Sunday, May 17, 2009

A French Nightmare

Much as I love the French language, I have to admit, once in a while you get the feeling – the chaps who designed it – what on earth were they thinking? What strange specimen of the plant kingdom were they smoking?

Take, for instance the words ‘Above’ and ‘Below’. In nearly every language that I know (and I know around six or seven), these words are clear and distinct. Absolutely no chance of getting them mixed up. Which makes sense, because you don’t want to go around getting mixed up with critical words like these.

I mean - imagine a surgery is in progress. An intern is wielding the scalpel. The senior surgeon is presiding.

Surgeon: OK kid …now cut that red slithery thingy above the brown spongy blob.

Intern: OK…there!

Surgeon: Oh No!!! You Idiot! I told you to cut ABOVE the brown blob! Not BELOW it!

Intern: Oops! Did you say ABOVE? I heard BELOW….

And there you are – minus a perfectly healthy kidney when it should have been the infected gall bladder, all because of a confusion over ‘above’ and ‘below’.

Luckily, such things can’t happen in the English speaking world, not unless the intern had been drinking, because the words for ‘above’ and ‘below’ are …well…’above’ and ‘below’. Two perfectly fine, clear, no-nonsense words that can’t be confused one for the other, except after a few stiff doses of whiskey and soda. And so it is in German, Hindi, Sanskrit, Bengali, Marathi, Swahili …

All except French.

The French words for above and below are au-dessus and au-dessous.

Can you see the difference? Look again. The second word one has an additional ‘o’

And they are pronounced Oh-Des-U and Oh-Des-O

In other words, one ends in a ‘U’ sound and the other in an ‘O’ sound.

That’s it.

Now imagine you’re undergoing the selfsame surgery in a French hospital.

Now the chances of the infected gall bladder being snipped instead of a perfectly healthy kidney rests entirely on the intern’s ability to distinguish the ‘O’ sound from the ‘U’ sound.

Now imagine the intern is a Bulgarian transfer student who’s learnt French from his Spanish girlfriend.

And now imagine the surgeon has a bad cold and a sore throat.

The mind boggles.

Which leads me smartly to this week’s ‘Teaching French’ strip.

I often have this recurring nightmare…I’m locked in an office, somewhere in France, and discover a bomb under the table. Don’t ask me how or why – it’s a nightmare, remember?

I have five seconds to defuse that bomb and save my silly little life – and in the process save humanity. Or at least, that portion of humanity that resides in the 15th Arrondissement, Paris.

On the phone, I have France’s foremost bomb disposal expert, Capitaine G. Pothier of the GIGN – the elite French counter-terrorism group, walking me through procedure.

Now in the grand tradition of Hollywood, there are two wires. If I cut the right one, the bomb is deactivated. If I cut the wrong one, well….you know how it goes.

But unlike Hollywood, I don’t have a red wire and a blue wire. No. The bomber doesn’t believe in color coding and DIN Standard electrical wiring practices.

Both red wires; and I’ve to cut the one ABOVE the ticking clock.

Or is it BELOW?

Read on….


Hum= Hmm

Bum = Boom

Trop tard = …guess...? (too late)