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!