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Excuse My French by Rachel Best and Jean-Christophe Van WaesExcuse my French! Fluent Français without the Faux Pas, Rachel Best and Jean-Christophe Van Waes (Kyle Books 2013)

If you know only one language, you don’t really know it. Learning a second is like travelling abroad: you’ll see home with new eyes when you get back. But the title of this book is misleading: it’s not an introduction to French and it won’t teach you about grammar or morphology. Instead, it compares French and English idioms, from weather to the workplace, from food to sex. It’s a kind of linguistic daytrip, taking you a little way from English and helping you to see it afresh. As I said in “Rosetta Rok”, understanding your mother tongue is like eating a ripe apple. You can do it without apparent effort or thought.

So when you read “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, you understand it almost too easily if you’re a native speaker of English. Now try a similar thought in French: l’habit ne fait pas le moine – “the habit doesn’t make the monk” (pg. 79). You have to think again. It’s like seeing a familiar sculpture from an unusual angle. And, of course, you gain an insight into French culture and history. France is a Catholic country and religion has always meant more there. So has blasphemy. In English we have “hide the sausage”; in French, they have mettre le petit Jésus dans la crèche, “put little Jesus in the cradle” (pg. 62).

Food is more important in France too. For example, I didn’t know how important pears were there. In English, we discuss things “over coffee”; in French, they do it entre le poire et le fromage, “between the pear and the cheese” (pp. 146-7). Rachel Best, a native speaker of English, and Jean-Christophe Van Waes, her French husband, explain the precise meaning of this phrase, saying that it dates back to medieval times. Idioms can be like linguistic fossils. Sometimes they’re misinterpreted or misunderstood in the contemporary language.

But books and covers, like monks and habits, are easy to understand and the section devoted to those sayings also mentions two Latin equivalents: cucullus non facit monachum, “the hood doesn’t make the monk”, and barba non facit philosophum, “the beard doesn’t make the philosopher”.

The Latin is easy to understand too, but there are always traps in other languages. Best and Van Waes say that the French equivalent of “to be cross-eyed” is avoir un œil qui dit merde à l’autre, which literally means “to have one eye that says shit to the other”. That doesn’t sound good as a literal translation. But they note that dire merde à quelqu’un, “say shit to someone”, means “to wish someone luck, as in the English theatre salutation ‘break a leg’” (pg. 72). So being cross-eyed in French may not be so bad after all.

Either way, standard French is often cruder than standard English. We say: “Don’t run before you can walk.” They say: Ne pète pas plus haut que ton cul – “don’t fart higher than your arse” (pp. 134-5). We say: “Don’t split hairs” and although French has an equivalent expression, they can also say: N’enculons pas des mouches – “Let’s not bugger flies” (pg. 140). And where English has a “couch-potato”, French has a cul-de-plombe, an “arse-of-lead”. But sometimes English is cruder: we have “colder than a witch’s tit”, they have un froid de canard, “a duck-cold” (from duck-hunting in winter). We have “built like a brick shithouse” and they have une armoire à glace, “a wardrobe with mirror”.

Elsewhere the sayings are more or less the same. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” and à cheval donné on ne regard pas les dents are pretty much identical (pg. 115). “One swallow does not a summer make” and une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps differ only in season (printemps is “spring”) (pg. 101). When sayings are similar in wording, it’s usually because English has borrowed from French. When they’re different, sometimes French seems more vivid or funnier and sometimes English does. See above. And “cool as a cucumber” is better than d’une calme olympien, I think (pg. 28). “Rug muncher” is better than colleuse de timbres, “stamp-licker” (pg. 57). But “twilight” isn’t as good as entre chien et loup, “between dog and wolf” (pg. 100). Nor is “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched” as good as il ne faut pas vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué, “you shouldn’t sell the bear-skin before killing the bear” (pg. 133).

I wish we had those two and others in English. But if we did, I would probably take them for granted. This book helps you stop doing that to your mother-tongue. My French is too weak for me to know how good the translations, explanations and etymologies in this book are, but they seem fine and in a way it doesn’t matter. Language is an imperfect medium and meaning shifts like smoke. That’s one of the important lessons you can take from Excuse My French. I like the fast and funny drawings by Alyana Cazalet too.

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