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Bewildering Stories

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Humour in a Coffee Cup

A veteran contributor shares experiences in light of “First Contact in a Coffee Cup.”

I loved that, Don. It made me laugh. Unfortunately, I’ve not had the same experience. Instead of congratulating me on learning the language, the French seemed to bamboozle me at every turn. I felt they were implying, '”Oh, so you think you have mastered the greatest language in the world, do you?” The result was discouragement.

Thank you very kindly for the compliment! Much appreciated!

Of course, the “lesson” in my little story is not the language; it’s me and my way of thinking. And it illustrates the reason we have Bewildering Stories in the first place; I want to know what other people are thinking, and why.

I’m sorry you’ve had a bad experience. I did, too, especially when I was a student. Afterwards, I figure everyone mentally sighed in resignation and yielded to my persistence. But I also learned that the French treat each other the same way.

As a student, I learned by experience — it would have helped greatly to be told, but comparative sociology was in another academic “silo” at the time — that I shouldn’t take language criticism personally. It isn’t about me, it’s about the language itself. And there are reasons for it.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s theory of “child-centred” education remains revolutionary even today. However, French education has traditionally been formal and practical. Teachers may be very kind, but schooling is task-oriented; the objective is to learn the material. And the subject matter — including language — is a common standard that everybody is supposed to know. Now, why might that be?

Look at the map. Spain, Italy, Romania. They were all Roman provinces, and they have Latin names to this day. But what happened to Gaul? It isn’t “Gallia,” it’s “France,” a Germanic name. And that, I think, tells us something about a country that evolved gradually and has been invaded more often than anyone would like to count.

The Académie Française is an object of ridicule in the English-speaking world. An official governing body of the language? Speakers of English couldn’t conceive of such a thing. But it makes perfect sense in France.

When Louis XIII established the French Academy in 1635, he was trying to unify, as best he could, a country that had major languages other than French, such as Basque, Breton and Provençal, as well as innumerable mutually unintelligible dialects. A head of state has to set a standard and define the country. Where better to start than with language?

Under political pressure, especially contests for power, Louis XIV and his successors took the idea to an extreme, to the point that Rien ne se passe qu’à Paris — ‘If it doesn’t happen in Paris, it doesn’t happen.’ The extreme no longer holds, but the principle remains. You can speak any form of English you like but, in England, you’re still English. It isn’t quite the same in France; the country defines itself by its language in a unique way.

Crossing the Channel or the Atlantic is a trip through Alice’s looking-glass. Never mind cultural identity, let’s look at the language itself. Its phonetics is, for all practical purposes, the opposite of English. Do you remember this popular ditty, from the 1940’s?

Mairzy doats and dozy doats
And little lamsy divy.
A kiddledidivy, too,
Wouldn’t you?

That’s English spoken as though it were French, like playing piano music with a violin. And it’s an object lesson for any English-speaking student of French: have lessons in phonetics early on; otherwise, nothing will make any sense.

When U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara went to boost the morale of the South Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, he tried a few words of Vietnamese in concluding an address to a gathered throng. What was he trying to say? “Hooray for Vietnam”? Who knows? Did even he know? He got the syllables more or less right, but the tones were all wrong. It came out something like “Vietnam is a lame duck.” The multitude dissolved in hysterics. At least he deserves credit for trying. And he spoke more truly than he knew.

Vietnamese is difficult enough, but what can you do with a language that is composed almost entirely of puns? The French themselves enjoy making jokes about it. And that’s the secret: keep a sense of humour. It has served the French admirably for centuries.

Copyright © 2017 by Don Webb

Responses welcome!

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