World Savvy: Bonjour tout le monde

As I travel around the United States I am amazed at the number of French named cities and towns. Nine state capitals are French words or are of French origin: Baton Rouge, Boise, Des Moines, Juneau, Montgomery, Montpelier, Pierre, Richmond and next door to me, Saint Paul, Minnesota. And the suffix –ville from the French word for city is affixed to innumerable towns throughout the United States.

I lived for 33 months in insular Dubuque, Iowa, and few cities in the United States can claim to be surrounded by as much French history as Dubuque. The city itself was named after a Frenchman and is surrounded by French history: Des Moines is to the east, Bellevue is to the south and Prairie du Chien, La Crosse and Wisconsin’s Boscobel are to the north. Yet if you were to ask the average person living in these cities what languages they spoke besides English, few if any would say French.

Around the world French has a different story. French is either the eleventh or thirteenth most spoken language in the world, depending on your sources, with roughly 80 million native speakers worldwide. French is still the second most commonly taught language in the world (after English) and thus is always useful somewhere. You can find an Alliance Française in most major cities — there is even one in Topeka, Kansas.

But French is rapidly fading from public consciousness and public schools and, at least in the United States, is being replaced by Spanish and increasingly Chinese. This even though many of us would still much rather go to Paris in the springtime than to Beijing or México City.

Nothing against the growing usage of Mandarin, but I like to say je t’aime (I love you) in French to my wife Linda instead of 我爱你 (Wo Ai Ni) in Mandarin. And admit it, most of you would probably rather have filet mignon than chop suey.

Even though we Americans love French culture, the French countryside, French wines and fashion, the love of the French language has fallen to the wayside. But its “fading” does create an interesting linguistic conundrum.

The practice goes back for centuries, but if you intersperse your American English with a few French words you tend to sound sophisticated: art nouveau, carte blanche, blasé, au jus, voilà. About 28% of the English we speak is of French origin, much of it dating back to the Norman conquest of England in 1066. Interestingly enough, however, if you as an American actually speak French and use it consistently, you may be considered stuck-up and potentially even unpatriotic. One individual I know from Nebraska goes out of his way to mock French by pronouncing merci beaucoup as “mercy buckets.” I have always felt that you need to study French in order to really understand English, but maybe that’s just me.

The American attitude about French became public most recently in regard to our Secretary of State John Kerry. Since there isn’t much of a French lobby in the United States, the French and their language are easy proxies for whatever foreign bogeyman a politician wishes to scare up. Roger Cohen of The New York Times reported that during the 2004 US presidential campaign, his detractors carped that Kerry “looks French” and has “a fondness for brie and Evian water.” Tom DeLay, the Republican House majority leader at the time, liked to begin speeches along the lines of “Good afternoon, or as John Kerry might say, bonjour.”

But where Kerry was once criticized by Republican detractors for having gone to an elite Swiss academy and having strong ties with France, he now is lauded (at least a little bit) for being able to speak French fluently — really fluently — as Secretary of State. On his first official trip as Secretary of State, Kerry took the stage with the French foreign minister. The New Yorker magazine’s Lauren Collins reported it this way: “In a scratchy baritone, Kerry said, in French, that he’d just finished a delicious lunch. He concluded by saying, ‘And now I’ll speak in English, because otherwise they won’t let me return home.’ The French press swooned.”

Americans don’t often take their “knowledge” of French too seriously, as there are many faux amis or false cognates to be wary of; words that look similar but have different meanings, which can get you in trouble. Here are a few: in French médecin means doctor, la médicine is the practice of medicine and medicine (the kind you take) in English translates to medicament. In French la toilette means not only the toilet, but anything related to toiletries, such as fixing your hair or freshening up — hence all those paintings of nude women getting ready for the day (Figure 1).

Thus, you need to be very careful when you go to Paris or Geneva that you don’t use certain French words you’ve heard in the United States, or you might commit a faux pas. Some of these misleading homophones and homonyms can be found in Figure 2. Another, slightly more complicated one: for the big event men buy a corsage for their sweetie, a little bouquet of flowers to be worn around the wrist or possibly pinned on the dress. But in France, corsage refers to a woman’s chest from shoulder to waist and by extension, the part of a woman’s garment that covers this area (Figure 3). But the biggest annoyance that the French will experience when they come to the United States is probably going to be, unsurprisingly, in restaurants. On American restaurant menus, entrée is used to describe the main course, when in France it means the appetizer. Quelle horreur, mais c’est la vie