France the French way


Of Words and Sounds

Posted: 2011-01-27

I’ve got a confession to make. Well, I have many but I won’t bore you with them all.

Although I’ve been going to France and Germany for many years my grasp of languages other than English is well… not that good.

The confusion of words - it's not always what you think!

And I think it has something to do with me misusing the French word ‘baiser’ at a family meal. To my partner’s mother. I had wanted to say ‘The meal was so good I could kiss you’.

But I said something that meant something else VERY different. (John’s note – read very bad!)

In my defence I have two things to say.

My comprehension – at least of French – is better than my spoken French and it’s not that I can’t speak French or German (or Latvian for that matter) it is just that ‘I simply haven’t learnt yet’ as one of my more positive-minded friends would say.

Which makes me sound very busy. Which I’m not anymore but like the sound of anyway.

I also like the sound of words.

On a trip to New York I sat on the subway gazing at the adverts inside the carriage. And I learnt something. The Spanish word ‘embarazadas’ means ‘pregnant’. So much more gentle than ‘schwanger’, the German equivalent. Or even the French ‘encientes.’

I imagine a shy young woman looking at the floor and hesitantly announcing her joyous state. And me getting the message wrong and thinking she was embarrassed. Which she might be. In addition to being pregnant and not directly linked to it,

Some words are just a joy to listen to regardless of their meaning.

Words such as ‘quincaillerie’ meaning a hardware shop or ‘pamplemousse’ meaning ‘grapefruit’  and ananas ‘pineapple’. ‘Pomme de terre’ and their German cousins ‘Kartoffeln’ are potatoes. Of course, for many of their vegetables the Germans use the French words.

And many German words are very descriptive. How about ‘Krankenhaus’ and ‘Lazarett’ both meaning ‘hospital’?

I love the vision of people who are feeling ‘cranky’, as they say in America, because they are unwell all being put in a house until they are better. A bit like sending a fractious child to its room. ‘And don’t come down until you are in a better mood!’

And at the other end of the scale people being resurrected Lazarus-like from the Lazarett.

As for ‘Rathaus’. I think it’s an inspired choice for ‘town hall’ with all the political shenanigans that can go on there.

Such wonderfully sounding and descriptive words.

And there’s more…

Mother-in-law and father-in-law become ‘belle-mère’ and ‘beau-père’, proclaiming the aesthetic qualities of your spouse, the prodigy of a beautiful mother and a handsome father.

What about the sound of ‘Un ver de terre en verre vert’?  Although who would find a use for such a sentence is beyond me at the moment.

And as many of you will know better than I, one doesn’t say the ‘Sun was setting’. Rather the sun was sleeping.  (Le soleil se couchait).

And  rivers don’t burst their banks. They get out of their beds. (La rivière sortit de son lit.)

And then there is the strange way in some nouns and titles of organisations have to be the other way around. For instance ‘walkie-talkie’ becomes ‘talkie-walkie’ NATO is OTAN in French and the United States (of America) becomes the Etats-Unis (d’Amérique).

Ah… Vive la difference!

(Article kindly written by Richard Maddox from the UK, a lover of history, words and sounds, and… who knows what else he’s hiding!)

As there are a number of Spanish speakers who read this blog, do you have expressions that are colourful, or where you have to pronounce a word carefully so as not to have the wrong meaning? What’s your word for potato or hospital?!