For about a six month period I recorded books for the use of college students who were blind. While this was volunteer work, I was given a test to see how my voice recorded and to determine whether my diction was clear before I was accepted into the program. Apparently I passed. This was back in the days when what you said and how you said it actually mattered.
My grandmother who came to America at age nine and spoke no English always said that her new language was far more complicated than her native Czech. In Czech a letter was always pronounced the same way – always. Compare that to English where “f” and “ph” frequently have the same pronunciation or “c” can be hard or soft. just to give you two quick examples of how confusing it can be.
As goofy as English is, I think we must certainly take our hats off to the French who have elevated linguistic confusion to an art form. I remember beginning French and we started out learning the conjugation of the verbs “to be” and “to have.” Our teacher told us that these were “irregular” verbs. Although I understood the importance of these two verbs – my experience with French was that most of it was pretty irregular.
Then we encountered the “dipthongs” where we would combine two perfectly innocent letters and make them sound like something that had no relation to either of the letters when pronounced individually.
If that weren’t enough, the French had this way of genderizing nouns. Sometimes words that seemed obviously “masculine” were “feminine” and other words which seemed very “feminine” were “masculine.” Can you say gender conflict?
Years later I heard the joke, “How many Frenchmen does it take to successfully defend Paris from invasion?” The answer, “Nobody knows. It’s never happened.” I surmised that the Parisians were busy trying to communicate with each other when the city was overrun.
Nevertheless, this is not meant to be an attack on my wonderful French friends or their countrymen but merely an introduction to how my attempts to speak their language got me in trouble.
When dad and I were in Paris we found a little restaurant that only had a few tables where we ate dinner two nights. It was run by a family. The mother served as hostess, the two teenage children served as busboy and waitress and papa was the chef. It was a delightful place and these were very warm and welcoming people.
I remember that first night I wasn’t particularly hungry and ordered the “artichaut vinaigrette” hoping that the artichoke would be large enough that I could make a meal of it. Indeed it was, but it was so good that I ordered a second one. I was stuffed.
Mama came over and asked if we would care for anything else. In my best French I said, “Non, merci. Nous sommes plein.” (No, thanks. We’re full). She laughed and left the table – but she sent out papa from the kitchen to ask us the same thing. He also laughed and said that he hoped dad and I had enjoyed our dinner.
We returned to the restaurant two nights later and at the meal’s conclusion the same scene occurred, mother asking us if we wanted anything else. I made the same response. As before she laughed. Then papa came from the kitchen to ask if we enjoyed our meal and would care for anything else. He smiled broadly and also laughed and that night the kids got in the act as well. I couldn’t figure this out.
About a month after my return to New York I happened to run into my French teacher, Mme. Rossant. She knew that I was going to Europe and asked how I had enjoyed the trip. As I was describing the adventure, I brought up the episode in the little family restaurant in Paris.
She asked me exactly how I had responded to the question, “Would you like anything else?” I repeated my words, “Non merci, nous sommes plein.” She also laughed. She then explained that was an idiomatic expression which meant, “We are pregnant.” OOPS!
We’ve made great strides in simplifying language worldwide. We no longer have to worry about irregular verbs and dipthongs and genders of nouns since we now talk in abbreviations and acronyms. This should help all of us from mangling a foreign language as I did. But I have one further suggestion that might be helpful.
For years there have been those who felt that if all humanity spoke the same language it would break down the barriers that separate us. That proposed language is Esperanto. But in a highly-technological age I believe we are ready to go even further.
I think we should all learn to speak and communicate in binary code. And now I’m going to see if I can find a binary dictionary and check for the proper pronunciation for “OOPS!”