Tag: Language

Crepes and Lingua Franca

“In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”
― Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

Once upon a time, I had pretty decent schoolgirl French capabilities. I studied it Middle and High School (with a one year break for Latin, which I had to give up when we moved to a godforsaken island in the Pacific ocean…not that I have any remaining linguistic bitterness or anything). I also took two additional years of it at university, after which I quit so I could take other time heavy courses like Art History of the Northern Renaissance (which I talked my way into without any other Art History credentials) and Comparative Literature of the Early 18th Century.

My nerdiness is well established, yes?

Anyway, I was proud of my French. I’ll be the first to admit that it wasn’t always technically strong, I never really learned how to study properly until my last couple of years at university and grammar was always difficult, but my usage was great. More than one teacher questioned in interviews how I could get only moderate scores on written exams while being able to speak it well. The answer was, I used it. For two summers I lived and interned at NATO in Brussels, which is a multilingual organization. I heard it all the time, I used it out and about in the city, I read it everywhere on signs. I learn best by doing and that’s been as true for languages as any other skill I’ve tried to acquire. Heck, I even picked up a bit of Flemish Dutch just by listening to it and getting subtitles on every TV program.

But after I quit French, I didn’t get the chance to practice it again except for an occasional film. It slid into disuse. Because my technical skills weren’t as well developed, I actually felt it slipping from my grasp over time. My accent (which had once been complimented by a Parisian waiter who initially mistook me for a native speaker, high praise) got clunky and awkward in my own ears, my mouth forgot how to form itself to produce the correct sounds.

As we were gearing up for Paris Jeff kept teasing about making me speak to strangers or order food for everyone, but the truth is I was terrified. I wanted to practice my lost language but the very idea seemed overwhelming. The first day and a half was hard. I could read the placards and exhibitions information at Versailles, but it took effort. I ordered my food in French but even then I winced at a couple of the errors I made. (For what it’s worth, I have found Parisians entirely thrilled to hear a tourist even attempting to speak French, it makes a nice change from preppy American students shouting, “Please speak English!” at them across counters. Which we saw a lot of.)

But something amazing happened on the Metro on day two. I’d spent the day listening hard (in the least creepy way possible) to conversations around me and suddenly, from one moment to the next, something clicked in my brain. An announcement came on over the PA…and I understood it. The fast jabber of talk around me still was hard to grasp, but I understood what the conversations were and how they were progressing. A lovely little old lady stopped us on the street to ask for directions and I was able to apologize, explain our tourist status, and exchange pleasantries without a hiccup.

We went for crepes to celebrate (not really, we were on our way for crepes anyway, but Francophone pride certainly added some je ne sais quoi to the whole affair) and I was able to order for both of us and have the briefest of conversations with the delightful proprietor.
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He’s the gentleman in the blue shirt, and I’m a fan. He’s a love!

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Good looking husband is good looking.

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Know what else is good looking? That pear, chocolate, and cream stuffed flirt!

It probably seems really dinky but I was thrilled to realize that even though it’s rusty, my French is still there. If I learned it by doing, I’m suddenly confident in a way I haven’t felt in years that I could remember by doing as well. As it happens, on our second crepe endeavor, besides the Eiffel Tower, I was again complimented by a Parisian on my language skills. He didn’t mistake me for a Native, but he did ask if I was Canadian. All things considered, and years without practice, I think I’ll take that as high praise as well.
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These guys charmed locals and tourists alike with tons of gesticulation and winks.

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I might be half blinded by the sun and look like a sleep deprived crepe troll, but that face is the look of rediscovered Francophone victory well rewarded, minions.

Words That Bug Me, And Will Now Bug You

“I personally believe we developed language because of our deep inner need to complain.”
– Jane Wagner

We all have word pet peeves, times when people use phrases incorrectly, insert words that don’t actually mean what they think it means, or when society at large is responsible for corrupting a word’s usage.  I probably take my particular pet peeves too seriously, but it cannot be helped.

“Ironic” – which does not mean unfortunate, coincidental, silly, funny, aggravating, or any of the other things Alanis Morrissette can now be blamed for teaching us to think it means.

An excellent example of common modern usage.

“Ye”- as previously mentioned, anytime you see a sign showing “Ye Olde [something], you’re not actually looking at a “y” but at an Old English character called “thorn” which makes a “th” sound.

This confusion is somewhat understandable as it is most commonly found in England where several linguistic invasions have made the language something of a puzzle for most who try to learn it as a second language.  Pear, pair, and pare, you try explaining that one.  Or the reason knight isn’t spelled night, when in other words a “gh” produces and “f” like in laugh.  Or why, depending on where you’re from, you may spell civilisation as civilization.  Or why English doesn’t really have rules, only exceptions.

First the Celts came to Britain, after possibly conquering another group of people who were there first, and as far as we know didn’t have much in the way of writing.  There are some hatch mark symbols carved in stone but these seem to have been a clumsy, tedious sort of way of keeping track of things and so they decided instead to rely on memory which they trained to fantastic levels (and where did you leave your keys this morning?).  Then came the Romans who brought Latin and other previously unknown practices (see Decimate below).  But then their empire, as it had become by this time since they’d given up most pretensions to a republic, caught a nasty case of “The Collapsings” and the legions were recalled from Britain, leaving the Romanized population unprotected and understandably miffed.

I think it's time for a trade up, lads!

The Anglo Saxons (go here and carefully note the caption!), watching this from their Germanic homesteads with glee, could see an upwardly mobile real estate deal when it presented itself, so bunches of the upped sticks and sailed over.  They originally were hired as mercenary protectors by the Britons, but they didn’t go in much for togas compared to rape and pillage and within a few years had taken over and set about to dividing into small kingdoms and declaring war on each other to their hearts’ content.  They also brought their language, on which somewhat better records were kept.  A few centuries later, just as soon as they’d got themselves unified into some semblance of order and had started keeping excellent chronicles, a Norman across the Channel decided he ought to be king.  William the Bastard, for that was his unfortunate name,  invaded and won.  He ousted the Anglo Saxon lords and installed his own Old-French-mixed-with-Latin-again speaking cronies instead, further enriching the language and changing his name to the much more impressive sounding William the Conqueror.

But, in spite of each subsequent invader’s attempt to quash the language of those who came before, the invaded stubbornly held on to an impressive lot of their old languages and culture, which is why something as old as a millennium old written character that looks like “y” and sounds like a “th” is still bulldogish-ly refuses to go away.  Which is good because “Yee old [anything]” sounds absolutely ludicrous.

Apostrophe – I know this isn’t a word, but you know what I mean.  People will throw this little mark wherever they think something should go, but for the life of them don’t know whether it’s a different spelling, contraction, or trying to show possession.

There/Their/They’re – And while we’re on the subject!  These are totally different words, figure ’em out!

Had this been painted a week earlier, it would have depicted the farmer's wife and children still alive. One must admire his optimism here, yes?

“Medieval” used when people mean backwards.  Actually refers to a distinct period in Western history which was complex, interesting, and full of people trying desperately to push their way forward out of the mess that Rome put them in after dividing, collapsing, and embarrassingly allowing itself to be ripped to shreds by barbarian hordes.  Western standards of music, culture, and literature were developed during this period.  Architecture, which had become an utterly lost art  was redeveloped literally from the ground up.  The ideas of credit, and banking were invented.  The whole period is a heartening example of human beings being knocked into the sludge over and over again with invasions, plagues, more invasions, famine, and a couple of other invasions, and consistently picking themselves up, dusting off the disease and gore, and getting back to the difficult business of human advancement.

Irregardless – This is not, in fact, a word.  At all.  Don’t use it.  Ever.

“Decimate” – Once upon a time, there was an empire that was cheerfully burgeoning in the centuries BC.  Not that they called themselves an empire, oh no!  That would have sounded barbaric and unenlightened.  They called themselves a Republic, the Roman Republic to be exact, and since they were so enlightened and grand, the ideal career for a spry, young Not-Empire was to invade all their nearest neighbors and force them to submit to their rule.  Really there were few things this adolescent Republic liked better than sauntering into Germany, Greece, or North Africa and casually killing a few thousand people before breakfast.

"Tough luck, Flavius." "Son of a Gaul!"

Not content with brutality directed at the unwashed masses they were trying to subdue (so that they could tax and enslave the snot out of them), occasionally when one of their vicious battalions mutinied or were insufficiently enthusiastic about marching off to slaughter, the commander would order them decimated.  Meaning that they would be divided into groups of ten, draw lots, and whichever one of them pulled the short straw was stoned or bludgeoned to death.  Literally it meant to reduce by one tenth.

Nowadays, the term decimation is used, completely at odds with its origin and etymology, to mean when people, places, or structures are reduced by cataclysmic proportions (although the American media is prone to exaggeration in this regard: “That windstorm last night decimated trees and power lines!” for example, when maybe one or two were knocked down).  Decimated does not mean destroyed, wiped out, broken, mildly damaged, and dirtied up.

“Like” – “It was, like, so hard!  I mean, like, I’ve never had to do anything that bad since, like, I had to pick out my, like prom dress!”  The word “like” means similar to.  Or fond of.  It can be used as a conjunction, verb, or adverb, it is NOT an equivalent to “um…”