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Falcon Reese | Tongues Tied

Episode II: Attack of the Francophones

Published: Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 01:02

I studied French for several years and, besides the language itself, there are three things that I learned in that time. (If we’re including the language, the total still comes to three. Maybe fewer.) They are:

1) The French actually have a national academy that regulates the usage of the language by determining grammar and vocabulary standards. L’Académie Française holds the official monopoly on the creation of new French words (more on this in a later column), and maintains a secret police force of highly trained linguistic special agents who engage in covert operations to enforce the usage of proper grammar. (Not really. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished it were legal to arrest people for using awful English grammar. I was hoping France might have a head start on that.)

2) If you were to anthropomorphize body parts, the French tongue would be a masochist. Just try saying anything five times fast in French, let alone pronouncing it correctly once. Your tongue needs to be a Chinese acrobat just to ask where the bathroom is. My tongue was always more of a heavily tranquilized bear, so kudos to those who’ve mastered rapid−fire French. Extra points to those who can pronounce th ‘r’ in French, which sounds something like a cross between gargling water and pressing frappé in a blender.

3) No matter how many times I watch a movie in French, the subtitles on the screen will never match what I think I’m hearing the actors say. Or rather, what I think I’m hearing the actors say when I can actually distinguish individual words, because like I said: Chinese acrobat.

4) I know I said three, but I thought I’d add that I’m currently writing this while taking a bus back to Boston from New York, and I’ve literally just realized that the people sitting next to me are, of course, French. Please don’t read this over my shoulder, guys. Or maybe you’d like to proofread?

The fact that I can distill the entirety of my French education down to three flimsy generalizations and a limited ability to ask for directions in Marseilles is both pathetic and an example of my word for the week: “gâchis.” This French word translates literally to “waste” or “mess,” and gives rise to the expressions “Quel gâchis!” (What a waste!) and “un beau gâchis” (a fine mess). Its connotation, however, is a tad more severe.

“Gâchis” refers to a wasted opportunity, one squandered by multiple levels of ineptitude thrown at it from all directions. Hence the reference to my French education. It was certainly a wasted opportunity. But was it squandered by ineptitude? I like to think that most of my wasted opportunities are squandered by laziness, not ineptitude. Wishful thinking, perhaps.

A better example of “gâchis” might be Congress’ recent inability to pass, well, anything really — important or not. If that trend continues, the November election will have been “un gâchis.” Or the Star Wars prequel trilogy. I could attack that one from so many angles that it’s almost not even a joke anymore. Needless to say, anyone who’s had to sit through that staid dialogue, George Lucas’ fanatical devotion to green screen and Hayden Christensen’s acting will agree that those movies were most definitely an opportunity squandered by staggering levels of incompetence.

Another example? That one time that Mr. and Mrs. Alois Hitler had sex. I mean, there are a thousand other things that they could’ve done that night. Read a book, go to bed early, watch paint dry. They really didn’t think that one through. Quel gâchis!

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Falcon Reese is a junior majoring in sociology. He can be reached at Falcon.Reese@tufts.edu.

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