Every blunder in French is either blasphemous or sexually inappropriate.
During the monotonous 40-minute shuttle to Marseille, I always keep my eyes peeled for a stretch of graffiti that reads “Christ est mort pour nos peches” – “Jesus died for our peaches.” In the split second the writing is in sight, I steady my phone and snapchat a picture to every French friend. After all, only those who have suffered French orthography can relate to the ease of accidentally committing blasphemy.
The satanic French accent aigu is the stroke above the e in é – omitting two of those in péché (a sin) changes its pronunciation to pêche, which means a peach. And while it is unsure at best whether Jesus died for any peaches, this mix-up hints at the singularly precarious nature of French orthography, where minor accents are combined with identical base words to mean completely different things. In other words, you could either be insulting the oldest religion in the world or asking the local fruit-seller to direct you to the nearest church with practically the same word.
A particularly notorious example of this confusion is the word marché. The noun marchémeans market. A marché des fruits means a fruit market. The verb, marcher, which, by the way, is pronounced identically, means to walk. So you could perfectly well be marche(-ing) in a marché. Unfortunately, it gets more complicated. The present tense conjugation of marcher is marche. There is yet another noun, marche, which means a step in a stair-case. It is perfectly conceivable, henceforth, that you walked down a marche to marche in a marché. Worse yet, Marche* is a French name. Therefore, Marche walked down a marche to marche in a marché. What makes the maze of identical spelling and different meaning even more hopeless are the meagre differences in pronunciation! A complicated trip to the fruit market indeed.
Like many other languages, French nouns are either masculine or feminine. Like few others though, they can sometimes also be both but with different meanings. Une tour (feminine), for example, means a tower, like the Eiffel Tower, whereas un tour (masculine) means a trip. Un tour à la Tour Eiffel means a trip to the Eiffel Tower. Similarly, an identically-spelt noun can unexpectedly change meaning from singular to plural form. For instance, la course(singular) means a run, but les courses (plural) means the groceries. Faire la course avec des courses means to go for a run with your groceries. I have no idea why anyone anywhere would ever go for a run with their groceries but I suspect it is quite inconvenient.
French has Latin and Anglo-Saxon roots. This means that many English words are often borrowed from French. Thus, at some level, you can extrapolate meanings for unfamiliar French words based on their English cousins. Détermination, for example, means “determination” and enfant means “child.” On the other hand, contort your mouth when you say an English word and sometimes you are pleasantly surprised to hear the word exists in French too. “Recommendation,” for instance, is recommandation in French with a minor change in spelling but a major change in pronunciation.
These similarities tempt English speakers to literally translate English expressions to French while communicating. This works well for the first few phrases but very quickly becomes very nasty because some English expressions have shocking sexual connotations in French. Unfortunately, many of us learn them the hard way.
In the 80-degree Provence summer, one of the girls in my program exclaimed “je suis chaude!” (“I’m hot!”) and wiped her brow as soon as we stepped outside our center. To our surprise, a group of 40-year-old men across the sidewalk chuckled and glanced at us, clearly in response. We had no idea of what had just happened. Instead, we looked questioningly toward our program director who, we found, was turning red much faster for it to be caused by the heat.
Within moments, we were ushered back inside and herded into a classroom where the director scribbled the expression je suis chaude on the whiteboard.
“This,” she pointed, “does not mean ‘to be hot’ in French. In French, this means to be sexually stimulated for someone!”
The shock was palpable. Not only because of how unexpected the French connotation was, but also because one of us had accidentally expressed her desire for a group of random 40-year-olds across the street.
“In French,” the director continued, “to be hot is j’ai chaud. And even though this literally translates to ‘I have hot’ in English, which is gibberish in English, in French, this is what you will say when you are hot.”
It is a strange phenomenon how an increase in knowledge can make you even more uncertain about something. We quite evidently felt this – still shook, we re-embarked on our journey too afraid to express ourselves at all; especially in the proximity of random 40-year-old men.
Je suis chaude is not the only seemingly docile expression-translation that bears a dramatic sexual connotation. Je suis obsédé, translated even by Google Translate as “I am obsessed,” actually means to be sexually obsessed, and is often used in France to describe the exploits of infatuated 12-year old middle school girls. Similarly, je suis excité, intuitively “I am excited,” is actually a reference to sexual stimulation and not just any other excitement. We were pleased to learn that our host families did not take our introductory emails literally when we told them we were “excited” to meet them.
Such nuances also make introducing people complicated. At a soirée, an English speaker is likely to use to the expression je vous introduis Alex which mirrors “I introduce Alex to you” but actually means “I insert Alex into you,” creating not only an uncomfortable possibility but a rather painful and troubling one too. Asking for healthy food products becomes equally challenging: English speakers naturally assume the word “preservative” is pronounced similarly in French. In fact, it is, but preservatif has a completely different meaning – it actually means contraception. Many waiters are, thus, surprised to hear Americans asking for no condoms in their food; some even take it seriously!
The convoluted orthography and veiled sexual connotations make French stressful to learn. To begin with, it is hard to properly articulate yourself. Then, if you manage to do that, you might unintentionally be asking someone to go to bed with you. As unforgiving as it is, however, it gets better with conditioned practice – and people who laugh along with you. I have shared embarrassing and awkward, grounding and even mortifying moments with people who have always jocularly pointed out my blunders. From my host brothers to professors at the local university, from French squash trainers to friends – American, French, Algerian, Senegalese and even Italian –; all have bantered with me about my broken French, but always helped me improve it along the way. In France, mistakes have been my biggest mentor and the first step has always been being courageous enough to make them, whether they be blasphemous or sexually inappropriate.