Monday, November 2, 2009

Dairy Yen. Or, How I am Slaughtering French One Word at a Time.

So the lingua franca around these parts is French. It's one of the six official languages of the organization where I work. It's one of the four official languages of Switzerland. And, it's the primary language of the country in which I'm living. That's all well and good, but I don't speak French.

I speak English.

I speak German.

I do not speak French.

Okay, that's a tiny bit of a lie. I speak about 15 words of French. The rest of my French--about five more words--I speak very badly. I'm intentional in that. It's the only way to be forgiven my transgression of not actually speaking the language of Voltaire and De Tocqueville and all those other brainy, democratic French folk.*

In fact, because my minimalist French is intentionally bad, it's a source of great humor to my French-born colleagues and friends.

For example, the other day, the production editor of a weekly report emailed me some bit of information about an available publication slot for an upcoming article. She thanked me for my help liaising with contributing authors. In reply to her, and knowing full well that she's 100% French,** I wrote:

Dairy Yen


A couple of hours later, I got a phone call from the production editor. As I picked up the phone and said, "This is Jay," my salutation was met with fits of laughter. Finally catching her breath, the production editor said to me, "Eye finolly feegured eet out!"***

"What's that?" I asked.

"Dairy yen," she said. "I kept reading zat over and over and I didn't geet eet. Zen I said eet out-loud--dairy yen--and I goot eet! So foony!"

We enjoyed a good laugh together and then we rang off. The rest of the week, every time the production editor saw me, she'd giggle and say, "Dairy yen."

I can't make heads or tails of French as it's spelled. Phonetically, though, I have a perfect grasp of it. Hence, de rien--French for "You're welcome"--comes out dairy yen.****

Makes sense to me.

Ah-ree-vor, mez-a-meeees!*****

* It should be noted that I'm actually not one of those Americans who slaughters languages with bad pronunciation and hopeless accents. Because I'm partially deaf, I have a propensity for mimicry. Ergo, I can do a decent British, Irish, and Scottish accent and my German aussprache is strong. The same is true with what little French I know. I can pronounce it correctly and I sound like I know how to speak French. But that's the rub: I can't.

** Although, that's questionable. Said production editor is from Alsace-Lorraine. That poor little slice of Europe has changed hands so many times and gone back and forth between the French and Germans so often, I know people who change their underwear less frequently than the Alsace-Lorraine has changed borders.

*** For future reference, I won't write out French dialogue in bad French accents. That's an insult to my French friends. Besides, their English is starting to sound normal to me and English/American English is sounding odd.

**** I make sure to say it with the worst possible American accent I can muster. That way, it's clear that I'm a) mocking my own people and b) mocking my own lack of French-speaking ability.

***** Update: Corrected to reflect JaneAnne's comment.


janeannechovy said...

de rien (you knew I would be posting on this one, right?)

And au revoir, mes amis.

J.M. Tewkesbury said...

Yeah, cuz you can't be Zen and just let it go. ;-) Besides, I have to have something that makes me endearing!

Gilahi said...

"It's like those French people have a different word for everything!" --Steve Martin

Wv: nousene - That's just gotta be a French word, right?

J.M. Tewkesbury said...

Gilahi: Geez, I wish Steve Martin had been right about that! Instead, they have the same word for different things. Alledgedly, there are five spellings of parle and they mean five different things, but they're all pronounced "par-lay." And yes, I think nousene is a French word. It means "this language is silly and ridiculous!"

Maya said...

You gotta love Steve Martin. And, of course, Ms. J.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for explaining the joke, janeannechovy. I know maybe a half dozen words in French, and de rien wouldn't be included in that.

feel spas :)

Cele said...

I use to roll Francios Mitterand just because I loved the accent. That and frommage (thank you Steve Martin) is about the extent of my French.

Oh, wait, wrong. There was a little song we would sing at camp, I thought I was so cool singing it, I knew French. That falls under the "Pride goes before the fall" tag. Why? I found out later is is just singing the name of French cathedrals. silly me.

Word verification: Mentudi (this is Italian - you roll your eyes towards heaven, slap your palm along the side of your face, and mutter, "Mentudi!")