French as she is spoke


A long time ago – in the 1980s – I spoke French pretty well. I got a Foreign Service score of 4, which means that I could converse on a university level with people; I still had an accent, however.

And this years, after twenty-five years, I was going to France.

Imagine my nervousness after twenty-five years of not speaking French on a daily basis. I was terrified. I read a lot of French to prepare myself, and tried to practice as much as I could.

As it turns out, I was worried about nothing. Language is funny: once it’s in your brain, it’s there forever. It took me a few days to get going (mostly nervousness, I think), but by Day Two of the trip, I was having long involved conversations with people.

(Please note: my accent was still atrocious (even I could hear it), and my grammar was not the best. But I could make myself understood.)

I’d forgotten the picturesque phrases: all the different ways to say “goodbye,” depending on the time of day and the situation. “A tout a l’heure.” “A bientot.” “Adieu.” “Au revoir.” These came back quickly, thank goodness.

Then there are all the English-language borrowings (I think there are more of them now than there were in the 1980s): “sandwich,” “parking,” “weekend.” I bought a package of Petit Ecolier cookies with a contest advertised on the front: “GAGNEZ UN BABY FOOT!” Can you guess what a “baby foot” is? It’s a foosball table. Charmante, non?

Then there are the faux amis – the “false friends.” These are words that look like English, but aren’t the same at all. These work both ways. “What’s that sign?” Partner asked one day on the bus.

“Deviation,” I said. “It means ‘detour.’”

“Why don’t they just say ‘detour’?” he asked. “Isn’t that a French word?”

“Well, yes, but –“

There’s no explaining these things.

Best of all: we were watching the French version of “The Price is Right” (“Le Juste Prix”), and the contestant – a man named Fabrice – mentioned his “conjoint,” a man named Emmanuel. “Aha!” I said. “Now I know the correct French term for ‘partner’! It’s ‘conjoint’!”

“As in conjoined twins?” Partner said darkly.

“Well, indirectly, yes,” I said, “but – “

“I don’t like it,” he said positively.

“I do like it,” I said. “Maybe I’ll start referring to you as le conjoint in the blog.”

France has an effect on people. Partner looked at me with Gallic disdain. “Non,” he said definitively.

And that’s the end of that.

(But I still think it’s a better word than “partner.”)


 

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