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French and English: a history
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Prêt à parler français?

George Sharpley looks at the traditional entente cordiale

between the two languages: French and English


What do the French mean to you? Elegant and richly-perfumed Parisiennes? Suave and articulate football managers? Or farmers gesticulating about the price of cheese? Imitation helps you learn a language. It’s also apparently a form of flattery. So whatever the stereotype, take any French person whom you wouldn’t mind resembling, and mimic unmercifully until thoroughly flattered.

French language introductionThe French study philosophy at school and have a long tradition of eminent philosophers: Descartes, Sartres, Cantona, not to mention all the highly philosophical French tutors now teaching with Lingua. A philosopher, as we all know, is a clever clogs who makes a virtue out of ignorance. So stand in front of the mirror, and all at once raise your eyebrows, shoulders and upturned palms saying aloud in no particular order:

          Je sais pas  "ssh’ay pah"  I dunno

          Peut-être "p’t-ettre"   Maybe

          Bof!  Give me a couple of minutes to think about it

The French like a compliment. You don’t have to mean it, but try to sound as though you do. Like their food and clothes and other ways they express themselves, French people serve up their lives with positive energy and fulsome praise. It’s in their culture, a test of their ability to be poetic. The British make a national habit out of understatement, while the French prefer the opposite. They may sometimes seem insincere, but our understatement can be every bit as misleading (how many times have you said ‘yes but’ when you meant no? or ‘with respect’ when you meant ‘you’re an idiot’?). So practise now with your friends or family:

          J’adore   "zh’adore"  I adore ...

          C’est magnifique   "say mang-ni-feek"  Top stuff!

          Avec plaisir  "Avec play-zeer"    My pleasure

Of course, people who are easily pleased are often as easily displeased. Much as French people like a compliment, sometimes they can seem a bit dismissive. English expressions like ‘That’s not quite what we’re looking for’ tend to be expressed more directly in French.

"Madame, Monsieur"

Every culture has its particular form of greeting. The British are noted for sharing a mild grumble about the weather. In France il pleut almost as much (with a bit more thunder and lightning) and on a good day il fait beau, or if you’re lucky il fait très beau. But they seldom talk about it quite like we do.

There are things to look out for when you meet French people for the first time. They prefer surnames and titles (Madame, Monsieur) to plunging into first-name familiarity, but at the same time they kiss. And while all that is going on they always, whether greeting or departing, with whoever it is, however often they’ve met them before, shake hands. Meetings pause, meals stop, the world waits for every Jacques and Henri to grasp the palm. If Josephine is there too, expect some kissing. Even if she isn’t, the men may touch cheeks it’s more a brush of the face than a full lips how-do-you-do.

And don’t forget their titles. Walk into a boulangerie to buy some bread and the shop assistant will greet you ‘Monsieur?’, and you her ‘Madame’. These titles are easy to remember, and can be used with everyone, so long as you get the gender right. When the French aristocrats lost their heads during the French Revolution we might have expected an outbreak of first-names all round; but after all that guillotining, the liberated paysans preferred the dignity of Monsieur and Madame.

Bonjour is 'hello' for all seasons and times, bonsoir at dusk or later. Au revoir is 'goodbye', with any number of other valedictories:

          à bientôt    "ah-be-an-toe"  See you soon (you don’t know how soon)

          à plus tard     "ah-plu-tar"  See you later (but sooner than soon)

          à samedi    "ah-sam-edy"   See you on Saturday

          bonne nuit    "bon-nwee"   Good night (when going to bed - to sleep)

On parting in the morning the French may say bonne matinée (have a good morning) or more usually bonne journée (have a good day) and in the evening bonne soirée. The British don’t say anything quite like this, but you can see where Americans got ‘Have a nice day’ from. 


Le boeuf et le sandwich

There’s no magic potion or electronic chip to give you instant knowledge. The good news is that you know lots of French words already, for in the course of time a great many have been added to English, a plundering process we started after the Norman Conquest and have continued ever since. The histories of Britain and France are inseparably linked, a series of punch-ups which started (officially) at Hastings in 1066 and flared up at regular intervals throughout the following centuries. Both sides claimed to have won, as of course they would. What cannot be doubted is that the English, when they weren’t under the cosh of their aloof, undisciplined, temperamental and artistic foes, tried to be like them. In the years after the Norman Conquest, dark days for the English, all the clever and influential people spoke French except when they were bored and then they spoke Latin.

English was left to the Saxons who worked on the estates of their new Norman masters. This explains why our words for animals like pig, deer, cow and calf come from old Saxon English, while the meat these animals provide are called by French names: porc, venaison, boeuf and veau. The Saxons worked in the fields while the Normans sat feasting in their castles. French was spoken by the rulers of England for some three centuries after the Normans first settled. Even Richard the Lionheart spoke no English. But his no-good brother John did far more to help the English language recover. His territorial losses in France inflamed the simmering hostility between the anglicised Normans and their cousins in France, and the top brass in England were reluctant to go on speaking the language of the people they were forever falling out with. Thus English, by now little more than a bundle of rural dialects, came back into favour. Up and down England, dukes, counts and knights, their damsels and children, all learned to speak the language of their nannies and serfs. And when they didn’t know an English word, they simply used a French one instead.

In some cases the native English word simply didn’t exist; others were probably too much effort to learn. Quite a few English words had fallen into disuse in the years after the conquest, especially those to do with power, money and learning. No self-important big cheese can talk for long without mentioning power or money or learning well, the first two at least and it wasn’t long before English resounded with French imports like command, obey, homage, tax, liberty, palace, money and parliament. So too came French words of taste, high living and fashion: sugar and spice and all things nice or expensive like lace, satin, perfume, oysters and salmon.

French words continued to flow into English through the next few centuries. Artists, boffins, chefs and all the clever people seemed to spring from the other side of the channel. Bullet and ballet, cannon and fuselage, moustache and minion, ricochet and camouflage, flair and nuance, menu and chef, ridicule, embarrass, encore, and lots more, including the more French-looking ones that end with an acute accent: cliché, resumé, soufflé and blasé. French words are everywhere. Within reach as I write are file, table, chair, paper, document, disk, letter and envelope: all were French.

Some French imports have taken a more specific meaning in English, in most cases a smarter or superior one. An English chauffeur doesn’t drive lorries, while un chauffeur can drive just about everything. The English verb to march is used only of regimented walkers, soldiers walking in step, but the French marcher means any kind of walking. Demand is from the French verb meaning more generally to ask, demander: the enquiries of the Norman French, it seems, were none too soft at the edges.

More recently this flow of words has reversed, though with nothing like the same volume. The French now nibble le sandwich and sip le milkshake as they while away le week-end surfing l’internet before they’re off to le camping. Such Anglo-Saxon infiltration of French is not entirely welcome: un caddie (a golfer’s mate) was one to cause a bit of a stir, but even this word had been French before it was English un cadet.

The entangled past of the two languages makes the task of fathoming the meaning of certain French words a lot lighter, but there is some small print. You will be lured into traps by ‘false friends’ like un car, which isn’t a car at all but a bus, and pétrole, which is oil and not petrol (essence). But at least these false friends give you clues.

Another piece of small print: however alike they look, English and French words do not remotely sound the same. So, to get into the groove, try pronouncing a few French words which have twins in English, like extraordinaire, hôpital, hôtel, information, magnifique, musique, plaisir, table and terrible. One thing to note: the French give equal weight to each syllable, while in English we stress the second last (and if there are many syllables the fourth last too). We say ín-for-má-tion. The final syllable of the English word fades, a national characteristic (less so with Scots and Irish speakers). The French on the other hand are as proud of the sound of their final syllables as they are of their cheeses and their wines. So make the most of them.

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