Think of this post as an antidote to humourless Bruxellois superstateism. The English do not understand the French, or vice versa – but what we have in common is an inability to take the politico-bureaucratic class seriously. Together we just might create a better Europe….despite a pronounced inability to pronounce each other’s language.
“I have a stable in one of my trees,” I remarked to a baffled French neighbour the other day. He raised an eyebrow, nodded, and replied to the effect that this was perhaps taking eccentricity a little too far.
Even after four years of fulltime residency, I still make some terrible howlers in French. The word for stable is écuri, but the word for squirrel is écureuil. Three months ago, I told the lady in our local grocery store that “Variety is having the piss of your life”. The word for piss is piss, and the word for spice is épice. Get the é pronunciation wrong, get funny looks. Try it, it’s easy. Guaranteed to break the ice at parties.
Six years ago, I had the old chestnut-wood roof replaced. It looked charming, but leaked like a sieve. (American readers – strainer). The local roofer – great bloke, wonderful sense of humour – asked what I wanted as a replacement. “I was thinking of importing some Spanish oats,” I responded. He nodded.
“Good for the insulation I’d imagine,” he observed, “Not so good when it rains.”
“Really?” I asked, “Why’s that?”
“Eh b’alors,” he replied, “The upside is plenty of porridge. The downside is cold porridge all over the floors”.
The French word for slate is adoise. The word for oats is avoines. I tend to get them confused.
Winston Churchill famously remarked that the Brits and Americans are “two nations separated by a common language”. You’d never know it much of the time, but exactly the same is true of the British and the French. The French speak Normand with other bits added; and the Brits speak Normand English with different bits added. Between the 11th and 14th centuries, we pinched each others’ territory at regular intervals…up to and including lots of words. And we were both given a good seeing-to by the Romans.
There is great commonality in our histories. We both took a beating in North America, we both rejected the religious influence of Rome, both beheaded Kings, both developed a respect for the rule of law, and both opposed the rise and rise of German militarism. But above all, we both expect everyone else to speak our language. Monsieur Chauvin may have been French, but few nations are more chauvinistic about language than the Brits.
There is, however, one key difference between us in this last respect: whereas the English simply shout at people without bothering to learn French, the French do have a go at speaking English……but in the spirit of 1066 and the unpleasantness at Hastings, they massacre it.
I’m convinced this has got a lot to do with the almost total lack of accentuation in written English: whereas Gallic persons have grave, acute and circumflex accents in writing, with Brits (as in our Constitution) it isn’t written down. So I suspect this gives French students of the language the impression that it’s open season on pronunciation: anything goes, say it how you like, and they’ll understand. (When we don’t do that, I might add, it is seen by them as yet another example of la perfide Albion).
There follows the sort of exchange you might expect between older French and British citizens on first meeting.
British traditionalist Lancelot Vaughan has arrived by train from London at the Gare Nord for a meeting in Paris. Irritated by the sight of notices everywhere in a foreign language, he stands looking lost as he emerges from the platform. There he is approached by a taxi driver, Emile Faitoumal. Emile – who is convinced he can speak English – has been hired to meet Lancelot by his hosts.
Emile Faitoumal: God moaning, eez yo nem bah ennishanze Vogan?
Lancelot Vaughan: Not today thank you.
EF: Pardon, arrr yeur carrld Vogan?
LV: Certainly not, I’m a confirmed beef eater, preferably hot.
EF: Yeur arr a biff-etter?
LV: ARE YOU DEAF MAN? YES, AND WHATEVER YOU’RE SELLING THE ANSWER IS NO.
EF: Bert Yeu airr surpozed terr stan ootsard ze Toowairr erv Londone….
LV: the what?
EF: Zo toowairr….in yonifarm avec ze seellee ‘at an’ ze lance….
LV: MY NAME IS LANCELOT, ONLY MY CLOSEST FRIENDS ARE ALLOWED TO CALL ME LANCE, HOW DARE….
EF: Eh voila, yarr err Lancelot Vogan.
LV: MY NAME IS VAUGHAN, LANCELOT VAUGHAN…
EF: OK, eess closs airnerf, ah aim Emile ze dreevair…
LV: I don’t care if you’re Emile bloody Zola, GO AWAY.
EF: Nonononono, yer darn unnastan – I ‘av ze taxi. A taxi fair yarr.
LV: I’m not interested in the taxi fare, I already have a cab booked and paid for…
EF: What eez ze mettair wiz yarr, don you spake Angleesh? Ah arm Emile, ze taxi to meet yeur.
LV: WELL WHY DIDN’T YOU SAY SO IN THE FIRST PLACE YOU BLITHERING IDIOT?
Somewhat miffed, Emile takes Lancelot’s bag to his Peugeot 6007 taxi. The irrascible Englishman sits in the back, and continues to harangue the cabbie as they set off
LV: YOU’RE DRIVING ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD YOU MANIAC…
EF: Note at ole, ere in France we drav ern ze rat
LV: RATS? ARE YOU MAD? WHERE IN GOD’S NAME DID YOU LEARN TO SPEAK ENGLISH?
EF: In Bone Moose.
EF: Bone Moose.
LV: Never heard of it. Is it in Canada?
EF: Erv cairse nut. Eet eez ern ze sarss kerst….
LV: Saskatchewan? Well that IS in Canada you moron…
EF: Nerr, nerr, eet eez ern ze Wyome Oonee ‘ow you say, Yernatted Keengderm
LV: Look, Wyoming is in America and THERE IS NOWHERE IN ENGLAND CALLED BONE MOOSE you cloth-eared frog.
EF: Yes zair eez, ah used to wark zere. It is tergezzer weez Boss Comb
LV: Ah! You mean Bournemouth and Boscombe?
EF: Oui, Bone Moose and Boss Comb
LV: As a what?
EF: A wetter
LV: a what?
EF: A WETTER!
LV: What were you for God’s sake, a tap?
EF: Bai non, a wetter….ah bring yeur ferd to ze tebble
LV: Ah! a waiter.
EF: Yes, a wetter….and lettaire I wuz in Sooz Ampton
LV: Well I’m very happy for you, but I’ve never heard of her….
EF: Nerr, yer don unnairstend, it is a Pote ern ze sarth kerst
LV: A what?
EF: A Pote…fer ‘eavans sake, a beeg pless ferll erv wotar an berts
LV: Wotar and Berts?
EF: Of curse…tergberts and roweengberts an ze Palaces fer ze Jeen…
LV: Oh, boats.
EF: Yes. Zair are many berts in the Pote of Sooz Ampton…
LV: Ah, you mean boats in the Port of Southampon…
EF: Zat eez eet, jerz like in Potes Moose
EF: Ezzakkerly, Potes Moose. Ah wacked offern in a perb zair…
LV: Really? It’s a wonder you weren’t arrested….
EF: I wack bee’ind ze bar
LV: I really don’t want to know about your proclivities…
EF: Sairveeng ze manny peents of Gwinnss.
LV: A peent? What is a peent?
EF: A peent! Arf of ze leetair. Ze saillairs, Mon Dieu, zey drink sarr many peents erv….
EF: Ev course – ze matlos wiz zair bell bottums…
LV: Sailors and bottoms? Now look here, it may be like that in the French navy, but…
EF: Nonononono, zair troozair buttums are verr weed….
LV: Are you implying that English sailors wee in their trousers?
EF: Mon Dieu, ah geev erp. Tell me, why are yerr ‘ere in Fronce?
LV: Not that it’s any of your bloody business, but I’m here to promote post-Brexit business.
EF: Oheehoheehohoho, Mon Dieu ohlala! Zat is gwing terr be deeficull ferr yeur…zat will not be sue sten arrbla.
EF: Sue Stenarbbla.
We shall leave it there: Emile is trying to say such a thing is not sustainable, and Lancelot thinks Emile is talking about a German woman of whom he has never heard. Perpetual incomprehension is clearly guaranteed. Emile pronounces Lance’s name “Vogan”, which the French would think a silly name – Mr Yourgloves (“Vos gants”). And Lance thinks Emile is a degenerate with a penchant for public masturbation.
Perhaps this is why David Davis and Guy Verhofstadt aren’t getting very far when it comes to the Brexit negotiations, although I doubt it. Verhofstadt speaks several languages fluently, but he has been given his orders….as indeed has Davis. There is thus the same chance (to use the Normand idiom) of “reaching an understanding” as there is of Lance and Emile understanding what each other is on about.
Verhofstadt wasn’t chosen by accident: he is a nasty (and corrupt) piece of work, a Belgian on the make with many clouds in his CV involving non-declaration of his commercial interests in Greek affairs.
It is typical of Jean-Claude Juncker’s acidically ironic (not to say toxic) outlook on life that he chose Verhofstadt as the chief negotiator on the EU side. Equally, as a dyed-in-the-wool Remainer, the UK Prime Minister Theresa May chose Davis to lead the UK side because he lacks the savoir faire to close a door, let alone a deal. And in Davis’s defence, he has his hands tied by the fact that an equally rabid Remainer holds the UK purse-strings – none other than Philip Hammond, a finance minister who in private regards the entire Brexit project as a ghastly error.
For those of you who missed it, a senior Sir Humphrey mole chosen by Hammond to keep an eye on Davis has at long last been spotted by the Tory Party’s token oik. He left the Brexit crew abruptly at the weekend…..and has been reassigned to the Cabinet Office. Sigificantly, Davis has not been offered any replacement in a department that is already swamped with EU moans thrown at it in yet more attempts by Brussels-am-Berlin to make us look like DunkirkII, but this time without the boats.
I said from the outset that Brexit would be undermined from within, and so it is proving. Almost nobody with power in Whitehall wants it, starry eyed Yoof continue to see it as old farts removing such future as they have, and two-thirds of MPs are anything from lukewarm to vehemently opposed.
Here – in the eurozone itself, where (unlike most Remainers I know) I live and observe the EU’s cynical brutality almost every day – most ordinary people shrug indifferently. Further up the social scale, they hand me little barbs like, “Yew Eengleesh, yew warnt olwez yeurr cake and to eat eet”. They forget that in 1970, we already had a cake called the Commonwealth that stretched from Canada to Australia and New Zealand via India, Singapore and Hong Kong. And they laugh when told by your indignant correspondent that in the 47 years since signing up for Union by Stealth, we have made a net profit on the deal precisely once….in the year 2000. Yes, the Millenniel was indeed unique.
Heigh-ho. I remain fiercely francophile because I identify with the ordinary French citizen, not the bobos and minor élites one occasionally meets at pretentious dinner parties. I like most of the Dutch, Portuguese, Greek, Polish and Hungarian strugglers I meet too, because they have a special kind of dignity and rye humour to which idiots like Michel Barnier, Jeroam Dijesslbleom and Guy Verhofstadt can only aspire in vain.
As I say over and over again to friends here, “Moi, je suis européen, et je serai toujours européen. Mais je ne serai jamais Bruxellois”.
Autumn is upon us. As a happy snapper, there is much to enjoy. Even if some of it is cowshit.