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02 April 2010

LANGUAGE LESSONS: Logical Consequences



NOTE: We're still on holiday. This is a re-write of an early post about the problems of trying to solve linguistic challenges using logic. Enjoy.

One of the interesting things about living in Belgium is that we are exposed to different languages every day. Everything we buy has two or three languages on it: French, Dutch, and often German as well.

Our daily language is French. When we leave our house we're in a world where very few people speak English. Consequently, our French is very good today. When we first came here we thought our French was pretty good but we quickly found out that what passes for 'good' in DC doesn't work so well here. There are accents. There are idiomatic expressions. There's all that vocabulary and advanced grammar that we didn't need in DC, like
"if you had done what you promised we wouldn't have this problem today". Come to think of it, that would have come in handy in DC too. In any case when we first moved to Belgium we had a lot of language learning to do.

Some lessons came from professional teachers. Most came from innocent bystanders. Some of those work in my local supermarket. Shortly after I arrived here, I approached the manager with a can of chickpeas in my hand. I wanted to know if they were organic, and I hadn't yet learned the word bio (which seems to be the western European word for organic). But I figured I could approach it logically and use the fancy English word with French pronunciation (it works surprisingly often!). So I screwed up my nerve and in my very best and most polite French asked the poor man if there were any preservatifs in the can.

He was stunned by my question. He got up on a veryvery high horse and wanted to know why I'd ask him that kind of question? What kind of place did I think that was? He also said a lot of other things that I didn't really understand, but thankfully the words 'get out' and 'never come back' didn't seem to be there. At first I thought it must be an organic supermarket and he was very proud of that fact. But even that wouldn't really explain his reaction...

I was perplexed until I went home and got out my trusty dictionary to discover that the word I wanted was conservateur. In French, a preservatif is a condom. Oh. Well. At least now I know that there are no condoms in the chickpeas here. That's a relief.

It's not only in French that we made mistakes. I should say MAKE mistakes, because we still do. On one of our early jaunts to explore our region we went to Aachen, which although it's in Germany, is only about 25 km from here. We had no German at that point beyond Ich bin kein warmduscher (I am not a sissy). While this is kind of fun to say, it doesn't get you very far. Not even to the tourist office, as it happens...

In the end we managed to find the tourist office and asked for all the tourist information in French so that we could practice, and we dutifully followed the tourist trail reading all about somebody they called by his German name: Karl der Grosse. We read that Karl der Grosse had founded the city in the late 700's. All the history of Aachen seemed to be bound up with Karl der Grosse. We didn't really know who he was, but decided that we could use logic to figure it out. Our logic went like this: in French, grosse means 'fat', so he must have been fat...that didn't really help much, but we continued to follow the tourist trail where we saw Fat Karl's house (hmmm....he was rich) and Fat Karl's cathedral (hmmm....he was holy) and Fat Karl's crown (hmmm....he was royal). We were beginning to think that maybe we should know who he was when we finally stumbled on a statue of Fat Karl.

You know what? HE WASN'T FAT AT ALL! However, he was veryvery tall. That's when we realized that French and logic were no help in Germany. Grosse doesn't mean 'fat' in German. It means 'tall' and 'big' and ....'great'. That's when I remembered having seen a statue somewhere with the name 'Carolus Magnus' on it. Oh, no. It wasn't Fat Karl at all. It was Charlemagne.

When we travel now we make sure that all of our papers are in order and that we have a good dictionary with us. 'Cause you never know.

I will admit, though, that I still think of Charlamagne as Fat Karl.

18 comments:

Phyllisia said...

Haha, your stories remind me of one of my favorite false cognates in Spanish. To be "embarazada" in Spanish is to be pregnant. This can cause confusion when a new speaker is trying to say they're embarrassed so they try to "spanglisize" the English term. Also in Chinese, if you use the wrong tone for MANY words you can really end up in trouble. For instance calling your mother a horse or a horse your mom.

Ju (The Little Teochew) said...

Oh Kate, this is truly Lost in Translation! ;)

Amanda said...

LOL! When I first moved to Germany I was in our very warm, very steamy dorm kitchen and I opined to everyone in the near vicinity in my imperfect German "You know, it's not the heat, it's the homosexual!" It was all apparently just a matter of one umlaut... I never lived that one down.

Jennifer said...

Oh my! I laughed out loud on this one! And you are so 1,000% true! I tend to rely on my damsel-ish distressed look and smile. And hope that my "American accent" is charming to the unfortunate soul I approach. Fortunately, it usually works in my favor! BTW - Paris was lovely, thank you for the sweet well wishes!

Kitchen Butterfly said...

Missing you. We're in Belgium this weekend........ha. Pink Promise back that we meet up ASA. Lots of love!

Stella said...

Oh Kate, you are too funny! In Spain, a lot of the students made that particular mistake with preservativo instead of conservador-quite embarrassing. Hope all is well!

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

You had me laughing out loud! Great story, Kate. I loved the tale of the chickpeas :)

~~louise~~ said...

Missing you, Kate. Hope you're having a BLAST!!!

Kate said...

I totally enjoyed today's post. How fortunate you are to be able to converse in multiple languages! I loved your chickpea story and of course Charlamagne. Cute...your logic makes sense to me!

Mardi @eatlivetravelwrite said...

Great post Kate! I had a rather unfortunate incident when I was 17 and living in Belgium and wanted to ask the host dad if I could give him a good night kiss (three cheeks, please!) using "un baiser". Except I forgot to use "donner un"in front... Ooops. Luckily he was a French prof and understood what I meant. I never made that mistake again...

Bit of Butter said...

You just made my day with Fat Carl. I'm totally going to start calling Charlemagne that! I'm a professor-in-training and all of my dead languages do me little good wandering around the streets of Paris, so I'm sure I have made *many* blunders of the same sort.

Linda said...

This is hilarious!
Happy Easter Kate!

Susan @ The Spice Garden said...

I loved this post! Learning the language in a new culture is such an adventure. I was stressed when we first moved to Weinheim - going shopping (for one must eat!) was a major project for me ... the confused looks on the faces of the various shopkeepers was a sure cue that I was butchering the German language... it's a good thing that most people are kind souls! They appreciated my feeble efforts and in the long run, I did learn enough German to survive!

Hungry Dog said...

Oh Kate, I love your stories. You need to write a book! Hope you are having a wonderful time on vacation, can't wait to hear your NEW stories when you return!

2 Stews said...

This so soooo funny! I make those crazy mistakes often. I'm lucky that most Parisians speak English and don't have much interest in hearing me practice my French on them!

Diane

The Domestic Adventurer said...

Great stories! You definitely should write a memoir.

The Gypsy Chef said...

Love this post. I laughed out loud causing my son to look at me rather queerly. I then read the post to him. I can honestly say, we are both relieved to know there are no condoms in the chickpeas in Belgium.
Keep these stories coming please!
Pam

Edmée De Xhavée said...

Too funny! We had an American guest visiting years ago, and she claiment proudly in the restaurant "Je suis pleine" which, in this part of the country, meant "I am drunk"...

I have to admit that I was myself surprised to see marmelade with preservative here in the States!