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!

The Art of Pronunciation – La Compétence de Prononciation.

Version français

A year or so ago I applied for a job with a delivery company reasoning that with the quality of my comprehension and mastery of the french language there wasn’t much else I could reasonably expect anyone to employ me for.

In fact I would go as far to say that I was absolutely thrilled that I had actually made into the working world in a country that didn’t speak my mother tongue!

Some months into this job, which involved delivering various magazines and brochures that the Mairie in their infinite wisdom had decided to publish, it was necessary to borrow my husband’s car, my own having a flat battery. Since my husband’s car was a brand new company car I was understandably a little concerned about the loading capacity compared to my trusty tank. I made a detour into the office to chat with the very jovial boss to determine if the company car was up to the job.

The boss raised his eyebrows as I entered the room, as from experience he knew that general conversation with me would inevitably result in some outlandish declaration, such as “my husband played golf with some crocodiles this weekend” – which happens to be true, but equally could be some drastic mispronunciaton of a key word in the conversation. Imagine his delight therefore when, on inquiring which car I was driving, I pointed out of the window and declared that my husbands car was a lemon! I had failed to place the correct emphasis on the ‘O’ and the ‘E’ of Citroen, and the resultant word that I had spoken of course was ‘Citron’. I knew within a nanosecond that I had committed a gross error and my boss proceeded to fall about in tears of laughter.

It was only fitting therefore that when I came, some months later to hand in my resignation, a decision made after serious contemplation and thought from the driving seat of my car five minutes before I started work, that I should depart in the style to which they had all become accustomed. Having sourced a piece of paper from the glove compartment I carefully worded the following letter in order to terminate my contract.

Monsieur, Je veux terminer mon bulot au fin du mois. Cordialement.. etc

I carefully folded the letter, put it in an envelope, and proceeded to the office to hand it over. I was frankly immensely proud of this little letter, which I had written without the aid of a dictionary and especially for the fact that my linguistic skill was now getting so well developed that I actually knew two words for “job”, the first of course being travail. I was therefore somewhat unprepared for the enormous snort and explosion of laughter that followed, nor for the fact that he left his office for that of his colleagues  – more howls ensued and returned with a drawing-pin to fix it to the wall for perpetuity.

I had of course written that I intended to ” finish my snail (or more literally whelk) by the end of the month”.

The simple fact that one can know exactly how words are written, yet fail to pronounce them properly and arrive at a completely different meaning, or one can hear repeatedly a word, and having never seen it written, spell it entirely wrongly is cause for great consternation to the average person undergoing the ‘total immersion’ experience. A “job” of course is spelt “boulot”, a whelk “bulot”.  The letter of resignation remains to this day on the office wall.

I have made quite an effort over time to increase my vocabulary, and the most interesting and enjoyable method has been by reading voraciously always in french. However this has its pitfalls. I tend to read a series of books by the same author at a time since writers tend to have their own specialized vocabulary. The first book read by any one particular author will invariably be the most difficult but each consecutive book becomes consistently easier since the very act of repetition of words embeds them firmly in the long-term memory. The problem associated with this method is that whilst one knows exactly how the word is spelled, and exactly how to place it within the sentence structure, and the context within which it is used, even the most long suffering frenchman can look blankly in your direction when, you, never physically having heard the word spoken pronounce it badly.

What makes the french language infinitely more complex is the addition of gender to the meaning of words. The website ‘French About’ has a tricky little quiz which amply demonstrates how by the misuse of gender one can entirely alter the meaning of a word. For example ‘le boum’ means ‘a bang’ or ‘an explosion’, whilst ‘la boum’ means ‘a party’, ‘le cave’ means ‘an idiot’ and ‘la cave’  ‘a cellar’. Although the following words are spelt entirely differently, the pronunciation is the same, and the gender is crucial, le pet (pronounced pay) means a ‘fart’, and ‘la paix’ (also pronounced pay) means ‘peace and to further complicate matters ‘la paie’ (also pronounced pay and also feminine) means pay. It is therefore as entirely inadvisable to walk into the bosses office to demand your salary using the masculine article, as it is unlikely to gain a result by writing a letter to demand ‘la paix’.

It has taken me two years in France (and the rest of my life in England) to learn to accurately spell the words for pudding, and for the infinite stretch of sand, so named ‘dessert’ and ‘desert’. I now can differentiate the two knowing that the pudding variety will widen the waistline, whilst being stuck in a desert without dessert will invariably shrink it. Pudding is therefore wider with two s’s, the sand narrower with only one. But I have only been able to reach this little piece of knowledge thanks to my immersion into the french language. Having succumbed (quite easily as it happens) to patisserie classes, I was slightly consternated to note that my french friends were looking at me a little bemused as I proceeded to describe the little pudding that I had made one afternoon. It was only after a few minutes of agony that my delightful friend Carole pulled me aside and announced that ‘dessert’ was pronounced ‘deZ-Sair’ with a very distinct accentuation of the Z and S sounds and not ‘dezair’ as one pronounces the sand variety. How those nuances of sound play such a major role in the definition of words and the comprehension of conversations. I am only glad that  the French, equally, have to get their tongues round the english pronunciations of  ‘dezurt’ and ‘dezut’ .  Two nationalities with  identical words and identical meanings. Dessert, desert; Two words, two meanings – four sounds.

Ahh, the joy of pronunciation!