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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

La langue française est très compliquée

When I was in Paris last November on conference leave, I took a taxi to go to and from the airport, which was nice and convenient (not too expensive either). My French is embarrassing, since my speciality in Romance lies mainly in Iberian varieties (Spanish mainly). With my level of Spanish and Latin, I can read and understand French without too much trouble but speaking and listening are a bore, since French, as we all know, is not a phonetic language, unlike Spanish and Italian etc. It is hard enough to pronounce French and even harder to understand spoken French, especially if it is spoken with a strong accent at native speed. While I was on the taxi on my return journey home, I was chatting with the driver who spoke little English so we started talking in French. It went relatively smoothly with few accidents and I talked to him about the characters of my beloved French Revolution: Robespierre, Maras, the Jacobins, Girondins, Necker, Louis XVI, Antoinette, Napoleon etc and we both got quite agitated by simply talking about the achievements of these great historical figures. Towards the end of our conversation, I said, ‘La situation historique est vraiment complicat.’ (‘the historical situation is really (intended) complicated’). He corrected me by saying, ‘No, c’est compliquée.’ (‘no, it is complicated’). I had inferred from Spanish and related varieties (complicado) that the French cognate for ‘complicated’ would be *complicat, but it turned out that this was a ‘false friend’ and the French equivalent was actually compliquée. I was quite embarrassed and got pretty red-faced with shame, guilt and anger, since even though I had the legitimate excuse of not being a proper French speaker, I still couldn’t live with myself making such an obvious grammatical mistake in the very place (Paris) of the French Revolution. This was utterly unprofessional of me, and I must seek forgiveness from all my colleagues in Romance linguistics and my French-speaking friends. Alas, my French is not up-to-scratch and I should not even set foot in France until I sort it out (which should not be particularly compliquée, given my background in Latin and Romance). Wherever I am, however, even if I am not in France, the modern French ideals of humanism and enlightenment stick with me forever: liberté, égalité, fraternité!

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