Friday, July 16, 2010

La plume de la pute... du frère de mon oncle: Linguistic hilarity around our house

Some days it seems like the more fluent Fred and I get at English and French over the years, the funnier our mistakes and quirks are.
Fred’s English comprehension is astonishing – our friend Josh gave him a gift of English slang flash cards one Christmas, and he ended up using it to teach Josh and me. He already knew most of them!

So it’s unusual for him not to find the right word. Last night, we discovered a small vocabulary gap, which I found hilarious.
Fred: “My mother’s sister…”
Me: “Your aunt…”
Fred: “Yeah, that.”

Later, in the same conversation:
Fred: “Michel’s brother’s son…”
Me: “His nephew.”
Fred: “Or that.”
Me: “Were you daydreaming during the family chapter in English class?”
Fred: “I just didn’t care about that shit.”
Me: “At that age, you just wanted to understand rock songs and play American video games.”
Fred: “Yeah!”

I guess Fred did the right thing to marry into a Southern family. In the South, because people know everyone else in small towns, it’s common to hear people talk about their “brother’s wife's cousin.” Maybe because of this, I just never really noticed the lack of “aunt, uncle, niece, nephew” until last night.

I make different kinds of hilarious mistakes because I’m more of a writer than a talker. I have a special gift for mispronouncing a word, using another similar-sounding word, or randomly happening upon an unfortunate metaphor that implies an embarrassing sexual connotation, turning my earnest, thoughtful sentence into a 360-degree, red-faced conversation stopper.

(Funnily enough, this special gift has also turned up when I’m conversing with people from England or Ireland – and yes, I do know better than to mention South Carolina’s state dance, “the shag.” )

For example, I was recently at a friend's house, and several of us were in the kitchen drinking wine, doing a little vegetable chopping and skewering as we got ready to grill kebabs. Alex was making us some guacamole, and it was really starting to look amazing. He was chopping a few red onions, limes ready to squeeze, and I said, "Il va être excellent, ton guacamole." (Your guacamole is going to be excellent. )
Alex replied, "C'est quand même toi qui fait les meilleures trempettes, je me rappelle toujours des petits plats que tu apportais aux partys à Katimavik."(You make the best dips though, I still remember the food you used to bring to parties at Katimavik).
Please note that at this point, the conversation is so mild and food-oriented that it could be broadcast on a lifestyle channel.
Then, I said, "C'est vrai que je suis la reine de la petite trempette."
All the guys in the room (Fred, Alex and Pascal, whom I had JUST MET) burst into laughter. Rather than saying that I was the queen of making dips, I said that I was an easy lay. Literally – literally – I proclaimed myself the “Queen of Quickies.”

Fred’s very favourite of this type of mistake is the time I pronounced “massothérapeute” as “massothérapute.”
That made the word for “massage therapist” sound like a person who gives a “massage with benefits,” since “pute” means “whore.”

In fact, I was telling him about the most innocent of chair massages from an earth motherly massage therapist named Nathalie, so I didn’t understand the confused look on his face, but when he corrected me and explained it, we both laughed until tears rolled down our faces.

As funny as these linguistic mishaps are, they serve an even greater purpose in our marriage than providing comic relief: They make us work hard at saying exactly what we mean.

We communicate very consciously and carefully at the times that we disagree, partly because we've seen what kind of unexpected twists and turns a simple sentence can take. This can certainly be true when couples speak the same language, too, and monolingual couples often think it must be much more difficult for Fred and me when we disagree or need to clear the air.
I think, though, that it may actually be easier for us because of the habits we've developed over the years of clarifying, reflecting (restating what the person has just said), asking questions and not taking any word or phrase at face value.

As a bonus (even though sometimes there's clearly no stopping me) I have my own trusted audience who has kept me from saying things like "massothérapute" more times than not!

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