Language Barrier

You say “potato,” I say “pomme de terre”



ILLUSTRATION BY BRAD FITZPATRICK

What’s the second most spoken language in New Hampshire? Quelle surprise, it’s French! Even if your family doesn’t hail from the (even more) Frigid North, you may have tasted poutine, worn a tuque or frozen your fesses off. 

My grandparents were born into French-speaking households but, sadly, my family bid adieu to their native tongue during the last generation. My dad had to learn French the same way I did — from Smurfs comics. (In French they’re called Schtroumpfs, which you must admit is way better.)

Not that my Parisian French helps me much when I cross the border. I recently took a trip to the countryside outside Montreal with one of my best friends, Béatrice, who’s from Paris. We hadn’t been there very long when I turned to her, embarrassed, and whispered, “I don’t understand a word they’re saying!” She laughed and shrugged. “Me neither!”

But even though many of us may feel out of place in the land of our ancestors, we can still be fiercely protective of the native words that have dribbled south. I started a war on the Internet when I complained about the way McDonald’s makes its New England employees pronounce the name of one of its ice cream beverages — “frap-ay.” Anyone from here knows “frappe” is pronounced “frap.” That’s just what they are. We drink them all the time, and New Hampshirites know ice cream. Ice cream, covered bridges and enormous legislatures. Go ahead, ask us.

But my comment spurred heated controversy amongst my geographically diverse Internet friends. Those of us in “frap” camp were told to look at the etymology, to examine the accent over the “e”, to look it up in a dictionary, for God’s sake!

"It’s good to protect our quirky foreign words. Imagine a wold without frappes or gnocchis or haggis."

Whichever side you come down on, it’s good to protect our quirky foreign words. Imagine a world without frappes or gnocchis or haggis. Would we just say “sheep organs cooked inside its own stomach”? Because I don’t want to live in that world.

Béatrice (who says le milkshake, since “frappé” is an adjective in French) and I help each other with weird or obscure words. After all, most stuffy dictionaries aren’t going to contain words you really need, like “booger” (“crotte de nez”). Sometimes we find a word that is exactly the same in both languages. There’s something about the exchange, “How do you say, ‘T-shirt’?” “T-shirt” that I find endlessly amusing.

But we don’t always know when we’ll stumble upon these magical crossover words. A few years ago, when Béatrice’s son was in maybe third grade, I was having lunch with him. He had his food in a closed Tupperware container, and I asked him what he had brought to eat.

He stared at the Tupperware and then at me. He furrowed his brow, clearly frustrated. Eventually, with a tone of defeat, he said, “I don’t know how to say it in English.”

“That’s OK,” I said. “What is it in French?”

He answered immediately. “Quiche!”

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