You Say 'Potato,' and I Say 'Pomme De Terre'

By Ostler, Rosemarie | The Christian Science Monitor, September 18, 2001 | Go to article overview

You Say 'Potato,' and I Say 'Pomme De Terre'


Ostler, Rosemarie, The Christian Science Monitor


Finally, I was back in Paris! My husband and I walked through the cobbled square to our hotel, gazing around delightedly. The place was full of tourists, but unmistakably Parisian. I looked forward to repolishing my rusty French. My last visit to France, 14 years ago, had been an exciting practice session. I burbled away, secure in the knowledge that no matter how bad my language skills, no true- blue son or daughter of French soil would abandon the language of Napoleon and De Gaulle, the lingua franca of art and diplomacy, for the crudities of the Anglo-Saxon tongue.

Deciding there was no time like the present, I walked into the hotel and up to the reception desk. In my best French, I informed the elegant young woman sitting there that we had a reservation.

"Name, please?" she asked, in English only slightly less native- sounding than mine.

Crestfallen, I pronounced our name with my ordinary American accent. I didn't even need to spell it.

"Enjoy your stay," she said as she handed us the key, tossing off the colloquialism with a casual air.

"A fluke," I remarked to my husband as we took the elevator up to our room.

We deposited our suitcases and ventured out to enjoy our first cafe. The waiter swept up to our table.

"The, s'il vous plait," I requested.

He leaned toward me. "Weed meelk?" he murmured.

Later, as we strolled out the door after our break, the words, " 'Ave a nahs deh," floated after us.

I was stunned. What had happened to the lingua franca? It had turned into English, that's what. Gaullism was out. Americanisms - jeans, hamburgers, computers, even language - were very much a la mode.

One evening, we eavesdropped as a Frenchman and a Swede conducted a business discussion at the next table - in English. (We discovered the Swede's nationality when he commented that pig's feet were not considered a delicacy in Sweden.)

In the museum line, the German-speaking couple ahead of us asked for their tickets in English. The ticket seller handed them over without a blink. …

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