Le cul entre les deux chaises

An American Spaniard in France or: How I Learned to Make an Ass of Myself in Three Cultures


Eddie Izzard on language learning

“Speaking other languages is a way of reaching people and saying I respect you to want to speak your language.”


Monsieur Izzard

Eddie Izzard just schooled every person who lived in my area code growing up. The British comedian has long performed in French but is now adding German and Spanish to his routine, with Arabic and Russian in the future. Each language requires a different way of telling jokes, so Izzard is taking on a tremendous amount of work (linguistically, culturally and comically) which I hope to understand in at least one more language than I do now.

Of course, using him to show up all the idiots I grew up around is pretty pointless since they wouldn’t have listened to anything said by a) an Englishman, b) a person born in some Arab place (Aden), or c) a transvestite… so we’re back where we started with a whole bunch of ignorant rubes. Damn!

German’s on my own list of languages I’d like to speak, primarily ’cause it’s hilarious and secondly because I’d like to appreciate “The Funniest Joke in the World” on another level.


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Tu fais quoi, hein? dit le chien

shopping poodleI’m guessing this is how you’d say “whatchu lookin’ at?” in French. I had the distinct feeling that it was what this poodle, just hanging out inside a shopping cart, said to me.

The poodle, the stereotypical Parisian dog, is actually called une caniche en français. This actively makes me angry. Why did we change one perfectly good name for another? I’m especially irked because “poodle” is a great word and could have been applied to something else. Off the top of my head, maybe that’s what we could call dog poo in public places. Wouldn’t it have been great to have a word for that? It would certainly come in handy here in l’Hexagone.

Some dictionary justifies why we say “poodle” instead of caniche by claiming German influences:

[German Pudel, short for Pudelhund : Low German pudeln, to splash about (from pudel, puddle) + German Hund, dog.]

I don’t think that’s good enough. Let’s start a movement to take words back and re-appropriate them for good use. Who’s with me?


Word Mystery: bleach / lejía / eau de Javel

Word mysteries are where words in languages that I know don’t correspond to each other at all despite those languages often sharing lexical histories. These words are both mystifying (why are they different?) and annoying (why must you be different?!).

bleachMan, that flu really knocked me on my ass. I was basically useless for six days, a personal record, and went through a box and a half of Puffs. When I’m sick, I just sit and blow my nose all day and then throw the tissues on the floor because I’m sick, dammit! This means that once I’m better, I have a lot of picking up to do, but for good measure, I also like to sanitize the hell out of my living space. If I could, I’d boil everything (myself included) to make sure that every germ was killed and not coming back, but as that’s an impossibility, I turn to the two next best disinfectants: lemon cleaning products and bleach… bringing us to today’s Word Mystery. Continue reading


Word Mystery: eight / huit / ocho

Word mysteries are where words in languages that I know don’t correspond to each other at all despite those languages often sharing lexical histories. These words are both mystifying (why are they different?) and annoying (why must you be different?!).

Count von Count knows what's up.

Count von Count knows what’s up.

The longer I’m away from 24h 360° exposure to English, the harder it becomes to do simple things. Like spell the number 8 correctly. Because it’s a crazy looking word and when you throw in its ordinal variation “eighth” it becomes almost impossible. How can that combination of letters be correct? There are four consecutive consonants that don’t make any sense together and yet, that’s the way it’s done. I decided to get on the case and see what could be learned. So, here’s the story on eight, including the hilarious definitions. Continue reading


A Grimm discovery

Most nights, after I turn out my reading light, I snuggle under my covers and stick my pillow speaker under my right ear. Then I set my iPod timer to 15 minutes and queue up a lecture from The Teaching Company so I can keep learning until I fall asleep.

I recently started Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind, a series about fantasy in literature. The first track is about the brothers Grimm and how, before they set out to catalog Germany’s oral storytelling tradition, they were philologists (students of language development), which was completely new information to me.

They also came up with the first law of phonological change which makes them language gods. What they found is fascinating and gives a fancy explanation to something I’d been puzzling over my whole life.

[To understand this next bit, you only need to know that a “voiceless stop” is the type of sound you make when pronouncing /k/, /p/ and /t/.]

What the Grimm brothers discovered is that voiceless stops in Latin remain voiceless stops in Romance languages but become voiceless fricatives — that is, sounds produced by friction — in Germanic languages. So, the Latin pater becomes the French père, the Spanish padre, but the English father and the German Vater.

BWAMP! Do you see how this is totally insane?! Every Latin word beginning with one of those three sounds is automatically not said in the same way in English (or German). Sadly, the brothers weren’t able to figure out why this is the case, but it is a rule that established itself at some point.

If you’re a non-native English speaker who is also a Romance language native speaker (I’m looking at you Cécile!), you can blame the Germans for some of the trickier English words/sounds.

Are you fascinated too or am do I just way too excited about stuff these days?