Mind your Language

caedmonIt was my husband’s birthday this weekend and we had the best of all celebrations.
Time to ourselves.

We closed the gates to the drive and settled down to undisturbed peace.

Yes, of course we had to collect eggs, let out the chickens and ducks, change their water, put in fresh feed and then bang them up again in the evening.

Yes, we had to chop banana stems and fodder grass for the sheep and cattle and not get knocked over in the stampede for the bananas as we shut them in for the night.

Yes, we had to give the dogs their wash and deflea session.

But we did not have to speak to anyone else.
We did not have to put ourselves into the mindset of another language or culture.
We could think and speak entirely as we pleased.
All the time.

And what did we find?

For the most part we spoke to each other in English….but when we were talking about local stuff it was surprising how much Spanish we used…I can only imagine because the source of our information, whether oral or written, had been expressed in Spanish which had come, in its turn, to define the mode of discussion.

It would not have ocurred to us that the lunacy of a situation in which the leader of H.M.’s government is a foul mouthed coke head could be discussed in any language other than English, but it was interesting to find that the same process led to discussion of the character of the ex Mayor of San Jose and Presidential candidate using any number of Spanish phrases.

I would not say that it was perfect Spanish, either in use of grammar or pronunciation, but it was the Spanish that came to us spontaneously.

I enjoy the proper use of language, but not to the point of pedantry.
Language lives, evolves; it has to do so to be able to reflect the experience of its users.
I do not understand texting ….but it is an offshoot which has developed to enable those with more time than sense to communicate with each other and as such is no less legitimate than any professional jargon – which is double dutch to anyone outside the charmed circle.

I would never make a translator.
I see languages in their own compartments: products of their own cultures and dependent on those cultures for their meaning.
I can enter those compartments; enjoy the contents, but I can’t bridge the compartments to translate – it is too easy to be clumsy and swift yet takes forever to translate one context to another.

I would be quite capable of the translation classic..the English phrase ‘out of sight, out of mind’ translated into Russian and then retranslated to English as……. ‘absent idiot’.
But on the positive side, as a translator I could block the work of the European Union for years…..
Any offers?

Expat blogs can be a sort of translation…..illustrating one culture in the light of another in the person of the blogger…and there are many fine ones in the blogosphere.
There are also the others….

Those on Costa Rica which would lead the unwary to believe that the country is populated solely by wild birds and monkeys…like the tropical house at Kew Gardens with the lid off.
Or those which seek to persuade others that Costa Ricans are simple, happy folk, whose only concern is to help the gringo – reminiscent of slide shows of missionary activity in darkest Africa.
Or those that want to sell you overpriced property. ‘Trust me, I’m a gringo!’

There aren’t so many of the rose tinted blogs about life in France these days – if you discount the American girls in Paris rotting their teeth on macaroons – as reality in the shape of taxes eats into the dream world of pink wine and baguettes.
But, by golly, there are still a few blind mouths about….

Those who have a holiday home there and spend their time visiting other expats with holiday homes and eating in restaurants: any criticism of France, any comment on the realities admitted to by anyone French, and they fly up like a fighting cock.
‘Touche pas au grisbi!’ Don’t go for their bundle of golden dreams.

And then there are the pedants: wedded to a certain idea of France (pretty damn far from that of de Gaulle) based on its literature, architecture and gastronomy as they have learned to appreciate them in their home countries. So far gone are they that some of them would even eat an andouillette.
They ‘know’ France…but they don’t know their neighbours.

I was reading of the death of a film director, Georges Lautner, and one of his films came immediately to mind.
Les Tontons Flinguers. A take off of gangster films.
Not so much for his direction, but for the dialogue written by Michel Audiard – a man who had an ear for France.

One of his characters says
‘Les cons, ça ose tout! C’est même à ça qu’on les reconnaît.’
Pratwits…they are capable of anything. That’s how you know them for what they are.

The pedant would soon tell you that is not French…not proper French. ‘Les cons’ is plural and ‘ca’ is singular…
What the pedant can’t tell you is why audiences – French audiences – rolled about.
If you want to connect with old France…find a Youtube download with subtitles to make things easier…and enjoy.
The scene where the assembled crooks sample the products of the illicit still is a classic.

Audiard was also responsible for the dialogue in another of my favourites…but I don’t think that it is subtitled…
‘Les Vieux de la Vieille’ where a trio of First World War veterans decide they are better off in an old peoples’ home than in their own – until they meet matron.
I saw the last of the world that that film depicted….in all its hardship and obstinacy…when I was first in France.
But then…I knew my neighbours.

I’ll let the pedants tell you how to pronounce ‘crapule’ while I leave you with a classic from Georges Brassens

‘Quand on est con, on est con.’
You can be an old ‘con’ you can be a young ‘con’…but you’re still a ‘con’.


58 thoughts on “Mind your Language”

  1. Happy birthday to your husband. Sounds like you had a lovely plan, to shut out the world (other than all your furry/feathery family) and talk as you pleased and how interesting that you spontaneously spoke Spanish. Language is so interesting in that it creates reality. And, “we” think words are just words but they create energy that takes us away from the here and now. It’s a rare and wonderful occasion when I can converse with another in this living moment without losing myself to it along with the other. Another great post!

  2. I desperately wish I was good at languages. I envy those foreigners living here who have become fluent in Turkish in a short space of time, while I still struggle after 15 years. I use Google translate far too much, which is ridiculous because it changes the meaning, and I also feel that even though I can understand a fair amount of others’ conversations, I miss out on so much. The humour for example, or the way we read between the lines in our own language to find the “real” meaning.

    1. Leo is a good linguist…I am not. I have to grub about to get to grips with a language and find it hard work.
      I’m still at the stage with Spanish that it can desert me completely…or leave me exhausted after a few hours of it…and there are times when I just can’t make progress…..
      But continual reading helps a lot.

  3. Sounds a great day. Not dissimilar to our good days. Feed and water chickens, dogs, no sheep and cattle, and Pippa has a collar while Little One has a pipette from time to time.

    As for the language, we are true Gibbos and just mix English and Spanish. When I returned last night my neighbours out of the window leaned out to say welcome back (and look at the new dog of course), and I spoke mostly Spanish, because after three months of Spanish that’s what came first. What is really bad practice though is to take a Spanish word and use the English verb form. Can’t think of an example atm, but I’m sure you know what I mean.

    For some strange reason the other night I was dreaming in French, and my French is very limited these days. The one good thing about living abroad (ok there are more than one) is that you learn that understanding the sense is far more important than a literal translation.

    For example, some local graffiti says José Gil canallo! I don’t know what the literal translation is, but I know they aren’t saying what a nice bloke he is. So, good enough.

    I do text speak. But it’s a mix of text spk and journalistic abbreviations when we didn’t need to write out full words for the compositors. I only use it on the ‘phone, and emails from the ‘phone though. Or when I am feeling bone idle of course.

  4. Happy birthday old fellah! Oh he’s gone, he’s chasing those ducks, that cow and now putting that fence back together while growling something in pigeon Spanish, I think…..

    The idea of living ‘amongst’ people apart from ‘beside’ them as the English do in France is interesting. i do the same here in this foreign land. My language changes I note. I speak two now, Lallans and Thamespeak! There was a time in London I spoke other languages, ‘middle class’ and very slowly with hand signals so that johnny foreigner could understand what I was saying.

    That post was very insightful. You need to find a magazine for folks moving to France and write an item for them.

    1. No magazine for people moving to France would touch me with a bargepole! Might upset their advertisers!

      We’re between amongst and beside – depending on the attitude of the other party….but I prefer amongst.

      It was good of you to take account of the linguistic disabilities of middle class Londoners…….

    1. You’ll have read the same blogs….and very dull they are too!
      Blogs like your that give a practical account of using the health service, of doing a visa run – now that’s what people need to read.

  5. Happy Birthday to your husband!
    As a family we pepper our speech with a lot of French or Franglais words and I’ve got so used to some of them that I can’t think of the English word any longer.
    Practically more irritating in my view than the rose-tinted brigade are the ones who feel they’ve made a mistake in moving abroad and refuse to see any good whatsoever in their new country of residence. This breed tends to inhabit internet forums rather than write blogs, though some of them do that, and they’re vicious with anyone who doesn’t agree with them completely.

    1. Yes…suddenly you reach for a word and it’s not there!

      Forum inhabitants have always had a vicious tendency, I think…especially the forum ‘elders’ who think they have carte blanche to rough up newbies…

      In my time in France the rose tinted had the upper hand: now that reality has struck with the new economic crisis it is those stuck with a life they don’t want and can’t get out of who turn on the acid.
      I have to say that I didn’t expect much of Hollande….but I didn’t expect his policies to rouse those forces best left untouched – the people outside the unions.
      Difficult to bribe such a diverse grouping….and he doesn’t seem to have any other solution.

      No country is perfect…whether you’re a native or an immigrant….but I reckon that if you pay your taxes you have a right to have and express a view on what’s done with them.
      But common decency requires that if people disagree politely with your point of view you don’t turn nasty….

  6. Helen, I’ve told you this before, but… YOU ROCK. 😀 I always giggle when I read the riose-tinted spectace views of France – although it must be nice to only see what you want to see (you had me in stitches with the Parisian macaroon scenario). I remember being immensely irritated by Peter Mayle’s view of Provence, for that very same reason. Stereotypes are too easy – there’s more to France than baguettes, garlic and pâtisseries, an’ a lot of that ain’t pretty, guv’nor.
    That Brassens song is one of my favourites, and les Tontons flingueurs is an epic film!

      1. Thank you…he had a great weekend, having previously invaded the butcher’s shop we use to extract sirloin for his birthday lunch.

        Cuts here being what they are and the name of cuts being what they are the only solution was to enter the cold room and indicate what was required.
        He emerged with five kilos of it….plus two kilos of skirt….mince, sausages…and free meat for the dogs – probably awarded by the exhausted butcher to get rid of him.

        He can go shopping again….

        I too detested the Peter Mayle stuff….superior little git looking down his nose at anyone who didn’t have his money and looking no further than the need to produce recognisable stereotypes for his audience.
        A real commercial job…but when you look at the stuff the rose tinted brigade push out, those stereotypes are what they reproduce!
        Heaven forbid that they should enjoy France for what it is.

        Brassens and Les Tontons Flinguers are a good recipe for an enjoyable weekend!
        Would the closest be the Lavender Hill Mob do you think?
        But without the booze….I am still laughing at the ‘touch of apple, perhaps’…a hint of beetroot may be?’

  7. It is a matter of common courtesy to extend the use of the home language to the locals, regardless of country. Not many English speaking people recognise how important it is to be respectful by at least attempting to converse in the natural tongue of the host country visited. But then, you already know this, as you are very intelligent and thoughtful. See me? I found myself struggling with the language at first, let us face it, my accent is hardly coherent at the best of times, less when I am curling my tongue and hawking my vowels! I like to mix it up a little. A Gaelic word here and there, throw in a wee expression in Spanish, French and Italian to confuse and before you know it a conversation has started. It never fails.

    A belated birthday wish to your man by the way, and many more to follow.

    1. Thank you for the kind wishes and yes, I’m hoping for many more to come…..

      I had a shock on going to the house in Spain….they speak Aragonese round there!
      Still, they were kind enough to try to understand my Central American Spanish…..

  8. WordPress has stopped sending me mails about blog updates. I wondered why you’d gone silent!!

    Expat blogs is having a competion where you have to send in a post about your top 10. I thought maybe sending in something about places not to retire to if you’re looking for a quiet life (Marseille nord, le 93…). Probably wouldn’t go down too well though.

    Les Tontons Flingueurs is a classic!

  9. You must enter the expat blog competition Helen. You’ll win it hands down. A belated birthday greeting to Leo. We speak Tunglish in our household and occasionally completely misunderstand each other – even after 30 odd years. I think I’m guilty of wearing rose coloured specs but I’ve spent my time in front of the judge in my past residence here and have decided to live in and enjoy my garden and leave the protesting to the next generation.

  10. Enjoyed that post hugely. The vicissitudes of language are fascinating, funny and frustrating all at the same time. In wales people speak Wenglish; I speak a Geordie version of the same – and as for business jargon.. sometimes the absurdity of it is what keep same going. I read the other day of a brokers report which referred to a one third fall in profits as ” a 35% de-growth’

    I miss too many of your posts since the demise of Google Reader – Feedly is just not the same.

    1. I too have found it difficult to keep up with some blogs…I now use other blogs as ‘hubs’, if you see what I mean, which covers most of the ground.

      I’m still relishing the ‘de-growth’…..

          1. So, colloquially, its characteristic noise has taken over from linguistic correctness.
            I fear that popty microdon will not roll off my lips as easily as popty ping, however.

  11. Your post came through fine on Feedly for me, Helen, but WordPress kept not letting me comment yesterday. 😦

    Belated birthday greetings to your husband and also Snap! My DH celebrated his on Saturday and as always we did it quietly at home with his choice of food and drink.

    I love your ruminations on language and the vagaries of expats. We find that though we speak English to each other when in France, certain French words and expressions creep in, mainly because we’ve only encountered them in our summers there and can’t be bothered to think of the English equivalent. We both have a reasonable grasp of French so I reckon there would be a lot more Franglais if we lived there all the time.

    1. I wonder what the problem is with WordPress? I know others have problems commenting as well, while i find that sometimes I can make a comment on a Blogger blog…confirm it…and it doesn’t appear.

      Into the popty ping with all the IT nerds who can’t sort this out….

      Belated birthday greetings to your husband too.
      A celebration at home is so much more fun that going out for a meal, I find.
      You have just what you want,when you want; you don’t have to travel….and the wine is not overpriced!

      1. From what I’ve just read on the WP help forums it sounds like an intermittent server problem, particularly for TalkTalk customers, of whom I am one. 😦 Now let’s see whether I can post this……

  12. I know that we (in Scotland) tend to drop into the Scots “language” for such descriptive terms as “dreich” and “scunnered” that have no real one word equivalent in English. Probably use more French pronunciation of eg cooking terminology than English equivalents. So can see where you are coming from with the Spanish “lapses”.

  13. Happy belated birthday to your husband!

    When my Chinese daughter-in-law is here visiting and talks to her mom on the phone it always amuses me. Most of the conversation is in Chinese, but it is sprinkled with short outbursts of English. When I asked my daughter-in-law why she sometimes switched to English for snippets of the conversation she had no idea she was even doing it. 🙂

    1. Thank you…he had a lovely time!
      Your comment made me remember the time when I was first in France.
      I’d made a friend who had been a (formidable) head of a maternelle before retiring.
      She told me not to worry about progress….to take learning a language as if I were a baby…
      You hear all this going on about you…and one day you speak.
      So, like your daughter in law, I suppose you use the language in which you picked up the information.

  14. How could I have missed this gem, Helen – I can’t blame WordPress or anything else – I just missed it! Excellent musings, as usual! Glad Leo had a good birthday.
    I’m fascinated by language and we speak Spanglish here at home. I smiled when I read B2B’s comment about still having misunderstandings based on language sometimes – that happens here too!

    I’ve had such a lovely day today, out and about, speaking much more Spanish than English – even managed some teasing today at the Post Office, so definitely feeling much more comfortable in my ‘new’ language. I always stress to my students that the intention is communication, not perfect grammar… and it’s true that you pick up understanding of a new language before being able to speak it….

    There are, of course, some Spanish expressions that are absolutely perfect for expressing disgust or displeasure…aren’t there!

    Great post – sorry I didn’t get to it sooner. Axxx

    1. Gracious me…there is life outside blogging! Especially if you have children….

      And isn’t the teasing a proof that you are on line with not only the language but also with the culture….

  15. Here in Quebec the first language is French. I am fluent in French and my mother tongue is English. I often converse to others in Franglais. LOL! It’s such a force of habit for me to be able to speak both languages and to go back and forth from French to English and back without a problem. I think it is nice to be able to communicate in more than one language.

  16. Happy belated! I have to agree with you on the texting – I don’t understand it in terms of a ‘primary’ medium of conversation, yet, I can appreciate the efficiency of a quick blast to communicate a status. “I’ll be 5 minutes late,” vice “Hey, how are you?” from someone you haven’t seen in months/years? Really? That said, texting in Italian gave new context to language & helped my grammar & immersion significantly. Cheers ~

    1. He’s planning the next one….

      I can see the point of a text for a quick message…..but not in the abbreviated form when it is so easy to write it properly.
      Texting in a foreign language…well, it would be sink or swim, wouldn’t it…and I’d be needing waterwings.

  17. I love tales of mixed language dialogues. My dear wife is native Japanese and I speak fluent American so of course in our house we speak Japlish. Max the dog is comfortable in both languages. Things get even more confused as relations gather. We were looking at a recent family photo and decided to count “what we’re all made of”.

    All told, we had Irish, Polish, Japanese, Chamorro, Chinese, Hawaiian, Norwegian, Portuguese and of course Maltese for Max. No wonder that we never agree on anything. Give hubby a big “Hauoli la hanau” (Happy Birthday) from Honolulu for us.

    1. Thanks for the ind wishes…he’s already looking forward to the next one – that beef was out of this world tasty and tender and the claret we’d brought over a couple of years ago had settled well.

      That’s a real international household! Thank goodness for Max to hold the ring!

  18. Great post Helen. Know the feeling about a ‘quiet’ day still meaning that dogs & cats have to be fed, hens cleaned & fed, dogs walked,,etc etc. Wouldn’t have it any other way. Completely agree about the rose tinted blogs & articles & about the franglais that we’ve fallen into conversing in. Suppose it’s a sign of integration! I think having lived permanently in France now for nigh on 10 years, we’re probably reaching the ‘adolescent’ stage. We were ‘babies’ when we came here, Everything was new & wonderful. We were happy to take advice & do what the natives told us, because we needed them & all that they had to offer to help us find our feet. ‘This is how it’s done’, we were happy to go along with.
    Now, we’re at that rebellious & more than a tad discontented with a lot of the ways things work in France – customer service, ridiculous demands for huge amounts of taxes & then extra demands for ‘allowing’ you to pay by monthly instalments, the rank unfairness & economic onus that lands on small artisans like us…I could go on. The adolescent stage. We no longer like being told that ‘you don’t do that here’. We feel we can clearly see that things would be better done our way rather than in the long winded, tortuous, pushing-paper-from-A-to-B way, just for the sake of it. So, like monosyllabic, tantrum throwing teenagers, we (well, me really, as David gives me the bullets & I am always ready to fire them), rebel, dig in our heels and do battle.
    Maybe we will gradually slide into indifferent ‘middle age’ but for the moment it’s ‘pah’ to those rose tinted blogs & an excuse for a small rant on what it’s really like to live and, more to the point, work for yourself in France. That said, I entered into the same number of battles in the UK. Just over different stuff. You’re right. Wherever you live nothing is ever wholly right or wholly wrong. On balance, we wouldn’t change a thing at the moment. Going head to head with pompous fonctionnaires gives you reason to get up in the morning..!!

    1. Boy, do I know how you feel!

      I was lucky in a way in that when I was first in France the decentralisation was only just coming about…so there were fewer power mad numbskulls involved in all the processes..and also that my neighbours who became friends passed me on to their contacts in the various offices which gave me an easier ride.

      But for you coming years later, with the sheer lunacy, duplication of tasks, all to keep local political barons in power by giving them ‘troops’ who have to be paid, life must be one hell of a lot more difficult.

      It’s a good job you’re a fighter.

      Life in Costa Rica isn’t a paradise, but I do find the bureaucracy much easier to deal with here….

  19. Translation is a tantalising exercise because, as you so rightly wrote it, a language involves a culture (or more than one), so translation is the art (or at least I believe it is an Art) “to say almost the same thing” (Umberto Eco in a fascinating book “Dire presque la même chose, expériences de traduction”).

    Translation is very convenient as it’s much easier, and quicker, to give somebody a good translation than having this person learning the other language, and reaching a ‘decent’ level in order for him to understand what he reads…
    It’a s sheer pleasure to bridge two cultures, two languages to help people understanding each other. Besides it’s a reward it itself for the translator.

    It looks to me like you would be a good translator, even if you seem to think differently.

    N.B. I’m amazed to see how France and French politics are discussed here, so far away from Europe… A lot of experts as I can see… Interesting! 🙂

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