I first stepped into a French classroom on an August afternoon in 2006. Since then, French has come to be a regular part of my education. Nearly eight years have passed since that first summer day, and somewhere along the line, my understanding of the language moved beyond memorization to a sort of deconstruction. In-class daydreams and long walks inevitably turn to dissecting the wonderful amalgamation of sounds that is the French language, an organism that sometimes just won’t translate. A few of my ponderings on the subject follow.
Frais: The word for “chilly,” but also “fresh.” For me, it conjures that pristine moment of stepping out into a snowy morning- your breath lighting the way, feet crunching on the pavement, the world fresh and new with cold. The nerves sparking on your fingertips.
Se battre: “To fight,” but also the reflexive counterpart to “beat,” as in beating hearts. To fight in French is to beat like hearts against each other. I can’t say what exactly I find wonderful in this, but it is so.
Con: Basically the most versatile swear word in the known linguistic record.
Mûre: “Blackberry,” but also “that which is ripe.” “Strawberry” translates to “that which is fresh,” and “blueberries” to “that which is blue.” The French do this sort of adjective-to-noun process often, which reflects a world view that I share: what you are is what you do.
Beyoncé: Based on the tenets of French grammar, “Beyoncé” implies an infinitive form Beyoncer, which based on recent evidence might roughly translate to “to drop an album to the world’s astonishment.”
Tu me manques: “I miss you;” literally, “You are missing from me.” People belong to each other, and to lose someone close to you is to cut out a part of yourself. Beautiful.
Perhaps it is tragic that certain ideas can never be communicated the same way in two separate languages. But maybe it’s not. Maybe linguistic singularity of expression goes to show that the different things that humans say reflect the differing things they consider important across of the world. And maybe this is what is most lovely about learning a new language—we unlock culture along with speech, learning how people think as soon as we learn how they talk. With more knowledge comes more understanding, and really, isn’t that what we’re all working toward? People always talk about what is lost in translation, but maybe there is something to be found in it as well.
About the Author (Author Profile)Sheridan Aspinwall is a Georgian feminist with a wild affinity for puns and pasta. She hopes to work in HIV/AIDS awareness in francophone Africa (preferably Sénégal) and then to work as a French teacher. She loves cappuccinos and fuzzy slippers and won't ever shut up about Cloud Atlas (the book, not the *spits* movie) or Donnie Darko. She can be found wherever Disney sing-alongs are and wherever salad isn't.
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- Definitions | Culture Shock | April 2, 2014