S’endormir sur ses lauriers

Z Frenchman clowns aroundI am not the only one in our family to make bloopers and blunders in an adopted language. My husband, aka Z-Frenchman, is the first one to laugh at his own English. In fact, he’s the first one to laugh at most things. A fine sense of humour is one of his best qualities and at least part of the reason why our marriage has endured these thirty years.

From the time we first met in Toronto, we have always communicated in my native tongue, or a version of it. My French skills were non-existent back then so English was the only option. It is very difficult to change the language of a relationship. Even after living in France for nearly twenty-five years, speaking French together still feels unnatural.

We English speakers find the French ‘r’ challenging and I remember at first getting it stuck in the back of my throat and sounding like I was choking when trying to say ‘rouge’. ZF, on the other hand, found it near impossible to say ‘squirrel’. There are a lot of squirrels in Toronto and it came up a lot. His rendition of it came out sort of all squished together like ‘skweerl’.

English is all about emphasis. Hitting the right syllable remains challenging for ZF even now – he will still put the emPHASis on the wrong syllABle. I described his attempt to tell me about visiting one of our wonders of the world in this post about pronunciation.

While shopping at St. Lawrence Market in downtown Toronto, he was once heard to say: “I take a leek!” That got a few smiles – and at least one anxious look.

The French say ‘take’ a lot as it is a translation of ‘prendre’, the verb used in French to describe anything you buy or order. Breaking him of the ‘take’ habit has been one of my life-long missions.

Another time he advised me: “Do not fall asleep on your bay leaves.” It only took me a minute to figure that one out, along with the French translation: “Don’t rest upon your laurels.” (Ne pas s’endormir sur ses lauriers).

Raising kids in a bilingual family like ours meant that somebody always got something wrong. Howls of hilarity regularly ensued when Daddy made a boo-boo in English, or Maman got something bass-akwards en français.

For the record, Saudi Arabia in French is Arabie Saoudite, not Saudi Arabite.

Most French people have trouble pronouncing English sounds like ‘th’, turning it into ‘z’. The aspirated ‘h’ is also a problem. For some unknown reason, however, ZF often removes them from where they should be and adds them where they don’t belong. Leading to greetings like: “’Ow h-are you?”

Difficulty enunciating certain vowel sounds can still get him into trouble. Piece and piss, sheet and shit are very different concepts.

Plurals are another challenge.

As the ‘s’ is so often silent at the end of words in French, he rarely finds it necessary to add it to the English. He will ask: “Would you like some chip?” Leading one of us to add the punchline: Just the one. Like the elusive ‘h’ he will add s’s where they don’t belong: “We’re out of cereals.” Or imply a plural: “Your hair are looking nice.” I have learned to enjoy the compliment, and keep the correction to myself.

Despite our comical moments, one of which is captured in this photo from our first winter in Toronto, communicating across the language gap has not always been a walk in the park. It makes it easy to misunderstand each other, but perhaps also makes us work a little harder to try and understand the other person’s point of view.

Et toi? What’s your funniest experience of French in English?

Faut pas confondre

1734420_naturismeThe French language is filled with pitfalls for the non-native speaker. I have personally fallen into so many of them I have permanent bruises on my tongue.

Okay, I exaggerate. But I have become rather good at rolling with the punches when I make a faux pas.

The wonderful thing about an acquired language is that you are allowed to make mistakes. Of course everyone can make mistakes, but it feels like we get a special pardon for bloopers and blunders in French.

One of the my frequent funnies is confusing words that look similar but have very different meanings.

  1. Culot / culotte
    ‘Avoir du culot’ or ‘être culotté’ means to have a lot of nerve. A culotte, on the other hand, describes a type of ladies’ undergarment. ‘Perdre sa culotte’ means to lose one’s shirt, for example in a game of poker. But to go ‘sans culotte’ may require a certain culot.
  2. Naturiste / naturaliste
    You need a lot of culot to go to the plage naturiste (nudist beach). Unless you happen to stumble upon it in the way of a naturalist simply studying the fascinating wildlife. According to the French Naturist Federation, this country is the world’s leading destination for nudists.
  3. Gâteaux / gâteux
    I love cake so this first word is a piece of it. For many years I was confused by the expression ‘Mamie gateaux’, which affectionately describes an over-indulgent grandmother, thinking it had something to do with the verb ‘gâter’ which means to spoil. A word of advice: don’t tell your mother-in-law she is gâteux – senile, doddering or incontinent.
  4. Jambe / jambon
    My jambes (legs) may not be long and slender but they are not quite jambons (hams). Yet.
  5. Cochonnerie / connerie
    Speaking of ham, why do we blame the poor pig for everything? A mere syllable separates the familiar expression for junk food (cochonnerie) from that which describes an act of stupidity (connerie). Do not use either expression when attempting to describe your child’s diet to a pediatrician.
  6. Piéton / pigeon
    French drivers may not always distinguish between them, but pedestrians (piétons) are not pigeons. There are plenty of both on the streets of Paris so when in France it is best to watch where you put your pieds!
  7. Baisser / baiser
    You may well lower (baisser) your eyes. A single ‘s’ is all that separates the act of lowering with a much lower act. Although ‘baiser’ has a place in the dictionary to officially mean kiss (baiser la main), in actual fact it is only ever used to mean to screw or get screwed.

We all know someone who says ‘prostrate’ instead of ‘prostate’. Do you ever mix up your meanings in English or any other language?

Mot de passe

Anonymous hacker groupThe French term for password, ‘mot de passe’, is a bit of a no-brainer for English natives, one of those all-too-rare, word-for-word translations that feels like a gift when you learn a language.

It’s a different story when it comes to your PIN for banking and credit cards. There is a very good reason why the French call this ‘le code secret’ and not code pine, as I have been known to say. Which is how I discovered that ‘pine’ is slang for penis.

If only there was a mot de passe for language itself. Imagine that you could log in to your adopted tongue and start speaking, even thinking like a native. Quel bonheur!

When you think of all the words you need to know to master a second language, an estimate that ranges from 300 to 2,000, it is daunting. Certainly after thirty years of speaking French, I must have acquired almost that many. But I think it was easier than the challenge of staying on top of all of the various user ID’s and passwords that are required just to stay afloat online these days.

It doesn’t matter whether your native tongue is English, French or Swahili, when it comes to covering our accesses and keeping our identities secure, we are all in the same boat. That boat is dangerously overcrowded, has multiple leaks and is listing seriously starboard, Captain!

I first experienced password hell when I started working in the corporate world here in France. You needed to sign in to your workstation every day. Then you needed another password for your email, and another for the intranet. VPN and various services quickly multiplied both at work and at home, along with the number of passwords you needed to use them.

I remember my boss back in the day, a 90’s dress-for-success businesswoman with a blonde flip, joking about how she just used her husband’s first name for everything. We all followed suit. In fact, you could have probably hacked into most French women’s bank accounts with nothing more than the first name of their spouse and children.

Then some techno-terrorist in Corporate Security changed the rules. A password must contain at least eight letters and two numbers or symbols. You must keep it secret and not store it on paper or anywhere in written form. You must change it for each different site or service you use, and update it from time to time. Or risk giving away your personal identity and financial details to the entire internet. Woe to any fool who uses the same password on more than one site! Hackers are lurking just behind your keyboard.

Despite the fear of having one’s bank details misappropriated, the French took quickly to shopping and other online transactions. As an avid consumer of English books and imported delicacies such as crunchy peanut butter, I for one rejoiced at the advent of Amazon and never looked back. While my compatriots wail about the death of the store, I have gotten to know all of the delivery people near and far: Chronopost, Colissimo, UPS…they all beat a path to my door. Sure beats schlepping multiple klicks to the nearest store only to find they don’t have what I want.

One of the reasons I shop on Amazon is that they never ask for my password. Any new vendor means you have to create an account, add payment details and learn another mot de passe.

Now we have a password for just about everything, including a code for the gate to enter our residence and the alarm that guards us against marauding intruders. For the phone, the internet, the TV, not yet for the toaster.

I have a secret system for my passwords. Obviously I cannot divulge it here, but it involves variations on a mnemonic theme. As my memory is far from perfect, my back-up is a rather low-tech file that lists all of my various logins and passwords. Hackers would have a field day if they found it.

Et toi? How do you manage all this password malarkey?

Chère Académie française,

academiePlease accept my application to become one of ‘les immortels’.

I have always dreamed of being immortal. Imagine my surprise and delight upon discovering that such a job description exists, and that it can be found among your illustrious number on the Académie Française, protectors extraordinaire of the French language!

Why should you consider my humble application?

Firstly, let me assure you that I meet your sole qualification of being under the age of 75 at the time of application, and, as an aside, that jacket would look good on me. Secondly, although English is my first language, I have spent nearly half of my life in this fair land and have come to appreciate both its language and its denizens, along with the produce of its labours, namely the fine foods and wines of la belle France. At the same time, I have become intimately familiar with its weaknesses as perceived both from within and beyond its borders.

Let me put this simply: I think you need me. As someone who has long worked in the field of communications, who understands brand and is familiar with the blogosphere, I can bring you kicking and screaming into the 21st century. The Academy has a bit of an image problem, you see. The French perceive you as a bunch of decrepit old coots, completely disconnected from reality, falling asleep in your plush chairs – I among them, until it became clear that I had confused you with the elected members of our National Assembly.

My confusion can perhaps be forgiven. You, too, are elected by vote, although uniquely among yourselves, a far more civilized approach than asking the public to weigh in, n’est-ce pas? What, after all, does the average Joe (sorry, make that Jacques) know about the language of Molière?

I do realize, bien évidemment, that you will not be able to consider my candidacy until a chair has been duly vacated, that is, until one of your number has gone on to better things – oh, let’s just call a spade a spade: popped his clogs, kicked the can, croaked. As you can see, I have a fair grasp of the vernacular in my native tongue and une maîtrise certaine in French.

I will be an ardent defender of French. I will fight to the death against the dumbing down of this great and wonderful language and resist further indignities like that of the spelling reform which has recently brought your name into the news. I understand it took from 1990 until the present to implement the reform, based upon a decision not of the Académie Française but of the Superior Council of the French language.

In conclusion, I will do everything in my power to maintain the original orthography of our language, from the jaunty circumflex in ‘août’ to the inimitable ‘i’ in oignon.

Till death us do meet.

Madame Mel

Quand on aime, on ne compte pas

Flowers, floatingIt is said in French that in love one doesn’t count. The exact meaning of this phrase always eluded me. Does it mean that when in love we forget all rational notions of time and money and throw ourselves into unbridled passion? Or rather that in love one does not keep score about whose turn it is or who owes what to whom? Can it be applied not just to romantic love but also to the things we love?

The answer for the French is oui, oui and oui. But when it comes to me, it’s non, non, and non.

Maybe it’s my lack of Latin blood. Whether at work or at play, I simply don’t throw myself completely into things, much as I admire those who do. Like my husband, who hikes up mountains and keeps going until he reaches the top. I go a short distance, become dizzy and exhausted, and say bon, that’s enough. Husband rarely reads, but when he gets into a book he may disappear from social interactions for days at a time. And if there is something good to eat within reach, there will soon be none left.

Me, I meter out my passions in careful doses. Count my drinks and keep an eye on my calories. I don’t binge watch my favourite TV series or run marathons. I will eat just a few pieces of chocolate, then save the rest for tomorrow. Read for an hour. Sleep for seven. Moderation in all things. How boring is that?

Perhaps it’s innate to character, upbringing or genes. Whatever it is, I seem to be more at home with the English model. When Browning asks, “How do I love thee, let me count the ways?” there is a calculation, a method to her madness. There is a list.

Which is not to say there isn’t love; it’s just that there is also counting. Somewhere, no matter how far back in my mind, there is always a list.

How about you? Do you keep count or live with unbridled passion?