Is That Even a Word in English?

Ah the joys of speaking a foreign language.

For those of you who don’t know, in addition to speaking English (duh), I also speak French. In fact, I majored in French back in college (but that’s a different story), spending my junior year in Paris. But I had been learning French long before I went to college; I actually started learning it all the way back in elementary school, when my mom spearheaded a foreign language program at my school. Although I haven’t had to use it in years, I like to think that at my peak ability I was fairly fluent. And yes, I am willing to concede the relative uselessness of a French degree in the American Southwest; I’m qualified to say “Papier ou plastique?” But that’s not the point.

What I find interesting are the more subtle effects that knowing more than one language can have on a person. For instance (and no small source of amusement, I’m sure): pronouncing anglicized French words with anything but a French accent is psychologically painful for me. The reflex is so deeply ingrained that I have to make a conscious effort to keep my “R’s” flat and chop off any diacritics like they’re Marie Antoinette. Even then, I cringe internally: I should know better, and yet I sound like a Totally Witless American Tourist (or TWAT, if you prefer). Of course I cringe when other people deliberately mispronounce things, but that’s a different kind of twitch.

I also more or less lack the ability to pronounce a foreign word, no matter what the source language, with a French accent. Again, I can control this reflex, but it’s hard. It’s like my brain has two tracks: English and French, and everything must go down one or the other. So if it ain’t English, it must be French, right? Eh, not really.

But what’s really funny is when I use a word that I can’t remember which language it came from. This is of course exacerbated by the fact that a lot of English words came from French back in the day (merci, Guillaume le Conquérant). So while there’s a chance that a word may be present in both languages, it’s meaning may be completely different. For instance: my girlfriend and I were having a conversation last night, and I was trying to describe someone’s personality as slightly abrasive, sometimes blunt. But I wanted a word that summed up all those qualities (we’re all about efficiency here at Kart Before the H0rs3 [except when we’re not {like now}]). The word I was coming up with was “brusque,” which I pronounced “broosk.” But as soon as I said it, and felt the tickle of the guttural French “R” at the back of my throat, I had to pause and think. It took me a moment, and then I asked the question in this post’s title. Luckily the answer was a positive one, even if most Americans pronounce it as “brusk.”

And that isn’t the first time that’s happened to me. Part of me is amazed that it still happens so long after my days of regularly using my French. It’s a testament to how deeply ingrained the languages we learn as children can be.

I still won’t pass up an opportunity to poke fun at the French, though.

2 thoughts on “Is That Even a Word in English?

  1. L Challis Jensen

    I have often wondered how much the language of a culture determines the expression of the culture and vice versa. To be more specific: would the German culture be different if French were their national language? Would the Mexican culture be the same if they all spoke Swedish? How much does our language determine our culture and the expression of our individual personalities? Can the learning of more than one language expand the expression of our personalities? How much does the language we speak determine who we are? And, if there is an effect, what happens to the personality when we become multi lingual?

    1. JoshuaJoshua Post author

      I am fully convinced that language molds the way we think, and thus the culture; I’m pretty sure the way I think in French is ever-so-slightly different than when I’m thinking in English. After all, you can’t express an idea if you don’t have the words for it. For instance: did you know that French doesn’t have a word for “warm?” They have words for “hot” (chaud), “cold” (froid) and “tepid” (frais), but there is no word that directly translates the same sense of the English word “warm.” There are numerous other cases, where a single word in another language can only be translated into English using a long, sometimes awkward phrase.

      A classic example would be in George Orwell’s 1984. In the book, the language is artificially truncated to simplify thoughts and eliminate the possibility of sedition. Another good (if more obscure) example is by Samuel R. Delany. In this sci-fi novel, a race of aliens actually uses a constructed language as a weapon against humanity. An awesome read; I actually had to read it for a class in college, and it was one of the few books I enjoyed (and, to be honest, actually read).

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