Monday, December 17, 2012

Speaking in Tongues - No. 1

Being bilingual is interesting. And one of the most interesting sides of it, to me, is the sociological facette.
     Words evoke images. And those images change from one language to another. When you grow up with one language and then learn another, you get layers of images.  (If you grow up being bilingual, it may be different. I’ll have to ask my children. I had to learn French the hard way: at school.)
     But back to the layers of bilingualism.
     Every language expresses those images in its adages, its proverbs, its catch phrases that we all hear and incorporate painlessly growing up, but which foreigners have to learn in a more formal manner. All of them reveal something about a country’s national identity. For instance, a proverb about snow would have no meaning to someone in the Sahara. Sea references might not be evident in landlocked countries.
     Yet many translate fairly well. Some are even identical in two different languages - in my case English and then French. (I’ll have to look into Spanish, which I’m also reputed to speak.) Such as "the walls have ears" (les murs ont des oreilles). But not always. There are often tiny differences. Here are a few examples.

Let’s start with another proverb about overhearing things, this time referring to children. "Petits chaudrons, grandes oreilles" translates to "little cauldron, big ears". But the English equivalent is "little pitchers have big ears." Same idea, parallel structure. The only difference is that in French the subject isn’t pitchers but those big pots, often copper, that are used in cooking... and also in the Astérix comic books, where Panoramix the Druid uses one to mix his magic potion.
     And as long as we’re talking about cooking, how about "manger comme un ogre"? I suppose as France produced one of the world-famous authors of fairy tales (especially Sleeping Beauty), it’s only normal that a Big Eater would be an ogre instead of just a mere horse ("eat like a horse").
Ussé castle, with Sleeping Beauty's tower on the right
Author Charles Perrault stayed here in 1697
Keeping that ogre in food would cost an arm and a leg, except that in France that becomes the skin off your behind: "coûter la peau des fesses".
     And if the ogre washed it all down with some of the renowned French wine, he wouldn’t become "drunk as a skunk" but rather drunk as a pig: "saoûl comme un cochon". (Come to think of it, I’ve never smelled a skunk in France, so maybe that explains it. When the French hit the New World and got their first whiff, suddenly the pig just didn’t seem so bad.)
     While we’re on pigs, if you bought something sight unseen in France, you wouldn’t be buying one in a poke, but rather a cat in a "poche", which is a pocket but signifies something wrapped up and slipped in the pocket where it can’t be seen. (Wonder if that’s where that word "poke" came from?) In either case, don’t buy one: "il ne faut pas acheter chat en poche".
      But whatever you’re thinking about buying, plan wisely. Don’t go selling the bearskin before you kill the bear - vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué. The English version is far less dangerous: Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched.
     If you want to go to Heaven and leave all your worries behind, you have to be "sage comme une image", whereas in English the idea of being "wise", meaning "good", becomes the banal "pretty as a picture". Maybe the "image" isn’t a religious picture in English.
     But while you’re still on Earth, not all things will come to you automatically, not food, nor drink, nor pretty pictures, Sometimes you just have to hope and wait. And sometimes even that doesn’t help. Your wishes will come true "when pigs can fly" in America. The French have a similar equivalent - it won’t happen until cows sprout wings ("quand les vaches arount des ailes") - and another less parallel one: when chickens grow teeth ("quand les poules auront des dents"). I’ll leave you to figure out which of the three is most likely to happen.
     And while we’re talking about hopes, let’s finish - at least for today - in Paris. After all, it’s the capital. "Avec des "si" on mettrait Paris en bouteille." That translates as "With an "if [only]" you could put Paris inside a bottle." But what it means is "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride." The English proverb is a far cry from the French, but they mean the same thing, translate the same idea.
     So as you can see, the human mind works in similar ways on either side of the Atlantic. Or even the English Channel.

P.S. As it’s almost Christmas, let me add a few things.
- First of all, French children don’t hang stockings by the chimney, with or without care; they use sabots, wooden clogs that they fill with hay for Santa’s reindeer. And yes, that is a bit dated now. But so are stockings.
- There are the four Christmas ages of Man:
"Il y a quatre âges dans la vie de l'homme:  celui où il croit au Père Noël; celui où il ne croit plus au Père Noël; celui où il est le Père Noël; celui où il ressemble au Père Noël."
(The age when he believes in Santa, the age when he no longer believes in Santa, the age when he plays Santa and the age when he looks like Santa.)
- How about a quote from French author Pierre Jakez Hélias, who is a native of Brittany, the nose of France pointing out into the Atlantic, a land filled with legends dating back to times when the only warmth in a home came from the fireplace. A fresh fire was lit after Midnight mass and letting it go out was bad luck.
"Quand on laisse mourir le feu de Noël, il n'y a plus qu'un moyen de le rallumer. c'est d'aller chercher le feu des étoiles." 
(If you let the Christmas fire die,
the only way to light it again is to go seek the fire of the stars.)
- And one last Christmas reference, just for the fun of it. It always makes me laugh because it mocks all those two-line bits of folk wisdom you’ll find in the farmer’s almanach:
Froid en novembre, Noël en décembre.
If it’s cold in November, Christmas will come in December.
So Merry Christmas to you all. I hope Santa finds your clog.

1 comment:

  1. My dear Sandy, at first glance, the "cl" of clog looked like a "d" - so it looked like "I hope Santa finds your dog." That, of course would be wonderful, but for the time being, I will content myself with walking my friend's dogs.
    Joyeux Noël