Monday, January 26, 2009

Tongue tied twisted

I’ve been doing a lot of language exchanges of late, as well as taking a regular French class. In addition, at my former French teacher’s urging, I’m making some moves towards teaching English on a semi-professional basis here. As such, I’ve been thinking a lot about language.

The cliché in Canada is that the French and English are “Two Solitudes,” a phrase popularized by the novel of that title by Hugh MacLennan, that has come to signify the divisions between the two cultures. I prefer to remember that the phrase originated with Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote that: “Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.”

While the whole is certainly a lot more positive than the bit MacLennan excised for his title, I can’t help but notice that while Rilke’s love requires protection, touching and greeting of his solitudes, it does not demand that they speak to one another. This was wise.

In a country where it is somehow perfectly acceptable to say "Je cherche le parking pour le weekend," and the foreign content of last year's Eurovision song contest entry was decried in Parliament, it was perhaps inevitable that someone would invent the English Doormat Prize, which names and shames those who pollute the purity of the tongue with English. So far, I am happy to report that they haven't discovered this blog.

As my far-more linguistically gifted friend David has already noted, communication is difficult when some of the concepts don’t exist in the other language. This strike-ridden, revolution-prone country apparently lacks a word for “cranky,” while the Anglo-Saxon peoples – a culture that created the laugh track and the music of John Tesh – have no easy way to express ennui.

However, it isn’t the foreign concepts that cause the real problems, it’s the faux amis - those words that should mean the same, but don’t. At a dinner this weekend, my friend Sebastien told us how, in his previous life as a video-game tester, he noted that the French version of sports game told players, once their team had been eliminated, that they were “Over seasoned” (while this might have been referring to the fact their goose was cooked, Sebastien advised his employers to modify it to better reflect the English “season over.”)*

Of course, Amynah still possesses the best language mix-up story of our time in France. It was her first week in her lab. She didn’t really know where things were, and so asked Audrey the technician where she could find some chemicals with which she could fix her cell samples. Audrey’s eyes widened, “Err… umm… at a pharmacy,” she replied in French. “At a pharmacy? These are pretty common things to have in a lab. Why don’t you have some here?” asked Amynah.

It was only after some confusion that Audrey conveyed to Amynah she had called the chemicals she needed “preservatifs” – and had thus asked Audrey for access to the lab’s supply of condoms.

* Similar confusion probably earned me quite a reputation in Toronto, where I was at a student journalism conference many, many years ago. A Filipino cleaning lady entered my room in the morning, where I was lying in bed, recovering from the party the night before. A quick glance told her all she needed to know: “So, you are over hung?” "Yep! Be sure to tell everyone you know!"

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