'Sometimes,' he once told us, 'sometimes I think they cannot even conceive of the existence of other languages. I remember in the war, when I was in the Navy, having to teach some British recruits the basics of French, and the first word I taught them was 'Anglais', as it seemed wise to know what the French called us. One poor thing said she refused to believe that there was a
French word for English. She said that the word for English
was 'English' and there couldn't
be any other word for it. She actually burst into tears at the thought.'
You sometimes get the same sort of shock when you discover that people living abroad will not accept our names for places. That they don't call it London, but Londres. Not Edinburgh or Wales but Edimbourg and le pays de Galles. Nor will they accept our names for their places - they won't call it Florence or Munich, but Firenze and Munchen - and there is only mild comfort in finding out that they do it to each other, and that the Germans call Venice Venedig and refuse to refer to Milan as Milan or Milano but call it Mailand.
The French are as bad as us
at refusing to use the correct name. Back in the days when
my wife smoked, I tried to buy her a packet of cigarettes in France.
'Un paquet de Dunhill Menthol, svp,' I said.
'Nous n'en avons pas,' said the kiosk lady, which was not true, as I could see them on the shelf behind her.
'Mais, oui, elles sont la, derriere vous, sur le rayon]'
'Non,' she said, refusing to turn round. The only thing I could think of that I might have done wrong was to pronounce Dunhill Menthol English-style. I imagined that I was a Frenchman trying to say it.
'Avez-vous un paquet de Durneel Montol?'
'Durneel Montol] Pas de probleme]'
And so it goes. But I think that very gradually, very slowly, things are starting to change, and I think the man most responsible is Eric Cantona, the French player with Manchester United. He is the first star French player to play in England, and therefore the first Frenchman whose name gets used a lot, and therefore pronounced correctly. Left to ourselves we would probably call him Cantona, with the same middle stress as Cortina, but someone registered quite early on that the French stress words, if at all,
on the last syllable, and there-
fore his name sounds more like 'Contona' than anything else. It's quite a revolution in its own little way.
And thanks to our saturation with foreign football, people are now watching Italian football on Channel 4 and hearing 'Serie A' pronounced in the Italian fashion, with the first letter of the alphabet sounded as 'Ah'. The woman in 'Froggy' Hunter's class would have burst into even louder weeping if she had known that they pronounce the alphabet differently overseas, but 'Froggy' was quite right in saying that it is one of the first things you should learn in any foreign language. It may be too late for us ever to pronounce Tin Tin as Herge did, ie more like 'Tan Tan', but maybe one day it will be obvious to us that the name Herge is really just the way the French say 'RG', which were, in fact, Herge's real initials.
Of course, it is possible to be too clever, as I found out the first time I saw wheel clamps in France. I had never seen them abroad before, and asked some French person what the French expression for 'wheel clamp' was.
'Un sabot d'Anvers,' was the answer.
'Sabot', I knew, meant a clog or a boot. 'Anvers', I remembered from school, was the French name for Antwerp. Quite why a wheel clamp should be called an Antwerp clog was beyond me, but I felt proud of knowing something new and up- to-date in French and showed off my knowledge at regular intervals. Until I met a Frenchman who said that it wasn't called an Antwerp clog at all. 'It's called a Denver boot, 'un sabot Denver',' he said.
The fact that 'sabot d'Anvers' and 'sabot Denver' are pronounced the same was not much consolation for all the retrospective embarrassment I felt. I'm glad I've got it off my chest now.Reuse content