After our President’s recent little faux-pas in calling the Australian Prime Minister’s wife “delicious” (we assume he meant delightful but… maybe not?), linguistic challenges trip up even the greatest of the great and the good. As Charlemagne, King of the Franks once said, “D’avoir une deuxième langue, c’est posséder une deuxième âme” (Having a second language is to have a second soul). Would Franglais have counted or would Charlemagne have fainted at the horrors which slip out of the mouths of Brits? Maybe he would have enjoyed the enthusiasm of the speaker and encouraged such comical communication?
Sometimes it’s a case of the right word but the wrong pronunciation: sometimes it’s just completely the wrong word. Chatting away to one of my closest friends as she was sticking photos to her fridge, I suggested that perhaps she needed magnets. This wasn’t what I actually asked though: “As-tu des amants?” was the question I put to her – “do you have any lovers?” Familiar with my sometimes random vocabulary, she corrected me: “aimants, des aimants”.
My husband did his placement year at a hotel in Charente-Maritime. The restaurant was one of those old-fashioned places with overly-starched white tablecloths in which nobody speaks above a whisper and rich, old ladies insist their handbag-dogs actually sit at the table with them. In an attempt at polite conversation as he cleared one such lady’s plate, he uttered the words, “Terminez, Madame? Vous êtes pleine?” Thinking he was asking if she had had enough and was full, he was actually asking if she was pregnant!
After sustaining a calf injury and being unable to continue running for a while, the physio was a little shocked when I asked if I could “have a go on the chimney sweep”. I had meant to ask if I could use the rowing machine. “Ramoneur” is “chimney sweep” and “rameur” is “rowing machine”.
There are words which are very difficult for Brits to pronounce properly: “fauteuil” (armchair) being one but my personal nightmare is “bouilloire” (kettle). Place names can also be a challenge: chatting with friends about skiing, I asked, “Vous skiez dans les Pyrénées?” (“Do you ski in the Pyrenees?”). The words were right, the pronunciation after a few glasses of local wine, not so good. I pronounced it “périnée” which is the word for “perineum”. Not a place to ski!
French-to-English is not so easy either: I’ve seen signs for “Black Shag”, “Willy Photographie” and a kennels called “Maison du Barf”. My favourite ever washing instruction is “Go and ask you mother” but the “Made in Turkey”/“Fabriqué en Dinde” comes a close second. Wouldn’t life be boring if we got it right all the time?