Euh, quoi?

It’s the last week of HISPinParis23. My students have been blogging about their activities – check the posts out here – but I’ve been too busy to write anything. The students have ably commented on all our activities, so there’s no need for me to add my two cents. I did get to check out the Bagneux Cemetery by myself and that was a delight, but I don’t know that there’s enough to blog about there.

That said, I’ve had the following conversation a bunch this month (more than usual, which is already plenty). It’s a conversation I have with both Americans and French people, pretty much every time someone learns I’m French. It goes like this:

Person discovering I am French: You’re French! / Vous êtes française !
Me: Yes / Oui
Person: So you teach French? / Alors vous êtes prof de français ?
Me: No, historic preservation / Non, conservation du patrimoine
Person: … / …

Thing is, my French is fluent but my spelling & grammar are only acceptable, and my vocabulary honestly pretty lacking. I left France in the mid-90s, so all my slang is sadly dated, to boot. (Laaaaaame)

In other words, unlike my little sister, I wouldn’t make a good French teacher. That said, one thing I love is false cognates (“faux amis” in French) or words that sound similar but have different meanings. There’s nothing quite so bad as trying to say “embarrassed” in Spanish, but there are a few that may trip you up.

Me the last time I lived in France. Notice the height of late 80s fashion!

Well, actually

One that you will encounter all over the place is actually/actuellement. Use it in English, and you’re being kind of … let’s say unpleasant, since you’re correcting someone else: “well, actually it’s Frankenstein’s monster.”

In French, actuellement means right now. As in “actuellement sur vos écrans” (“currently in movie theaters”). In fact, current events is called “actualités”.

Washing dishes

My historically favorite false cognate is eventually/eventuellement. That’s because the meaning is so very close but not identical.

Me, to my husband: Will you do the dishes?
Husband (early in our marriage): Eventually
Me: Thanks!
Husband (later in our marriage): Eventuellement
Me: I wish you hadn’t learned French.

This is because while eventually means I will do this at some point, eventuellement means I may do this at some point. So those dishes may stay dirty forever.

Good grades

Recently, I discovered a new false cognate which made me really excited though in the moment led to some awkwardness. My daughter got really good grades, and they improved from her earlier grades, which were already good. (And yes, I am being a proud parent. Deal with it.) Anyway, I said to my husband that I was proud she ameliorated her grade. He did not react the way I had expected: he was dismayed and thought I belittled our daughter’s success. At which point I was informed that ameliorate in English has negative connotations – as in you improved but started out poorly – whereas in French améliorer has no such connotations. These are the kinds of little language pitfalls that I still fall into over thirty years after moving to the US. Likely I will never get over all of them.

I took this pic this morning. Notice the “améliorer” in the sticker. I love it when illustrations appear just when I need them!

Late train (Content warning: offensive language)

This story isn’t mine but I asked my sister and she said I could include it in this post. So, imagine the scene. London train station. My mother and sister are traveling together. My mother is from the US but has lived in France for sixty years, so she uses lots of French terms in English and vice-versa. My mother is talking VERY LOUDLY, as is her wont.

Mother (looks at the departure board): LOOK, JULIA, THE TRAIN IS RETARDED!
Sister: *horrified silence*
Mother: What?!? I can’t say anything! Anything I say is the wrong thing!!

So why did my mom say this? In French, “retardé” simply means late. It is sometimes used to describe mentally disabled people too, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t have derogatory connotations. It’s not used as an insult. So in other words, it’s a completely fine way to describe a late train. But in English, not so much.

How the conversation felt to my sister (reenactment). Jk, it’s actually (heh) the famed Montparnasse derailment.

All these false cognates started from the same meaning, so it’s interesting to see how usage shifts around over time. As I said at the top of the post, I’m not a language specialist, but that doesn’t stop me from being fascinated by language quirks.

A few words in English still completely elude me after all these years. I still can never think of the English word for “quai” (it’s train platform, but in the moment I can never remember that) and my brain refuses to remember the word “grapefruit” (it is always “pamplemousse”). I’m fluent in English, but my first language will always be French, so whatever I do, I’ll still encounter some instances where I slip up a bit. That’s just another opportunity to learn.