Excuse moi while I speak a little Franglais

JOE BENNETT
Last updated 09:09 27/11/2013

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OPINION: Can anyone tell me the age at which one finally grows up? I'm asking because I accepted an invitation to pontificate on radio.

The subject I chose to pontificate about was the pronunciation of French words in English.

I realise it may not be the most important subject under the sun but it interests me. English has supplied me with a living throughout my adult life and I speak a bit of French.

English is a mongrel tongue, happy to seize bits of linguistic genetic material from wherever it can find them.

As a result there are hundreds of French words and phrases in regular use in English.

And on the radio I said that we should stop pronouncing them as if they were still French.

We don't pronounce Paris Paree, so we shouldn't pronounce trait, say, as if it was something for carrying coffee cups.

It's become an English word so we should stick an English t on the end and rhyme it with gate.

It's a similar story with homage.

Film buffs have got into the habit of pronouncing the word in a more or less French fashion with a silent h, and such a degree of smug pretension in the final syllable that you can actually smell the dandruff on their polo neck sweaters. And they're wrong to do so. Homage has been around for long enough in English to have become English and so we should pronounce it to rhyme with rummage.

The desire to make French words sound French also gets people into trouble. Take coup de grace.

The word grace is pronounced more or less as grass which has led to centuries of weak jokes about lawnmowers.

But some people, and especially rugby commentators, perhaps by association with Mardi gras and pate de foie gras, pronounce it coup de gras. A coup de gras would be a smack with a lump of fat.

Better by far to pronounce it more or less in English, and more or less as spelt.

And then there's lingerie. In French lingerie means merely underwear.

In English it has somehow come to mean sensuous or sexy underwear, perhaps because the English have always chosen to see the French as sexually avid and slightly deviant.

Hence French kissing and French letters. Syphilis, delightfully, used to be known as the French gout.

But the pronunciation of lingerie has diverged so far from the original that no native French speaker would recognise it.

Phonetically it has become more or less lawn-zhe-ray.

All this and more I said on the radio and having got the wind into my pontificating sails I couldn't resist quoting George W Bush.

"The French," he once said, "don't even have a word for entrepreneur." (Actually there is some doubt that Bush did say this but it's far too good a line to discard in the interests of mere truth.)

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From there, naturally, I went on to scoff at the American pronunciation of entrepreneur which makes the last syllable sound like "ewer".

All good fun as I'm sure you'll agree and the show passed off cheerfully and I emerged from the studio feeling reasonably pleased with myself.

But on the way home in the car I found myself running through what I'd said.

And a little voice told me I'd contradicted myself. For by pronouncing "eur" like the first syllable of Europe, the Americans were anglicising the pronunciation in exactly the manner that I had prescribed.

The voice that spoke to me in the car belonged to l'esprit de l'escalier, the spirit who loiters on the staircase waiting for you to come out from wherever you are and tell you, when it's just too late, what you should have said.

And even though l'esprit de l'escalier has been part of the English language for decades no-one ever dreams of anglicising the pronunciation of it.

All of which blew my little theory even further out of the water.

Which made me wonder why I'd bothered to propound it.

And it soon became clear to me as I drove home down Moorhouse Ave that it hadn't been a theory in the first place.

It had merely been a half-baked notion that had appealed to me because it provided an opportunity to have a dig at the Americans, to publicise my command of French, to feel superior to those who didn't have such a command and to seem like a bloke who knew a thing or two.

In short, my only motive was to show off. And I'm 56.

- The Press

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