When a bee falls in love it can be a real tongue-twister

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The Independent Online
CANADA must be the best place in the world to learn French, for the simple reason that products are labelled in French and English, by law. Yes, a far- sighted Canadian government has made language lessons easy by insisting on bilingual labelling, and it was not until I came here that I learnt what the French for 'dental floss' was. Every morning, while shaving, I have been staring at a small white box marked ' soie dentaire' and have tumbled to the fact that this is dental floss. Dental 'silk'? Nice idea.

Then I go to breakfast and find myself staring at my nephew and niece's box of Honey Nut Cheerios. These unappetising-looking morsels are, I'm sad to say, Cheerios in both French and English, but at least the packet contains 'Riddles and Giggles]' and so I now know, by studying the subtitles, that 'Riddles and Giggles' in French are 'Devinettes et Farces'. In fact, I can bring you one of the riddles in English.

Q. What do you say to a nasty bee?

A. Buzz off]

All right, not very original, but now go across to the French and what do you find?

Q. Que disent les abeilles amoureuses?

A. Bise] Bise]

(Q. What do amorous bees say?

A. Bise] Bise])

That is plainly not a translation of the other one. It is nothing like the other one. The translators obviously said: 'Look, we don't have an expression in French like 'Buzz off', so the joke won't work. We'll have to think up another one which does work in French.'

So that's why we get this incomprehensible joke about Bise, Bise] I do remember, actually, from the depths of my memory, that the French don't shout 'Encore]' when they want an encore. They shout 'Bis]', which is the Latin for 'Twice]' But why 'Bise'? Well, if you read some of the other French riddles on the Cheerio box, you find one about the bees' favourite food being 'bizzcuits', and you put two and two together and suddenly wake up to the fact that, to the French, bees don't go 'buzz'. They go 'bizz'. It's pretty exciting, this language-learning business. I've only been in Canada 10 days, and already I've learnt the French for 'dental floss' and 'riddle' and 'buzz] buzz]'.

Of course, not everything is such plain sailing. I have also found a packet of crisps (' croutilles') which have a taste described in English as 'Hot Stuff]' and I turned the packet over impatiently to the French side to discover what Hot Stuff is in French. It's 'Saveur de Barbecue'. Now, by any standards, that's a fudge. Not so much a fudge as those bee riddles, but almost. In contexts where I normally exclaim 'Hot Stuff]' I can't see myself saying, 'Saveur de Barbecue]' across the Channel, and getting any extra marks.

(Incidentally, the back of the Cheerio packet is quite big, and they run out of riddles halfway down, so they put in some tongue- twisters, and I am proud to say that I now know the French for a tongue-twister. Anyone? That's right - 'un fou-bouche'. I never knew that.)

Now, if I am just here for two weeks, and have already soaked up this amazing amount of French, you can imagine how much the average Canadian soaks up in a lifetime, can't you?

Right? Wrong. They soak up none at all. When they are inspecting goods in the supermarket, the Canadians always turn to the side that has their language and totally ignore the French (or English) side. Every Canadian product has an unexplored area on it, like the dark side of the moon. If the average English- speaking Canadian was magicked to France, I wonder if he could understand anything that was written on anything.

This is not just idle speculation. I have done my own research. I have asked a simple section of middle-class, educated, English-speaking Canadians if they knew what the French word for 'steering-wheel' was, and all of them have

a) stared at me as if I were mad

b) smelt my breath for alcohol

c) said 'No'.

Well, they should know. In Canada, as in most countries, there is an anti-drink-driving campaign. The English slogan is 'If you drink, don't drive.' The French one is 'Si vous buvez, ne prenez pas le volant', or, if you drink, don't take the steering-wheel.

This slogan is printed in both languages on every receipt given out at every liquor store in Canada (I have visited as many liquor stores as possible over the festive period to check this out), yet, as far as I can make out, no English- speaking Canadian has ever read as far as the French version, and therefore has no idea that a steering-wheel is 'un volant'.

Tomorrow: more revelations about this split-personality country.

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