Tag Archives: French

That’s The Way It Is

5 Feb

When I first started learning French, I wanted to translate everything. Signs, menus, conversations: all were fair game. French opened up a whole new world. Suddenly, I had two ways to express what was on my mind. If I didn’t like saying it in English… how about French? I was fascinated by the nuances of languages, their vocabularies, their way of expressing things. It boggled my mind that two people could look at the same object and think there were two different answers to explain what it was.

I started listening to music in other languages, studying the lyrics so I could sing along. I also translated English songs into French just to see if I could. Then I’d sing along to the English version with my invented French lyrics. Were my translations accurate? Probably not. But man, did I feel cool.

I’d sort of forgotten about my personal translation service until the other day when Celine Dion’s “That’s the way it is” came onto the radio. That was one of my go-to songs for language practice back in the day, because Celine had recorded versions in both English and French. I never loved the actual music, but I loved having two sets of lyrics to play with. I studied the French lyrics to learn new vocabulary and get a better feel for translation. Whenever I heard the song I’d sing along in French, feeling like I had a secret language.

Now that I remember those old habits, I think I’ll start again. It’s been hard to maintain my French as a “grown up” with a full-time job that has nothing to do with foreign languages. Every year I say I’ll get better at practicing, but I’ve never made it happen. I’ll read a few books in French every year, but just haven’t committed the time I should to keep those skills strong.

So, I’m calling it now: I’m going to restart that personal translation service. I’ll start translating signs and lyrics in my head again, just to get back in the habit of thinking in another language. Maybe eventually I’ll set a goal for reading, and then for speaking. But the easy things to start, for sure. Because life gets busy–that’s just the way it is.


A Rose By Any Other Name

29 Jan

This isn’t a hashtag, but it’s about Twitter and it’s funny so I wanted to post it anyway.

As you probably know by now, I am a big fan of cultural diversity.  But it’s getting harder and harder for cultures to stay “true” to their origins. Between globalization, export systems and the Internet, it’s pretty tough to keep out foreign influences.

Which is something that worries the French government. Worries them so much, in fact, that they’ve created entire committees tasked with ensuring France stays as French as possible. One of the more interesting rules has to do with radio stations playing a certain proportion of French music vs. international music- which, to be honest, doesn’t seem like a terrible idea. But there’s also rules about the use of French in advertisements, on packages, etc. And then there’s the Commission generale de terminologie et de neologie. In English: the Committee on Terminology and New Words. This committee is basically in charge of protecting French from “invading” words.  And by “invading,” I mean “foreign.”

Every tongue has had to add words as the world develops new technologies and ideas. Our ancestors back in the early days of English clearly didn’t coin a word that properly conveys what a modern computer is and does. There’s many ways to incorporate new words, but France has taken a decidedly unique approach by refusing to adopt terms from other languages. So rather than using the word “email,” which serves as an Anglicism in many cultures, France encourages its inhabitants to say “courriel.” And according to an article I read over the weekend on Fast Company, France is now trying to replace the word “hashtag” with”mot-diese.” Literally translated, that means “sharp sign.” Really, it seems like hashtags are mostly referenced as symbols (#)- for example, Twitter users employ a hashtag to help group their tweets by topic. But what’s interesting to me here isn’t the exact word they picked or how often it’s going to be used: it’s the idea of keeping the language “true.” Would it really hurt French culture if people say the word “hash tag” rather than “mot-diese?” I find that hard to believe. But I do see merit in the general principle: keep people speaking French to keep their brains in the French world. Keep people confident in their native tongue and its ability to convey what they need to say. And keep people engaged in French culture, overall, rather than turning to foreign influences for everything new and exciting. So perhaps it starts with a little, seemingly inconsequential vocabulary word, but has much farther reaches than we’d expect.

Which makes me wonder how the French feel about us using terms like “RSVP” and “faux pas” so widely in the English language. Are we simply stealing their words right out of their mouths? Or are we- gasp!- letting our language get “tainted?”

When You Really Think About It…

18 Oct

You know how some words are just inherently entertaining? True, any word sounds funny if you say it enough times. But there’s certain words that always seem fun to me, even when you only say them once. Bubble. Finagle. Bogus. Words like that. Then, on the flipside, are the words that are intriguing to think about beyond how they sound. There’s a lot of words we just take at face value- we use them without really wondering WHY we use them. Tthe language major in me loves to break words down, explore their roots, figure out where they come from.

Today I got a friend request on Facebook from someone I don’t actually know. As I looked over her profile, I came to the job info section- and just started cracking up. Her title, as written on Facebook, was “chasseur de tetes.” Translated into English, that’s “hunter of heads.” And for some odd reason, it made me laugh so, so, hard. I got this amazing mental image and just couldn’t stop chuckling.

But once I did stop chuckling, I took a step back and thought about it a little harder. Really, this woman wasn’t calling herself anything unusual or funny. It was a literal translation of the way we say the same exact job in English- headhunter. The word isn’t exactly without oddities in English either, because it’s a bit weird to talk about hunting heads. But for some reason, when it was broken into three words, it made more of an impact on me. I took more time to think through the words, and think about what they implied. I don’t get a vivid mental image when I see the English word for headhunter. I might find it odd to say out loud and I might prefer using the word “recruiter” in its place, but I’ve definitely never laughed as hard as I did today when I was friended by this chasseur de tetes.

Which made me think a bit about what makes words compelling. Was it the French component that made it sound so different? Was it the fact that the usual single headhunter was now broken into three words? Was it simply due to the fact that I’ve been fighting some sort of illness this week and might be a bit out of it?

Unsure. But it renewed my interest in dissecting the language I actually use every day and thinking a bit harder about why we say what we do. So thank you, Facebook inviter, for stimulating such an interesting internal dialogue. And readers, I encourage you to spend a little time over the next few days just thinking about what you say and what those words really mean. You might just find a new favorite word!

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