Je choisis, tu choisis, elle choisit …

August 25, 2009

If ever you glance at the comments attached to this blog you will notice that I have recently been corrected by a real live Frenchman on the word for an ice lolly.

Further, this Frenchman is someone whose opinion I respect and have often sought on linguistic matters. Clearly, I am wrong. 

Nevertheless, there are reasons why I am wrong.

My choice of vocabulary with Piaf is surrounded by tensions probably not felt by native speakers, and almost certainly not felt by native speakers in the homeland.

The first tension, as I have intimated previously, is that a lot of words I simply don’t know – and, in this category, the words I need to bring up a child are over-represented. If you had asked me, a little over 18 months ago, to use French to discuss narrative structures in the crime novel, it would have been my pleasure. If you had asked me to talk about the constituent parts of a baby’s bottle, I would have fallen at the first hurdle.

All of these gaps have been plugged, tant bien que mal, by my trusty Collins Robert dictionary. Alas, as is so often the case when the adjective “trusty” crops up, the adjective “old” belongs right alongside it. This, after all, is the dictionary that got me through ‘A’ level literally half a lifetime ago. To say that the world has moved on is an understatement.

This is where I found the word “esquimau” for an ice lolly – but my friend informs me that the word on the street in 1989 is no longer the word on the street in 2009. (It probably wasn’t in 1992, when I took the ‘A’ level, either, but fortunately ice lollies were deemed too frivolous for advanced level candidates in those days.) 

A related problem – rarer, but real – is when the native French speakers I know in Britain don’t know the word either, because the concept did not exist when they left France or just because they didn’t care about baby-related things at the time. No one has yet been able to be definitive, for example, about the French for the children’s toy based on an Aboriginal instrument and called a “rain maker”; or how, exactly, one should translate “rice cakes”. (Anyone? Anyone?) 

But the most treacherous issue – the one I nearly fell for – is that of loan words.

When The Plan began, I wasn’t blind. I realised that both the problems outlined above would affect me. Not to worry, I thought – if in doubt, it’s often perfectly acceptable to use the English with a French accent. Look at “le jogging”; look at “le shopping”; “le fair-play”, for goodness’s sake! You can’t go wrong.

I was encouraged in this belief by a lot of Canadian popular culture, especially some of the rock music (which often plays on the dual linguistic heritage of the country) and the daytime sitcom Rumeurs .

Then I came across writers who said that this was A Very Bad Idea. If bilingual children get used to this (they say) then, whenever they don’t know a word in their weaker language, they will invent their own “loan word” from their stronger one.

This threw me back at the mercy of the dictionary and led to some exceptionally poor choices. Piaf, like most babies, initially spent a lot of her time in what are often called sleep suits. The word I chose, with the help of the Collins Robert, to translate this? “Barboteuse” – the picture needs no further comment, I believe. Manu (trusty, but not quite old) suggested “pyjama” and I have now decided that, should we have a brother or sister for Piaf, he or she shall wear “une grenouillière“.

Later on, Piaf started wearing hooded tops from Gap. I decided that the best word for this would be “un capuchon”. Now, “un capuchon” does mean a hooded top – if you are Cadfael. Here’s one I googled earlier (it also means a rather more integral hood, but we shan’t dwell on that now.) Once again, Manu rode to the rescue, this time with “un sweat à capuche”.

My rule now is simple but, so far, effective. If I have any doubt about a word, I ask; in the mean time, I talk around it as best I can; and I only use an English loan word when that is the first and only realistic choice (yes to “le football”, no to “le shopping”.)

And I promise never to dress my children in barboteuses or capuchons.

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2 Responses to “Je choisis, tu choisis, elle choisit …”

  1. Emmanuel Bavoux said

    “Le shopping” me parait trés satisfaisant, moi. “Je vais faire du shopping” est une phrase souvent utilisée par LA française.
    Rice cakes = gâteaux de riz, facile. Rainmaker sera sûrement “bâton de pluie”. En tous cas j’ai déjà entendu l’expression “bâton de pluie” et je pense que ça devait faire référence à ce jouet…
    Grenouillère, oui, trés bien, bravo. Si tu dis grenouillère, alors tu fais partie des français qui disent “sorbet”…!! Les gens normaux disent “glace” et “pyjama”, c’est plus simple. Okay, techniquement, un pyjama c’est un pantalon et une veste, pas un seul élément…En bon français, c’est une grenouillère.
    Enfin…c’est plus subtil : tu vas au magasin acheter une grenouillère, mais tu dis : “viens, on va se mettre en pyjama” à ton enfant.
    Car AVANT TOUT, c’est un vêtement de nuit (je fais des efforts pour mettre les accents de temps en temps) et qui dit vêtement de nuit, dit pyjama.
    J’aimerais beaucoup, cependant, t’entendre un jour dire “grenouillère”.
    Au plaisir
    Manu

    • papaetpiaf said

      Tu as, bien sur, raison.

      Baton de pluie, gateau de riz – je suis d’accord. Le probleme etait que personne ne le savait et il fallait chercher- mais on a quand meme fini par trouver.

      Pour “le shopping”, clair que la plupart des Francais(es) s’en sert. La question n’est pas la. C’est que, si j’approuve maintenant un tel usage, apres elle me diras qu’elle est prete pour aller a “nursery”, voir ses “friends” et jouer dans “le sand pit”. Je crois que je serais moins stricte si on habitait la France et si le francais etait sa langue plus forte. Je n’ai rien contre, non plus, que, l’age venu, elle choisisse de dire “le shopping”. Mais, pour l’instant au moins, elle n’entendra pas ca de moi.

      Pour pyjama – en fait, j’avais fini par utiliser ce mot quand j’ai vu “grenouilliere” dans un livre. J’utilise maintenant les deux, juste pour ameliorer son vocabulaire passif.

      Quand tu viendras nous rendre visite, je te servirai des crumpets au marmite, apres quoi tu pourras parler d’autorite.

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