If Americans spoke French we'd understand them better

K. and I were just listening to A Good Day for Airplay, a podcast from Montreal. For some time, assuming the presenter was from somewhere on the US east coast, I decided his accent was probably that of a native-born Israeli. But realising a few months back that it was actually Québecois made sudden sense of his speech patterns.

I pointed this out to K, and in response she mentioned that a French family she knew would always dissolve into gales of laughter whenever Céline Dion started speaking. Knowing the French in both the general and the specific, I think that could have been because of Dion’s accent. On the other hand, it might instead have been because, despite actually being Céline Dion, she still hadn’t quite perfected an unconscionable snobbery about anything not approved by the Académie, and that was a terrible faux pas in the eyes of that family.

Bernard Shaw suggested that “England and America are two countries divided by a common language”—these days he should say Britain and America, unless he was writing in American rather than British—but I think that approaches the mutual ineffability from the wrong direction. Instead, we should think of the shared vocabulary and syntax as nothing more than an historical accident, like the fact that a Briton and a Frisian can communicate remarkably effectively about livestock, albeit in Geordie accents.

Beginning by accepting that we can only really guarantee our speech will have one thing in common with that of Americans—etymology—only actually helps you so far. It’s still the case that otherwise transatlantic media and cultural experiences can still provoke nauseating vertigo, as you suddenly find yourself peering into a yawning gulf of incomprehension. But the acceptance if nothing else serves as a sickbag for that nausea, or maybe gives you a reason to treat it all as one big rollercoaster ride. I still feel funny about things like trick-or-treating. But then I’m not keen on rollercoasters either.

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3 Responses to If Americans spoke French we'd understand them better

  1. In the words of GW Bush, the thing wrong with the French is they have no word for entrepreneur.

  2. Jason says:

    That’s very rude, are you saying that the languages are so different that we can’t understand each other? Are accents may be different, but if one speaks with a standard vocabulary that is universal, there should be no problem whatsoever, it’s not another language, it’s still English, with some differences, but not enough to make it another language. Are all the British as arrogant as you? “Trick or treat is an old saying, you can hardly call that “standard” English, it’s just part of the American culture. I’m an American, and I’ve never had any problems understanding someone from the UK. The differences between the French of Quebec and France are even larger than those of the U.S. and England. The English love to make generalizations when it comes to American English, but the truth is Americans do not all speak the same or have the same accents. Celine Dion used to have a rural Quebecois accent which is not even considered standard in Quebec, it’s changed a bit over the years, but you can hardly judge all French Canadians the same there are multiple accents in Quebec. Oh and Anglophones are terrible at French by the way hahaha…

  3. sbalb says:

    are you saying that the languages are so different that we can’t understand each other?

    Not really. I’m talking about how culture influences the interpretation of language, and how two different cultures can have the same language through historical accident and yet their practical use of those languages, when uprooted from a given cultural contexts, can cause sudden moments of cognitive dissonance in an observer from the other culture. But don’t let the subtleties of that stop you going off on a paragraph-free, comma-cluttered bender for nearly two hundred words… Oh, you didn’t.

    Are accents may be different, but if one speaks

    Between your fundamental misunderstanding of my original post, and your grammatical and syntactical errors, you have to be a spoof. I half-expect to look round from my computer and find a camera crew filming my reaction.

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