Posted @ 15:58:23 on 24 June 2009 back to top
It's only just over a month now until our family holiday in France, and already I'm starting to tense up about the inevitable problems with the language.
It's not that I can't speak French; I read it at Cambridge, after all. The problems stem from frustration that I've allowed my French to fall into such a state of rusty disrepair. I find it almost impossible to understand what's being said on the TV and radio - though I generally find that my ears begin to become attuned just as it's time to return home. Even if I manage to follow the beginning of a news report, a word or phrase will inevitably come up which I realise I used to know but can't now recall. By the time I've finally remembered it or (more likely) looked it up, the programme has moved on to another item.
It's hard to see at present when I might ever have the time or opportunity to regain any sort of fluency. Though even if I had the time, I fear that my brain has now lost the adhesive qualities it once had. It's a sign of age which I find much more alarming than any physical deterioration; words simply don't stick as they used to.
It's not just French. I've had a 'Learn Spanish' course for some time - the fact that it comes with cassette tapes should give you an idea of just how long - but I just can't retain any vocabulary or grammar beyond the end of any session. And there are a number of English words whose meanings I've looked up countless times, only to forget them almost immediately. Venal and venial, for example. And all sorts of grammatical terms such as synecdoche and metonymy.
On a more positive note, I can at least be reasonably confident that in France I won't make any howlers as bad as those described in this article on the BBC website.
There are some good (though possibly apocryphal) anecdotes in there. I particularly like the story about the man wandering around looking for the rail station, asking: 'Où est la guerre?'
My favourite such story isn't included. It concerns an Englishman lighting a cigarette in a French train carriage back in the days when this was allowed. Thinking it only polite to offer one to the one other occupant of the compartment, he leans forward and says: 'Pardon, monsieur. Êtes-vous un fumier?'
'Un fumier', in case you didn't know, means 'a dungheap'.
Posted @ 11:07:28 on 18 June 2009 back to top
This week's top three slips of the tongue from the children:
3) Emily (5): 'My hair keeps sticking up, it's all ecstatic'.
2) Me (48): 'What sort of ice cream would you like, Harry?'
Harry: 'Umm... manila'.
1) Emily again: 'Dad, what's the Fucky Chicken?'
Me (after spitting tea all over the floor): 'It's Funky Chicken, Emily. F-u-n-k-y. Don't say that other word, it's very rude.'
Emily: 'Oh. (pause) What's 'fucky', then?'
Posted @ 11:36:36 on 05 June 2009 back to top
My wife's sister and her family stayed with us last night. They're on their way to France for a brief camping holiday, and broke up their long journey by stopping here.
I've never fancied camping myself - and by coincidence, I came across a beautiful description of the unpleasant aspects of it in the Guardian today. The words were spoken by the late Matthew Crosby, a boy with Down's syndrome who is the subject of a new memoir by his mother Anne:
"Nasty peeing by tree, eated smoke, plates muddy, sitted on grass, no television, both socks wetted all time."
Posted @ 23:50:25 on 23 May 2009 back to top
It was the Eurovision Song Contest last night (or last week, if you include the semi-finals they have now). For the first time in ages, the UK finished in the top five - not, I think, because the song was an improvement on previous years (it wasn't), but because the voting system was changed to reduce political and regional voting.
In previous years, it's been clear that we have few friends in the rest of Europe prepared to direct any points in our direction. Yet, somewhat paradoxically, most of the other countries' entries sing in English. Why do they do this? Because English is seen as the international language of pop? Or because the acts see the contest as their big chance of breaking through in the English-speaking countries of the world, especially the US? I don't know; I'm just suggesting possibilities.
Last year, there was huge controversy in France over the fact that Sébastien Tellier's entry Divine was almost entirely in English. ('When one has the honour of being selected to represent France, one sings in French,' a government minister complained.) If Tellier's intention was to speak to the English market, the bizarre lyrics undermined it. A brief sample:
Oh oh oh
I… I'm alone in life to say
I love the Chivers anyway
'Cause Chivers look divine
They try to find the Milky Way
They love to drink it every day
No, I've no idea who or what the Chivers might be.
The use of English lyrics often sounds a little odd in other countries' entries. You can't help feeling it would have been a good idea to get a native speaker to give them the once over before they were finalised. Here's an extract from I Wanna, the Latvian winner from 2002:
Today you think you are the winner
Today you think you are the king
You make me sweat in my emotions
I've been sweaty in lots of places in my time, but never in my emotions.
Back to this year's contest, though, because there was one entry where you could see exactly why the contestants had elected to sing in English. The Georgian song was called We Don't Wanna Put In - a thinly veiled attack on Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The chorus goes:
We don't wanna put in the negative move
It's killing the groove
I'm trying to shoot in some disco tonight
Boogie with you
The words 'I'm trying to shoot in' sound very much like 'I'm trying to shoot him' - and the female singers accompany them by miming a gunshot to the head in the song's video.
However, Eurovision organisers ruled that the song infringed the contest's rules against making political statements - and rather than amend the lyrics, Georgia decided to withdraw.
It was probably a wise move; singing about wanting to shoot Putin when the contest was held in Moscow would not have been advisable.
Posted @ 10:31:45 on 17 May 2009 back to top
Oh, I do like a good bit of gobbledegook now and then - not least because it serves as reassurance that there'll always be a need for copywriters who can write clearly.
Last week, the Isle of Wight council published a document on its adult learning programme, intended to help people improve their powers of communication. Unfortunately, the document serves only to prove that those who produced it are in dire need of such help themselves.
For example, the council's Train to Gain programme is said to have been "well received within the Isle of Wight council with recent pilot with leisure staff leading to the future expectation of this would be to have this project open to all departments of the council and have people directly referred through self-referral and the PDR cycle".
There's also the news that the quality improvement plan has been revised "to focus and cross referenced to the new Framework For Excellence so we are working towards meeting future expectation enabling a more workable and live document which has met with the approval of the LLSC".
'PDR' and 'LLSC' are just two of the baffling acronyms used in the document - others include CAF, CFL, CPD, FLLN, FLIF, IAG, JISC, NCFE, NIACE, NLDC, NOCN, OCN, PCDL, QIP, SMT and WFL. (None of them is even as memorable as SPLINK.)
Apparently a rewrite is already under way.
Posted @ 22:53:36 on 11 May 2009 back to top
It's not quite a spoonerism, but our son Harry (aged 2) asked for a surprising spoonful this morning.
Me: Harry, what do you want for breakfast?
Harry: Umm... Christ Pispies, please.
Now there's a name for a cereal. Wonder if that's what the photographer Andres Serrano has in his bowl every day?
Posted @ 21:42:31 on 25 April 2009 back to top
Not sure whether this is an illustration of the imprecise nature of language or just another example of me being a bit thick, but anyway...
My five-year-old daughter Emily asked me a question a couple of days ago.
Emily: Dad, where's Madagascar?
Me: It's a large island off the east coast of southern Africa.
Emily: (rolling eyes) No, I mean the DVD...
Posted @ 22:12:55 on 14 April 2009 back to top