Monday, January 9, 2006

Those French Have a Different Word for Everything

The French are into irony, I’ve read. So here’s an irony--I studied German for two years in high school; I studied Spanish for two years in college; my mother is an immigrant from the Netherlands; I’ve learned through previous jobs and travel to speak snatches of Japanese, Hawaiian, Tagalog (a common dialect in the Philippines), and even certain greetings in everything from Russian to Tiv, a Nigerian language; but the first time I have an opportunity to go to Europe, it happens to be France. I have never studied French. All I know is what comedian Steve Martin said: “Those French have a different word for everything!”

It’s true.

I found that out for myself when I went to France the week after Thanksgiving to teach public relations to a group of 20 French students at a place called ESSCA. That’s a French acronym, so suffice it to say it’s a business institute in the city of Angers. Angers is pronounced “an-JAY” or actually like a drunk with a bad cold, “an-SHJAY.” It is not Angers, as in a collection of people who are angry. Although, I had to wonder about a country with cities named Angers and Nice. Talk about your national mood swings! Other cities in Europe are named for American lunch meats and fast food—Hamburg, Frankfort, Genoa, Bologna—so at least the French are more original.

But back to the language thing.

My wife bought me a set of language CDs for me to bone up on yet another language, to get ready to teach in France. Now, I would be teaching in English, fortunately, because the students had to know English. But I wanted to learn enough to be able to communicate a bit, show some global savvy by at least trying to speak French and not perpetuate the image of the boorish American who expects if they merely shout slowly everyone will understand them. My mother-in-law even bought us a pocket translator from Brookstone, in case we needed to say something in a pinch, like “I need diarrhea medication.”

But actually, as I studied, I realized I did know some French. Apparently, quite a few French phrases have found their way into common American expressions. Especially when we’re talking about food. For example, omelet du fromage is a cheese omelet. Crème brule is a dessert that I’m sure most of you have heard of. And of course, who hasn’t said bon apetit at the beginning of a meal? Wines are all named for regions of France—Bordeaux, chardonnay, and so forth. It makes it interesting to drink a glass or bottle of Bordeaux while you are in Bordeaux. I don’t know if Michigan wineries will ever adopt this trend. I just can’t hear people at a party saying, “Would you like a bottle of Paw Paw?” The word for wine in French is vin, which looks similar, although it is pronounced vahn. At least the French word looks like the English word so we can guess intelligently what it is.

But some words don’t look anything like the English word. Or worse, they look like an English word but one with a completely different meaning.

For example, we saw stores everywhere with the word pain, such as maison de pain. I knew maison meant house, so what was this? A house of pain? Are these Frenchies a bunch of masochists?! Then we learned that pain is pronounced pahn, and that it means bread. Then we had some bread, and decided this fresh, daily, no-preservative bread was outstanding. The French eat a lot of bread and no one seems overweight. Forget the Atkins diet; the French motto seems to be “no pain, no gain.”

In the end, I was able to practice my French and even ordered dinner and bought a beret, baguettes, and even champagne at little shops, with the transactions happening entirely in French. I felt quite proud of myself. Until I started noticing that after I enacted a conversation in French, people would respond in English. They must have known my accent and decided to prevent me from further torturing their language. Or maybe word was out about my feeble attempts at multi-lingual puns, such as the time I bought bread and asked if they could take my baguette and bag it. I don’t think they caught on.

So now, I’m a little sensitive about the French language. I noticed back here now in the states how often when I read a magazine or newspaper that some American snob has to insert a French phrase when a perfectly good English one would do. For example, why did a certain national columnist recently have to write raison d’etre when he could have just said “reason for existence”? They put these little French phrases in italics (like I’ve done with this column) as a way not to better express their point, but to say: “hey, I speak French!” Snobs.

Meanwhile, many French people refuse to speak English, or are so arrogant that they don’t want to have any words from other languages seep into their vernacular. They really do want to have a different word for everything. I’m tempted to start a lobby to ensure that we Americans stop sneaking little French phrases into our language. Now that I think about it, I’m quite passionate about that. I have anger, even though I do not live in Angers. Stopping the intrusion of French into American English will be my raison d’etre.

By the way, if any of you want to see my photos of France, you can see a quick slide show online

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