Tag Archives: French

An Englishman, an Irishman and a Frenchman…

The coastline at Cannes

Driving back to New York after Christmas with The In Laws upstate, The Special One and I were listening to the radio in a bid to keep ourselves awake. After a number of alt.rock classics, the DJ launched into a tirade against French music, and made a number of jokes at the expense of the French. While The Special One chuckled quietly to herself, I sat in stony silence.

You see, it’s a fact of life that all nationalities have a country that’s the designated butt of their jokes. The Belgians tell jokes about the Dutch, Latvians and Lithuanians make fun of Estonians, and the Austrians poke ridicule at their Germanic cousins. In America, New Yorkers make fun of people from New Jersey, and everybody has a laugh at Canadians.

Whether it’s tongue in cheek or borderline racism I’m not sure, but the basic fact is that every group of people seems to need a whipping boy to convince them that life in their own homeland could be worse.

The British, of course, have been making fun of the Irish for centuries. But over the last few years, maybe as the uneasy peace has come to Northern Ireland, there’s been a noticeable tailing off in jokes made at the expense of the Irish. And that’s where the French come in.

The rivalry between Britain and France goes back centuries. They call us ‘les rosbifs’, laugh at our cooking, and spit on our steaks if we have the temerity to ask for them well done. In return, we collectively sneer at ‘the frogs’, cower in terror at their campsite toilet facilities, and make references to their dubious military record.

The fact is though that we secretly love the French. We’re jealous at their ability to make clothes look good, we wish we could make pastries that taste anywhere near as good as theirs, and we can’t help but admire the romance and passion of their language. I’m in Cannes at the moment, and it’s a non-stop festival of food and fashion that you just can’t help but admire.

As a result, while I’m more than happy to make jokes at the expense of the French myself, if any other nation starts to wade in on them, I’ll get all defensive and start attempting to protect their honour. And the longer I’m away from the UK, the more European I seem to become – I’ll be defending Germans before you know it, mark my words.

For the moment though, be warned America, the French are ours to make fun of, so sod off and find your own target to crack jokes about. But try to be nice about Canada if you can – there’s plenty of French there, after all.

Merci beaucoup.

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?

Le petit dejeuner

Whatever you think about the French, you can’t help but admire their collective desire to protect their language. The French tongue is, after all, one of the things that defines them most as a nation, and it is rightly their belief that any attempts to erode its significance – particularly by the gathered forces of the English speaking world – is something to be resisted.

Famously, France is the nation that placed quotas on the amount of French language music that legally has to be played on radio stations around the country. To this day, around 40% of all music played on French radio stations has to be sung in French, and companies that fail to comply can face fines of up to 5% of their annual revenues.

Given that French is one of the most beautiful languages on this planet, I’m all for any laws that help preserve its integrity. And to be honest, maybe the laws should be extended to the United States as well.

When it comes down to it, the Americans still haven’t forgiven the French for failing to stand by them when it came to invading Iraq. Obviously by far the biggest weapon of reprisal that America had at its disposal was renaming French fries as ‘freedom fries’. This is a vindictive slight that the French may never recover from. After all, how could a country with a reputation as being the greatest gastronomic nation on earth ever get over the fact that the United States would cease to use the French tag to describe deep-fried bits of potato?

Perhaps having realiszed the ridiculousness of their efforts, America has returned to adopting the British tactic of undermining the French by use of the powerful tool of deliberate mispronunciation.

Infact, America may be the one nation that makes even less effort to use proper French than the English do. In France last week, ‘merci’ (‘thank you’ in English) was bastardised by most Americans from its traditional ‘mare-sea’ to ‘mercy’, while it’s best not even to think about what they do with words like foie gras.

It’s all understandable of course – while British schoolkids were being forced to learn French, our American counterparts were reluctantly attempting to learn Spanish. But some words have become so engrained in the American vocabulary that their mispronunciation can only be part of a deliberate attempt to stick two fingers up atgive the finger to the French.

All of which brings me to the croissant. Yes, that curl of delicious pastry that is so irresistible to people of all nationalities. To everybody outside of America, it’s known as the cwa-ssan or cra-wa-ssan. Within the boundaries of the United States, it’s the cress-ont.

Sadly, I can’t quite bring myself to mispronounce it, which means that anytime I want a croissant, I generally either have to desperately point at my intended breakfast bread – or else shamefacedly translate into American, and hope that no European hears me. Still, if I can’t make people understand me when I’m speaking English, what chance have I got with French?

There’s only one solution to the problem. Yup, it’s back to having a bagel for breakfast.