Monthly Archives: December 2011

You tricky little… friend

If you’ve studied French before, you might be able to guess that this post is about faux amis or “false friends.” Similar terms are used in Spanish, and I assume possibly other languages as well. It refers to words that appear to have the same meaning but don’t – not to be confused with “false cognates” which are words that by pure coincidence are similar in two unrelated languages. The misuse of such words can lead to embarrassment, misunderstanding, anger or all around hilarity. I’m a fan of the latter, especially when the people involved don’t take themselves too seriously. It’s what makes learning and teaching languages fun.

If you’ve ever tried to tell your French teacher you prefer not to consume preservatives, you’ll know this. If he/she was cool, their would have been a lot of laughter. That was my experience. Préservatifs aren’t agents of food conservation in French, but rather, prophylactic condoms. Of course, then my classmates and I started seeking out other examples of similar mistranslations, which did quickly annoy our teacher.

If a woman tells someone in Spanish that she’s embarazada she’ll probably be congratulated. In Spanish, the word means “pregnant.” That reminds me of a similar mix-up here in Korea where I saw a student who looked a bit down. She was in her late teens. I walked up to her and asked, “Are you alright? You look a bit sad.”

“Yes,” she replied, “I’m expecting.”

Good reason to be sad for a teenager in a conservative country, I guess, but what was really going on was she was down because she was expecting results for an important exam. In Korean there are virtually no rules at all to require objects or indirect objects as in English. Context, or further questioning, is necessary to understand exactly what is being expected, and leaving out objects can’t alter the meaning of theword as it would in English. More on that in the future.

Back to falsos amigos, and speaking of friends, I knew a gal in my first year of university with the most unfortunate nickname. Her given name, Penelope, was really quite harmless – and yes, she was Greek. The misfortune comes from the shortened version of that name: Pene. Now, you don’t have to stretch your Latin loanwords too too much to snicker over that one a little bit. If you can’t guess, pene is Spanish for another “p” word denoting a part of the male physique. Nobody – myself included – had the decency to tell her she should choose another appellation, at least in Spanish.

Another friend of mine went by the last name Puta, Spanish for prostitute. In a similar vein, If a Dutchmen, or woman, calls you “hore” a lot, there’s really no reason to get upset. It can apparently mean quite a lot of things, but never implies anything about promiscuity and is actually quite common.

A lot, of course, of the most comical false friends have slightly to seriously off color connotations in our native language, the kind that you have to pretend not to notice sometimes. For me, I’ve always chosen to take a lighthearted approach to them and revel in the opportunity to be a bit immature, and why not? Life’s to short not to laugh at it a bit. Of course, it is quite embarrassing when something obscene slips out and you never intended it. Any stories to share?



The Language Lowdown: French

The first post of The Language Lowdown is up. Some of the history of French, what makes it fun to learn, and what it means to me.

The Language Lowdown

Starting today I’ll be posting a page on each of the languages I speak, want to speak, have friends who speak, or know people who want to speak. That’s going to make for a lot of languages. The format will be simple, on each page there will be a section about the language, it’s history and a few interesting facts about it, entitled The Skinny. Of course, that in itself wouldn’t be anything you can’t find on Wikipedia, so the substance will lie in the next two sections The Scoop and The Journal. At least that’s what I plan for now.

The Scoop will deal with the reasons to learn the language, both the logical and the emotional, the things that can hook you into it. I’ll cover everything from the beauty of the language itself, the cultural heritage it opens you up to, the job prospects and even the intellectual reasons.

The Journal will be more personal. For languages I speak, which I’ll be starting with, I’ll post experience I’ve had learning the language. For those I don’t, I’ll talk about stories I’ve heard, or if need be, I’ll seek them out.

Accent fusion… it’s all relative, really.

The topic of accents fascinates me, as does the fact that so many language learners don’t really seem to “get” them. That, and the fact that people of all walks of life are obsessed with the idea of a “pure” or “original” accent. “Where do people speak the ‘purest’ Spanish?” “Where in the world do English speakers have no traceable accent?” All of these questions just make me smirk.

Accents are relative, really. One man’s (or woman’s) accent is another man’s native dialect. Imagine for a second there were impenetrable barriers around the various regions of the United States. In that world, if you grow up in Texas, spend all your life in Texas, never leave Texas and only know other Texans – admittedly a total impossibility in this modern age – then you would never know that anyone else in the world spoke any differently than you. Of course, if by fluke one day you happened across some traveler who’d somehow found away through the linguistic barrier, and he was from New York, then you’d probably find it difficult to decipher what he was saying. And of course, he would be the one who “talked all funny.”

The problem is, people often think it’s the other person who has the accent, never bothering to imagine things from the other’s perspective, and the inevitable truth – we all have accents – is lost to them. This brings us to ideas of linguistic purity or correctness, which takes us down even more slippery slopes. Most people assume, for example, that British English is the closer variant to the original, or Italian is the romance language that most closely resembles the language spoken in Rome 1500-2000 years ago before Spanish, French, Portuguese, Romanian and Italian were born. Italians, for certain, would like to think so.

The reality is interestingly enough most likely quite the opposite. It’s well known to linguists who study the evolution of language that change generally happens more rapidly in central, cosmopolitan areas than in the periphery. New words, pronunciations and expressions arise and spread more rapidly through the urban centers of culture, than through isolated out-ports and distant villages.

There are plenty of examples. The modern Spanish pronunciation of “c” and “z” as a sound similar to the English “th” came about in Spain around the time of the colonization of the Americas, and the new pronunciation never did catch on on the other side of the Atlantic. Jeju Island, in Korea, I’m told, has several archaic sounds that don’t exist anywhere in the rest of the country, though I can’t say I’ve ever heard what they are. Newfoundlanders are  perhaps the only people in the English speaking world who still pluralize you as ye, a snapshot of a brief period of history when the practice was more common. Americans hold on to the long forgotten past participle forms of “gotten” and “forgotten” whereas the British have let go of them entirely.

Of course, it’s not as simple as all that. It never is. There are certainly examples to the contrary, where the cultural center has retained the more old-fashioned form and the periphery was at the vanguard of change. Numerous neologisms were created from the borrowing and mixing of languages after Chris, John and Jacques sailed the Oceans in search of a trade route.

When it boils down to it, it’s almost impossible to figure out who speaks the “purer” form of the language and where. Nobody, anywhere, could possibly speak any language the exact same way people spoke it several hundred years ago. Forget hundreds, actually, put on a movie from the 60s and you can hear how much the lingo has changed.

Travel to any part of the world where large communities of expats, be they Kiwi, Yankee, Ozzie or Canuck. What accent do any of them have? Even within a few years, it seems like the average English speaker begins to bend their tongue to blend in with the locals, even if there are no locals to blend in with. Vocabulary, syntax and grammar are all susceptible to the same magnetic gravity of communication needs. It’s a fusion many of us living abroad have come to find normal.

Accents, I’m convinced are relative. They’re also evolving, dynamic and fascinating. Each one tells a story, it has a history in the life of it’s owner, even before he or she was born. Rather than criticism and judgment, the many accents of this world and its speakers, deserve dignity and respect.


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