Hints for Newcomers – Hindsights for Old-Timers
Franglais or Linguistic Stockholm Syndrome
by Shari Leslie Segall
Did I just say that? Did I? Wow!
Our frequently appearing Hints-and-Hindsights are addressed to expats on a vast continuum ranging from the adventurers who arrived this morning with a backpack; no job; no apartment; no contacts; rudimentary, if any, French; and a healthy share of radiant optimism, to the hardy souls—whose numbers are, sadly, dwindling—who came to fight World War II, married a French demoiselle and never left. While this installment concerns the middle- and long-timers, you newcomers would do well to pay heed, as, whether you want it to or not, this will be your fate before long!
Per http://www.linguisticsociety.org/resource/faq-how-do-we-learn-language, “By the time [a] child enters kindergarten, he or she will have acquired the vast majority of the rules and sounds of [his or her native] language. After this, it’s just a matter of combining the different sentence types in new ways and adding new words to his or her vocabulary.” So when most expats-in-the-making set out for Gallic soil, well after kindergarten age, their native languages have long been hard-wired into their brains, reflexes, experiences and realities, per a friend’s astute declaration: Les cris du coeur viennent toujours dans la langue maternelle (“Heartfelt exclamations are always in your mother tongue”).
Wake an Anglo expat up in the middle of the night by banging two soup cauldrons together an inch from his ear and no matter how fluent his French is, the next sound you hear will be, “WHAT THE * * * * WAS THAT?!”—not Sacrebleu! Ask that Anglo expat writhing in agony on the emergency-room gurney, “Where does it hurt?” and no matter how long she’s been taking French lessons, she’ll screech out, “I THINK I HAVE A KIDNEY STONE!”—not Je crois que j’ai un calcul rénal! Take Anglo expats to the Château de Versailles on a perfect August evening and no matter how rich their French vocabulary is, the stunning fireworks bursting over the majestic, dancing fountains will be met with, “OHHHH, MYYYY GOD!”—not Comme c’est magnifique!
So why in calmer moments do we long-timers pepper our discourse with some of the same franglais that we disdain when it comes from the grocery-store clerk trying to practice what he thinks is his good English? Have we been here too long? Have the Frenchisms that started seeping insidiously in from the beginning—Drippp…Drippp…Drippp…—finally overflowed from our brains onto our tongues? Where’s the hard-wiring when you need it? Below is a mere handful of examples of what you might now catch yourself saying:
- consist in (from consister en)
- participate to (participer à)
- responsible of (responsable de)
- depend of (dépendre de)
Prepositions can be deadly. During the Second World War, German spies living under respectable-family-man cover in American suburbia, speaking native-accented English and able to explain the rules of baseball better than their neighbors were sometimes detected and immediately deported not because they couldn’t discuss high-level geopolitical theory at cocktail parties (they could) but because of one single word consisting of two little letters: They used a preposition that was jussssst a bit off, thereby alerting their theretofore unsuspecting entourage who had been sensitized by the U.S. government to the fact that during wartime, not everything and everybody should be taken at face value.
- After you close (turn off: fermer) your computer, close (turn off: fermer) the light and close (lock: fermer) the door.
Yes: LOCK! As in: French husband tells his non-French-speaking wife, in English, to “close”—meaning “lock”—the door. She closes—as opposed to locks—the door. They are burglarized. The husband is furious, reminding his wife, in English, that he had told her to fermer the door. She is furious that he is furious, informing her husband that that is exactly what she did. She CLOSED the door.
- We are going to cross the country on our bicycles. (Nous allons traverser le pays à vélo. What ever happened to “We are going to bike cross-country”?)
Echoing our Hints-Hindsights previously published, English not only verbifies basically anything (here, “a bike” becomes “to bike”), but seems to take great pleasure in doing so. And verbifying other parts of speech serves the greater goal of keeping verbosity down to a minimum. Why use four words (je fais des claquettes, elle fait du jogging, nous faisons du calcul, il fait du shopping, ils passent l’aspirateur) when two do the job beautifully (I tap-dance, she jogs, we calculate, he shops, they vacuum [pass the aspirator])? The Gettysburg Address, arguably the most famous speech in U.S. history, consisted of—that’s: consisted of— 272 words (often the number of words in the introduction to a French speech), 204 of which were of one syllable. Ernest Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for the merely 127-page The Old Man and the Sea, a work cited as significant by the Nobel Committee when he won their prize too. French schoolchildren receive positive feedback for writing long, flowery, embroidered, meandering, transition-word-laden sentences; Anglo (especially American) schoolchildren receive positive feedback for keeping it short. And. Simple.
- I have other cats to whip (J’ai d’autres chats à fouetter: I have other fish to fry)
- It was the drop of water that made the vase overflow (C’était la goutte d’eau qui a fait déborder le vase: It was the straw that broke the camel’s back)
- The habit doesn’t make the monk (L’habit ne fait pas le moine: Don’t judge a book by its cover [not, by the way, the negation of “clothes make the man”])
Idioms are cultural. They are one of the widest-open windows on a people’s history, ethos, world-view, self-view. There have been and are a real lot of monks in France. Yes, there are monks in English-speaking countries, but using monkness as a franglais reference point to Anglos is as effective as expecting Francophones to know where you’re really going when you tell them you “gotta see a man about a horse.”
- And in the “Did I just write that?” category: Are you really attaching two independent clauses (in effect, full sentences) with a comma? Like French does? Are you? Is that what you’re really doing? “I saw John, he is well.”? Instead of “I saw John. He is well.”? Or “I saw John; he is well.”? Or “I saw John and he is well.”? Don’t you remember that that infraction is rivaled by only double-negatives in the catalog of errors grave enough to boil your elementary-school teacher’s blood? Wow. Linguistic Stockholm syndrome. I am here since three minute to explain you this default!
Shari Leslie Segall is a writer who lives in Paris.
And in reverse, do you know what all the franglais (English words that have infiltrated French) words mean? Many of them even originated in French: “cash” comes from the French caisse, and caisse goes back to the Latin capsa. Test yourself!