Saturday, October 4, 2008

In Celebration of the French Tongue

In France, language is taken very seriously. There is an ongoing debate here about how to preserve and protect the French language—both from its own organic evolution/desecration and from the English words that, little by little, are weaseling their way into French dictionaries. After watching a TV show on which an assortment of French politicians, academics, media personalities, and writers lamented the devolving state of the language, I realized that the situation is grave; this issue keeps people up at night.

And, evidently, it’s not just the French language that is at risk. Dozens of Parisian metro stops currently display this ad:


Stop massacring English! And yes, that’s a picture of a bruised and bloodied British policeman, the implication being that it is unacceptable—even violent—to speak English improperly. Hear that, French people? Get yourselves to a language school RIGHT NOW before this situation spirals completely out of control.

These ads make me laugh because, 1) they’re ridiculous looking, and 2) I like to daydream about a reciprocal campaign being launched in the US. “Stop massacring the French language!” I feel like many Americans’ first question would be… “What’s French?”

Anyway, it’s no surprise that language is important to French people. French is awesome. It is fun to speak—or to attempt to speak—and there are a whole slew of words and concepts that I find very amusing.

The verb flâner, for instance, is a classic. It basically means to wander aimlessly, pensively, with no firm destination in mind, simply to take in one’s surroundings and to ponder life’s questions in an unrushed manner, maybe while strolling along the banks of the Seine or while watching skater punks show off their skills outside of the Palais de Tokyo, for as long as one wants because, why not, we have free healthcare and lots of vacation days, but we also have a president whose Rolex is simply too much and it’s very déclassé and we should take an afternoon to stroll and reflect upon these things.

Yes, the French have a word for this concept, and they’re not joking.

But as wonderfully expressive as French can be, my favorite French words of all time are the awkward, “modern” ones—those that seem to have been made up, on the spot, by a really confused person who needed a name for something… fast.

We have a two-way tie for first place:

Talkie-Walkie: You guessed it. It’s a walkie-talkie. But we’re not just using the English word, you see, because we’ve switched the order of the words, therefore making it French.

Babyfoot: Known to the English-speaking world as Foosball—a game I always hated, until I started calling it Babyfoot. Now I can’t get enough.

*By the way, if you want to say “we’re tied” in French, you simply say égalité. Equality. Succinct, straightforward, it is exactly what it claims to be. And just so you know, I learned this expression while playing Babyfoot.

For an Anglophone in France, things can get awkward when you are speaking French and need to use an English word that has been adopted by the French. Do you pronounce it correctly? Or do you adopt a faux-French accent and pronounce it as the French would? I have a friend who struggles with this dilemma everytime she tries to order a muffin. Starbucks is surprisingly popular in Paris—as is the muffin—or as the French call it, the “moo-feen.”

Anyway, I’m having a lot of fun here when it comes to language. As some of you may have noticed, I am losing my English. And I wouldn’t say I am gaining proper French, but my franglais is improving at a rapid rate. It’s sort of refreshing to be in a language-less limbo for a while… a rebirth of sorts… or should I say, a renaissance? (Pronounce as you wish).

I was speaking to a French guy a few weeks ago about the adventure of learning another “tongue." (Langue, the word for language in French, also means “tongue”).

“That’s so good that you have come here,” he said in English. “And you enjoy learning the French tongue?”

I let him know that he might want to be careful when throwing that expression around। But, fundamentally, he’s right. Learning another language is endlessly enlightening and amusing, and in my opinion, you can’t get better than the French tongue.

1 comment:

n.y.e.verything said...

Bonjour! First of all, I think your blog is great! (I realize this is an older post) I'm an Australian living in Paris so I experience mostly similar (yet sometimes different) struggles. I think that the very fact that the French have ads saying "Stop massacring English" is so French; if they are going to going to do something, they want to master it, and fair enough - they tend to be good at mastering new activities. I look forward to your posts to help me make sense of the occasional "nonsense" I am confronted with!

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