Was Ist Das? Comment Dire? Will We Ever Get The Hang Of It..?

We are into part 2 of the first term of the DELF/DALF B2 French Diplôme, and today we all as one reached melt-down.  We were listening to a radio broadcast in very rapid French, and after a few panic stricken minutes had ony managing to pick out one or two key words. Sidelong glances at our counterparts reassured us that we were not alone! Thankfully one by one we disolved into snorts and giggles, and not into floods of tears -though perhaps that’s still to come!

The B2 is divided into three main parts, Grammar, Comprehension Ecrit (written) and  Comprehension Oral. Clearly we all have our individual difficulties, and the course is set to challenge us to our full. No more inane conversations about daily life, but serious debate on current affairs – L’argumentation, Le debât et…Le STRESS! Since we have all arrived from different parts of the globe, our personal cultures present their own individual difficulties. Whilst the Europeans have the clear linguistic advantage of the same alphabet and the European compulsion to ‘speak out’, the Chinese and the Russians have an alternative alphabet, and those from the Far East have a  clear cultural predisposition to listen and revere the word of their Professors. So we see the Russians, Turkish, Germans and British in full voice, with the Far Eastern contingent reticent to contribute, yet technically mastering the language in great leaps behind the scenes. Notwithstanding the individual difficulties of the group, each and every one of us has a common stumbling block – pronunciation.

Today, led in a false expectations following a particularly helpful Comprehension Ecrit class, in which another prof had masterfully aided our pronunciation of two phonic vowel groups, and having been promised ‘more’ in the Comprehesion Orale class, one Turkish classmate requested help with the phonic sound of ‘Merci’. The ‘ER’ sound, whilst being easy for the German and Anglophone contingent presented enormous difficulties for the Turks.

‘Mais NON’ declared emphatically the Prof of Oral, ‘phonetics are no longer taught after B1’.

A situation spectacularly unhelpful for all those who arrived in B2 without having ever followed the earlier A or B1 classes. What did come up as a result of this request was an amusing series of examples of how mispronunciation can shape a language and create new words for the dictionary.

Whilst I was still living in England, ‘Husband à L’Etranger’ headed off for the hitherto unknown city of Rouen in France to work, and about the same time I met a French woman living in our village and the opportunity came one day at the school gate  to introduce them to each other.

‘Where are you working?’ she said

‘ROO-on’  replied Husband à l’Etranger, typically pronouncing Rouen ‘à l’anglais’  ‘How about you?’

‘Wwuon’ replied the French woman

‘No, I don’t know it’, replied Husband à l’Etranger, ‘where abouts is it?’

In fact, they were talking about the same city, though at the time they had no idea. Simply said, their national phonetic had created two places out of one.

Another foriegner, buying a train ticket in Perpignan to travel to Rouen, through mispronunciation ended up in Rouanne, nearish Lyons, where he was forced to sleep on the station platform until the first train left the following day, all thanks to his pronunciation.

In medieval times, the simple and rather quaint act of pulling petals off a flower,

“she loves me – she loves me not”

– known in France as ‘compter fleurette’ (literally to count petals) was transferred abroad to England, probably due to the fact that the English medieval court used French as it’s language of business. This in turn being most likely due to the English Ducs of Normandie being the Kings of England from 1066 – 1204. Whilst in court the  expression ‘compter fleurette’ was understood,  as it diversified into the greater English population who were not French speakers, the expression muted to:

‘To Flirt’

In the 1960’s the verb “To flirt” was adopted by the French as ‘Flirter’,  to express the romantic coquettery of seduction,  and whilst the English and French believed that its origin was English,they were incorrect, and it was really the simple fault of mispronunciation which created a new verb for both nations.

In the same manner, the British “Attaché- case”, the symbol of the British businessman, and now widely used in France for the ‘homme d’affaires’ in the city, actually came from France as the ‘Attaché-Caisse’, and it was the British that pinched the word. And so it is that now the French man carries and refers to his  ‘attaché case’ rather than an ‘attaché-caisse’.

Probably the most extraordinary was the German couple who, having bought a house in France, requested their builder install new roof windows for their loft bedrooms. When the builder asked what type of window they would prefer, the German couple, being of limited French pointed to another window in the roof, hoping for a bit of help with their vocabulary, and said:

‘Was ist das?’ (what is that)

The French builder,also having communication difficuties and  misunderstanding the Germans assumed that this was the German name for the French ‘Lucarne’, the typical French style roof window, and replied:

‘Vasistas? Mais oui Monsieur”

The windows were built;  the locals talked, and the name ‘Vasistas’ bizarrely became common-place.

Today, if you go to a local Builders Merchant, both in France and (apparently) in Poland and ask for ‘Un Vasistas’, the staff won’t ask you “What’s that?” but rather “What Kind?”, and in a matter of minutes you will have a brand new window in the back of your car.

Should we, therefore, seek to eradicate all phonetic mispronunciations in our desire for perfection of a language. If in our errors we create new words which become globally recognised, which have historic significance and such humour behind their creation  shouldn’t we enjoy being part of a living language? Perhaps the Professors are right to stop teaching phonetics by level B2, we are after all comprehensible, but we are also the inadvertant cause of hilarity amongst our adopted populace..

..and perhaps the cause of a whole new string of words!

5 thoughts on “Was Ist Das? Comment Dire? Will We Ever Get The Hang Of It..?

  1. Very good:) I’ve had a cold sweat panic over using “quand”, which sounds worryingly like “con” and have plumped for the midi accent of “can”, just to be safe. Un vasistas is also used in Italian … that German couple have a lot to answer for!


    • Oh I completely agree with you – I cringe every time I use “quand” – which is worryingly often. I’m going to broach it with our comprehension ecrit teacher – perhaps she can shed some light on it and give us all a break!


  2. Can’t resist another comment….

    “she loves me – she loves me not” is “effeuiller la marguerite” as ‘compter fleurette’ means trying to seduce somebody, telling her (him) nice things.


    And ias far as I know there is no English Duke of Normandy. But there is a French duc de Normandie called Guillaume (not William) he was born in Falaise and yes he invaded England in 1066. You see French and English almost belong to the same family 🙂

    It’s really time to go to sleep now!


    • Thanks, I like your comments. They are nice and testing!
      Yes ‘compter fleurette’ nicely translates to ‘flirt’, and how great that the French have two very similar expressions!

      The current Queen Elizabeth 2 of the UK is still the Duc de Normandie, although the title only remains with her Sovereignty over The Channel Islands which were until 1259 part of the Duchie of Normandie. The rest of the Duchie of Normandie was handed back to France in 1259 at the Traite de Paris after England’s King John was defeated in 1204 in the Normandie Vexin and Normandie once more came under French rule. The title of Duchess of Normandie was never given(in England), even to a female ruler because throughout history in England, a Duchess was only ever seen as the wife as a Duke, and never as a position of power in its own right.
      The first Duc de Normandie was Rollon, the Viking chief who was given the Duchy of Normandie in 911 at the Treaty of St Claire sur Epte, after that the Duchy and the title were handed down generally father to son (but not always and with a few illigitimate inheritors being thrown in – of which I believe Guillaume was one!), and you are correct that William the Conquerer, or Guillaume le Conquerant (one and the same man) was Duc of Normandie and then King of England after his Invasion in 1066.
      Eleanor of Aquitaine complicated history in the 12th century by being first married to the King of France, and then divorcing him to secretly marry Henry 1 Duc of Normandie, who became Henry 2 of England. From that point on the history of England and France became very intertwined! What was particularly difficult, thanks to Eleanor, was that Henry 2 of England, as Duc of Normandie, and under French feudal law was obliged to pay hommage to Louis 7 of France. Clearly an unpleasant duty for an English King to pay hommage to a French one, but made worse by having to pay hommage to his wife’s ex-husband!
      Probably one of History’s most disfunctional families, alongside England’s Henry 8. But that’s what makes it all so interesting isn’t it!
      Keep commenting, it’s great to get the French view – and by the way, your English is perfect. I don’t know how you do it!


      • Thank you! My english if far from perfect, very far, but I work on it 🙂

        I have lived and worked in England (Basingstoke/Hants & Faversham/Kent) for almost 8 years avoiding the French as I didn’t want to see myself as an expat. I am (or consider myself as) a European citizen and I feel at home in the UK. One usually doesn’t live in a country by accident, and I consider a country to be made of people, not made of nice/ugly places… So I worked hard to find out what was behind a language and believe me there is a lot!

        Language is like a music to me, not only the lyrics are important but also the music.
        In a way the music is more important, I told a friend the other day that I could say “Good morning how are you” not prononcing any of the words but just “singing” the tune.. How about that?

        … The french language is quite “flat” to the exception of the interrogative or exclamative forms, so it’s difficult for us to “sound” english. Difficult but not impossible…
        Have a nice day!


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