectly well aware of how awful their collective pronunciation of English is and are perversely proud of it.
Tell them that ‘house’ and ‘home’ have an audible, breathy ‘h’ sound at the beginning and they will repeat ‘ouse’ and ‘ohm’ ad infinitum whilst insisting that they are mimicking your pronunciation exactly.
The local train
To be honest, I have more than a sneaking suspicion that they do this on purpose - specially when they use foreign proper nouns; the names of places and people.
So Heaven protect you if you say ‘Marsail’ for Marseille, ‘Dipardyou’ for Depardieu or pronounce any ‘h’ at all.
But when the boot’s on the other foot and you hear Mohshestair for Manchester, Kayvah Kohsnair for Kevin Costner, Noru-weesh for Norwich or Eddawshuildairs for Head and Shoulders, you must smile sweetly and say how absolutely perfect the speaker’s mastery of English is. You must say this even if you haven’t understood a single word of what they’ve said. I have been in the deeply embarrassing situation of asking someone what language they were speaking and being told it was English. At times like those, it’s very, very difficult not to behave like a French person hearing bad French and laughing out loud.
(English gets off lightly. Hearing a French person trying to speak German is genuinely terrible. It’s a linguistic nightmare of the first water and is probably the reason why Esperanto was invented.)
If the French really do deliberately mangle English, I can almost understand why. The English language - and Anglo-Saxon culture - is all-pervasive now, all over the world. Computery is dominated by it; KFC, Subway and McDonald’s are as common in France as they are everywhere else; and popular culture has been English-based for decades.
French has been forced to adopt English words, despite the best endeavours of the Academie Francaise to keep it out - one of the most recent examples is ‘le relooking’, which is what the French call a ‘makeover’. Weird or what.
And with ‘yogurt’, we come full circle. This is how the French refer to a pop-singer who is trying really, really hard to sing a song in English - and doesn’t understand a single word of what they are singing. With no knowledge of English, they’ve learned the lyrics parrot-fashion and regurgitate them to order.
It’s chronically bad at the best of times. At worst, it’s musical purgatory. That it’s tricky to learn the words of a song in a language you don’t speak is no excuse at all. If you don’t know what you’re singing about, you should sing something else - in French. Otherwise, you run the risk of making noises that no-one understands.
I was watching the French version of The Voice the other night and two of the contestants sang songs in what I was assured was my native language. It was complete garbage from beginning to end. Pure French yogurt.
And this being France, when they’d finished singing, they were told (in French, by French judges) how good their English accents were. The French are really, really good at self-satisfied mutual congratulation.
For far too long, the English have accepted the role of the world's worst language learners/speakers. And it's true that Winston Churchill's French accent was diabolical (although the Queen's is perfect - even the French themselves grudgingly admit it).
No. The title of the planet's worst linguists must now be passed to the French for the artless way in which, when they speak English or any other language, they make it sound as if they're speaking a combination of Ancient Greek, Swahili, Icelandic and Yoruba - backwards.
To restore the critical balance, this posting is adorned with some more pictures of Lyon, a city of which I am very, very fond indeed.
Post comments on this blog or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org