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The French have a different word for everything

22 January 2013 23:29 

The title of the post is taken from a 1978 Steve Martin stand up comedy routine on the Wild And Crazy Guy album.  This, and Martin’s first album, Let’s Get Small, are highly recommended if you are of a certain age or temperament, although beware of going to back to past and spoiling it by paving over the old memory.

I found this language observation funny then and happily it’s still funny to me now.  What’s better is that Martin goes on to observe that when you are here visiting and want to speak to someone and don’t speak French, then

Marseille street
Marseille street

the first thing you do is adopt a French accent. For example, if you get into a cab, you might say:

Ah wuld lak to go to zee  otel

So funny, and so true. Martin puts light on a truth: many words are shared between French and English, but you simply pronounce them differently

My only foray into a foreign language (not counting all those years of Latin) was at the relatively later period in college, when I began studying German.  English also shares many words with German, but in some ways German is easier because, unlike French, almost all the letters in a German word are pronounced, and there are no tricky liaisons.

To demonstrate I have put together a small table of words shared across all three languages – the reader must add his own phonetic interpretation. Remember, when speaking French open your mouth a bit wider in a slightly pornographic manner and try to divert some of the sounds through your nose. For German move all sounds to the back of your mouth and down into your throat, and furrow your eyebrows when speaking.


Counting in French is also rather different, especially once you reach the number seventy(70). Where English and German have a dedicated number for seventy, seventy and siebzig, the French is a compound of sixty and ten: soixante-dix. In German the number seventy-three is the logical if inverted dreiundsiebzig (three and seventy), but the French is the oddly formed soixante-treize, sixty thirteen.

Eighty is even more fun: quatre-vingt, or literally, four twenties (4 x 20). Ninety is quatre-vingt-dix (four twenties ten), and something like ninety-eight is quatr-vingt-dix-huit (four twenties ten eight).

I don’t let any of this deter me from speaking French, but the results are amusing. Of course my pronunication is horrible, but even when I’m speaking clearly, it’s doubtful I am speaking correctly.  One day when we were looking for the train station in the town of Menton, near the Italian border, I asked a policeman “Où est la guerre?” He did not understand me, so I asked again, a little slower. He still didn’t understand. Then Annie came up and asked him “Où est la gare?” She asked where the train station was; I asked him “Where is the war?”

Catherine is fully immersed in French and English, but when she plays by herself she speaks French to her dolls. Still, growing up with two languages means that sometimes things get a little confused. At school she learned the well know French song:

Frère Jacques, frère Jacques,
Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?

But when she sings it in English, translated literally, it’s not quite the same:

Brother John, Brother John
Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping?

 At her school she was asked to lead her class in a well known English Christmas Carol. It went well until the end:

I wish you a Merry Christmas and a happy New York…

 Bonne année!

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