Zut alors

When I was a mere glint in America’s eye, our French teacher told the likes of The Beancounter, Broadsheet Benny and I that we would only be fluent in the language when we thought in French. As it was, most of us couldn’t tell our derrieres from our coudes, let alone ponder the existential meaning of life in the tongue of our Gallic cousins. And besides, why would we think in French when it would leave less room for us to consider the important matters of the day, such as Ghostbusters, Panini stickers, the FA Cup draw, and how to snowball teachers and still get away with it?

Being no linguistic expert means that wherever I travel, I’m always translating from the local tongue into English, working out what I need to say, and then translating back into the relevant language. Such a laborious process can tragically turn into an internalised version of Chinese Whispers (or the markedly less impressive ‘Telephone’, as The Special One calls it), where a series of small mistranslations leads to me replying to a waiter asking if I want milk in my coffee with a suggestion that his wife did indeed look like an elephant.

But finally after nearly 35 years of trying, I think I’ve finally cracked it – I’ve mastered a foreign language to the point where I am now able to think and speak in the local tongue without translating into the English in between. Admittedly ‘American’ may be more of a dialect than a language, but you try living in a country that refuses to pronounce the ‘t’ in ‘water’ and see if you still feel the same then.

Today in a phone conversation with an American colleague, I managed to suggest (without even missing a beat) a series of non-specific options by using the phrase “we’ll need to go back to them with ‘ex’, ‘why’ and ‘zee’”. I was part way through the next sentence by the time I realised what I’d done, and had to stop myself and drop a random ‘zed’ into the conversation just to reiterate my Britishness.

Then on the way home I saw a billboard for the Home Run Derby. I have no idea what one of those is, although I suspect it involves slightly overweight men playing big boys rounders. The point is that I looked at the sign and wondered idly to myself what a ‘home run durr-bee’ was. That’s despite almost half my family having been born and raised in the East Midlands town of Derby, with its British pronunciation of ‘darr-bee’.

I can’t work out whether I’m proud or disturbed.

Ironically, the comfort with language won’t last as I’m off to France next week for a week of relaxation in the sun, and I’ll suddenly be back to struggling in a foreign tongue. Here’s hoping I can get my fair share of coffee and croissants without inadvertently reminding the waiting staff of the grey large eared mammal-esque qualities of their spouse, eh?

9 thoughts on “Zut alors

  1. GrahameD

    I only find myself using the American pronounciation for words I rarely (or never) said at home – so reading your post I heard the voices in my head say Home Run Der-bee rather than Dar-bee — the Midlands is a closed book to me — and I say bayta rather than beeta when Beta comes up (as it does 1000 times a day for me).

    I still persist in keeping my U’s in colour, aluminium etc, no matter what MS Word tries to do to me. I ain’t budging.

  2. Expatmum

    I can say oregano and basil the American way if need be, but I draw the line at tomato. It involves not only changing the vowel sound, but softening the second ‘t’ to a ‘d’ sound. Too much change in one word.
    The real test of having mastered this strange new language however, has to be the ‘voice-activated’ customer service phone lines. I find myself having to shout in the most ridiculous and appaling American accent to try to get to the next level, and I still always get hurled straight to a “live” person. Normally I want to speak to a live person, but somehow it has become a personal challenge for me to beat the American voice activator.

  3. Almost American

    Most of the time I *have* to sound American as my job is teaching English as a Second Language and I wouldn’t want to confuse my students too much! There are still a few English pronunciations that even after 23 years I have stubbornly clung to, but even those are beginning to disappear. I realized a few weeks ago that I have finally started to drop the ‘h’ in ‘herbs’ 🙁

  4. Paul Sheffrin

    I share Karen’s concern about your example of a ‘t’ in water. Are you talking about Americans who replace the ‘t’ with a barely sounded ‘d’ so that it ends up sounding more like “war”? Or your Estuary English types who substitute a glottal stop – thus “wa’er”? Either way, I think it would be sufficiently close not to create a comprehension barrier. Now pronouncing “conveniences” as if it was somewhere you had either a bath or a snooze – that’s confusing!

  5. Alasdair

    ExpatMum et al – to sound like a ‘murrican, it sufficies to hold your nose firmly shut while talking otherwise normally … (or catch a particularly nasty cold) … if your nose is sufficiently blocked, you will sound like a ‘murrican from a different state …

    Oh, and you’ll have to cut out the use of adverbs – so that you can talk real good

    Paul – don’t you mean a glo’al stop ? Very common in certain parts of Scotland, too …

  6. fishwithoutbicycle

    Uh-oh…it’s starting. Just wait until you start seeing English style dates and thinking they look wrong because the month isn’t first. That’s when you know you’ve truly adapted 😉

  7. Jan

    What gets me is some American friends of ours in California would pronounce water as warder, but Wimbledon became Wimbleton, go figure.

    Bon voyage, mon ami.

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