I was going to call this muse simply ‘Why is the French language so irritating?’ I thought I’d add the ‘if you are English’ bit as a sort of get out of goal free card. Maybe other nationalities don’t think the same? Maybe even other English people don’t. It’s funny this as I’ve lived in France for eight years and, although I hate to admit it, I find most individual people here extremely pleasant and the country itself has much to teach shabby old Britain. But still I find French irritating. Why is this?
Where do I start? Many English people find French a beautiful language, though usually, it has to be said, when they don’t understand it. I personally much prefer German – its sound, its poetry. Most French people will tell you that French is a very difficult language to learn. Actually it’s no different in terms of difficulty to any other language. I guess it’s just that the French are the world’s worst at speaking any language other than their own. The British used to hold this honour, but no longer, while the Americans can certainly give the French a run for their money.
I’ll pass over the rather comic institution called the Académie française, a type of bureaucratic thought-police that determines which words are allowed to be French. Luckily most French people are not so limited. Let me start with a few expressions which when my English ears hear them invariably make my hackles rise. Vous n’avez pas le droit is the first one. Literally it means ‘You don’t have the right’. It’s used all the time. Who the heck are these people telling me I don’t have the right to do something? I always want to answer in good Anglo-Saxon ‘Fuck off!’ In a similar vein there’s C’est interdit. This means ‘it’s prohibited’ – same reaction from me. As my father used to say, laws are there to be broken.
Why are such everyday expressions so irritating? For the French they mean no more and no less than ‘It’s not allowed’ in English. Of course the French legal system is based on a Napoleonic Code that tries to stipulate every situation that might arise and provide a law to cover it. French jurisprudence tries to avoid ambiguity and interpretation. There is a law with a long number for every conceivable situation. The law defines that you need a medical certificate if you go on a school trip or play any sport. The law tells you if you can swim in the sea or not. Sometimes I joke that that there is a law telling you when you can go to the toilet. It’s all very different to the base of English law, although I hate to say that this is changing too, and in the wrong direction. When I studied English jurisprudence – which is all about how you make laws – with the late and magisterial Professor Twining, we literally spent weeks on trying to define the entry rules or criteria for a club for bearded men. Should the criterion be the average length of facial hair? The density of hairs per square inch? The proportion of the face covered? Did a moustache count? You could never define these things precisely enough and certainly never to everyone’s satisfaction. So the drafting of English law was supposed to be about defining some basic things but allowing enough room for later interpretation and judgement by the courts.
If I hear that something worthwhile that needs to be done is ‘not allowed’, ‘prohibited’ or ‘against the law’, my reaction is to look for ways to get round it. Not so the French. It’s ‘interdit’; end of story!
Moving on, even simple everyday French words can annoy me, even seemingly innocuous words. The other day I was driving my normal route to Bayonne. It had been raining for days and days, the roads were flooded. There were signs warning of inondations, floods. Why did this annoy me? Having thought about it I realized it had to do with the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.
Most of you will know that the English language has a massive component of French; in fact Norman French brought in by William the Bastard and his henchmen. All these French words were slowly added to our Germanic Old English, which morphed first into Middle English and then the English we know today. But the hated French Normans were the conquerors, they became our rulers. The French despised the English and their language, in fact some of them still do. French became the language of the English nobility, the rulers. It’s why we so often have two or more words for the same thing in English. We have the Germanic cow for the animal in the field and we have the French ‘beef’ (boeuf) for the meat the thuggish nobles ate. It’s the same with swine and pork or sheep and mutton. In fact modern English is a completely mongrel language. Most of the basic words, the words for everyday living, are Germanic, as is our basic grammar, while all the highfalutin, even ‘educated’, words are either French or derived from Latin or Greek.
To me this is the explanation for my irritation with the French language. It’s all to do with the connotations a word has. For the French inondation just means a flood. English people know that a flood can be called an inundation, as well as an inundation being just some overflow of anything. But if an English person were to say: ‘Beware of the inundations today’, you’d probably think that he or she was being at the very least pretentious, if not something of a prat. It’s all to do with what linguists call ‘false friends’. We hear a word in for instance French, a word which we use in English too. We think we know what it means in the original French, but we are mistaken. Its whole register, all its connotations, might be different. An English person calling a flood an inundation tells me something about them. A French person saying inondation, simply means he’s referring to a flood.
Inondation is a rather mild example of all the French words and phrases that irritate me. I now know the reason for my irritation but it still doesn’t help, the language still irritates me. And I’ve not even got to the French themselves! That’s for another day.