Language Comparisons I

I would like to take a closer look at some expressions and words that I feel like are strikingly different in English and in French.

Life expectancy vs espérance de vie

So when we speak of a given population’s average life span, English uses the noun expectancy, and French uses the noun espérance, hope. That is to say, Anglophones expect to live to a certain age, while Francophones hope to live to a certain age. Expectations imply confidence, a given right. We demand to at least live that long. Hopes imply luck, a privilege. We would be ever so lucky to live that long. I’m wondering how high of an effect this linguistic difference has on actual perceptions of death. Are French speakers more likely to have a certain carpe diem approach to life, while English speakers would have a more pragmatic, future-oriented way of living, taking for granted their life expectancy? There is a huge difference between hoping for something to happen and expecting something to happen. I don’t wanna make unprovable assumptions, but this difference is fascinating and it must have at least a minor, unconscious effect on our way of thinking.

Domestic violence vs violence conjugale

I am interested in the idea of domesticity here. I find this concept quite odd to use in the context of relationship. This term is used so often in so many contexts. We domesticate pets. They belong to us, we tame them. We also use it in political contexts, where domestic means national, as opposed to international or beyond regional borders. It is the geopolitical entity under the rule of one major head of state (say, a queen, a president, a prime minister). Domestic violence is a civil war. It is among two people who are in a conflict, wanting to own and control the territory. They want to tame the other, to assert rule over the home. Conjugal on the other hand is more difficult to grasp. It is only an adjective implying 2 or more people, together (con-), and jugum meaning yoke. So, two people working together, pulling their weight equally. The concept of equality and justice is prevalent here, and makes the breaking of it through violence all the harsher. As well, we conjugate verbs, they become inflected by the Other, the person they are assigned to.What does this difference between English and French? I don’t know, but it’s huge, and problematic in both cases. But it also adds some richness to the conceptualization of these expressions, and there is poetic and healing value in exploring latent baggage of certain realities that we might be victims of.

Graphic vs graphique

Both the English and French forms of the adjective are used to refer to visuals, to images of sorts, but only the English use it to also mean something that is very vivid, with realistic details, often said of accidents or gory events. The fact that these two meanings are contained in one word is interesting. In English, a written description can be graphic. This means that English makes a certain equation of visuality with reality. Something with graphic qualities is something which is vivid and does not spare details. If it is shown visually, it is graphic in both senses. There might be a hidden connotation here: words hide while images reveal. Graphique, on the other hand, is purely a technical term that refers to visuals.



Foreign Languages and Trauma

Foreign Languages and Trauma

           I’m passionate about learning languages, not only to access the cultural baggage they contain and for the communicative aspect, not only to improve my travelling experiences and to open my mind to new ways of thinking — I could go on and on about the neurological benefits of learning languages — but also, I learn languages as a coping mechanism, as a healing tool.

          The benefits of self-expression, communication, and artistic creation in the process of healing from trauma are no longer to be proven and can hardly be understated, and writing comes to mind first. A great number of writers (all writers?) have the urgent, irrepressible need to communicate something in their soul, in their mind, to grab something in there and put it out there. It is very therapeutic. Like extracting a tumour. As such, language becomes a tool for healing. Not so much a medicine per se, as simply using language in any manner is not sufficient in itself. It is more like a scalpel, which needs to be used well and carefully to heal. Language can also backfire and entrap in trauma, as I argue is the case with Nelly Arcan, a writer whose language became her only way out, but ultimately made her go around in circles infinitely, creating a prison out of her literary space. However, I’ve written on this quite a lot already, so for now I would like to raise a tangential idea and push my metaphor further: if (a) language is a tool for healing (say, a scalpel), is learning additional languages giving oneself more tools for healing (say, anesthetics and stitches)?

       This may stem from my own introspective thinking, as it is one of my coping mechanisms, and I’ve sometimes found writing in a foreign language particularly therapeutic. French is indeed linked to all my emotions and basic thoughts (I feel in French), while my knowledge of English and German stems from thousands of hours of intellectual work. I don’t feel traurig or hoffnungslos or terrified or aloof. I’ve learned, memorized these words. I’ve thought them through, which means I know precisely the weight each word I use has, which is not always the case in French, where my use is more spontaneous and informed by a certain naïveté. I never actively and consciously learned French. My learning of French (in strictly communicative terms, I have indeed spent a lot of time to improve my mastery of it, but never had to learn it from scratch) did not implicate any choice, any agency.

           It can of course be very cathartic to express oneself naturally, without the additional constraints of the intellectual work that comes with using a foreign language, and I often do write in French, don’t get me wrong. But writing in English or in German allows a certain distanciation from the written words. It is not so much a mirror that reflects the state of your soul back at you, but more a product of reflection, not only of content but also of the structure, grammar, and words themselves. This mirror is often that which entraps you in your own trauma, as you keep seeing yourself in the traumatic words that you write. Trauma takes the bigger piece of your literary identity, which, for a writer, is gigantic. On the other hand, writing in a foreign language may help by getting it out there, but leaving it on its own. It is still the productive result of your work and creativity, but there is more distance that allows for a more objective or external look at it. The writing process is also altogether different, involving different parts of your brain, which may or may not be a better healing tool for you. Indeed, just like a scalpel is inappropriate if you have the flu, different tools work at different times for different people, and so I would argue that it never hurts to have more tools at your disposition.

Quebec French and Colonized Thinking


Quebec French and Colonized Thinking

            Though I have an immense amount of respect and admiration for Dany Laferrière and his work (though not for the Académie française, I couldn’t care less about this normative, haughty, obsolete, and cliquey institution), a little something bothers me in his discourse about the French language in Quebec. He is very much revered, and rightfully so, as he is a wonderful writer, and so we take his words for irrefutable truth. His statements are never challenged, because an untouchable aura emanates from his eloquence. However, the content of his words need to be discussed. The last two times he attended the political/cultural talk show Tout le monde en parle, the one with the largest audience in Quebec, he has of course reiterated his love for the Quebecois twist to French, but he also stated something along the lines of the problem is not so much in the English words we use and adapt to Quebec French, which makes Quebecois French beautiful, but rather the insidious infiltration of Shakespeare’s language into the structure and grammar. He also added that then, our language becomes a language of colonized people (the English having colonized Quebec/New France/Lower Canada/Canada East). All of this said in a very dramatic tone. That’s indeed a very interesting topic, and it becomes particularly difficult to challenge his statements not only because of his reputation and definite talent, but also because of his own Haitian origins, which he writes about in  the very texts that gave rise to his fame. But nonetheless, this idea is one which definitely requires nuancing.

            I do consider as well that the English colonized Quebec, but this statement needs to be contextualized and further reflected upon, it cannot simply be stated like this, with all the authority on the matter that he detains, without unpacking such a loaded and emotional concept. First, this implies that French is not a colonizer language. In fact, the reason why there is such a thing as Quebec French is because of French colonialism in the first place. French is as guilty of being the colonizer’s language as English. I do think Laferrière realizes this, but it is crucial to explain this double-colonization that happened in Quebec in order to really provide an understanding of the linguistic, let alone cultural and identity, reality of Quebecois. We are colonized colonizers, and it is not right to selectively pick one of the two in order to make a point.

          Second, why this need to make distinctions between “what is right” and “what is wrong” to use from English? Why is it okay if I say “j’vais checker le hood de ton char toute fucké qui est parké chez nous” but not okay for me to say “j’vais visiter ma mère mais j’vais arrêter par chez vous en passant” (instead of “rendre visite à” and “passer chez”). Why does, according to him, the former phrase showcase the beauty of Quebec French, while the latter is the proliferation of colonialism? In any case, both contain a number of language mistakes, but why would he rank them? All these mistakes are in fact due to the infiltration of English into our language. But giving more weight to structure rather than to vocabulary for instance is completely subjective. He argues that we reinstate our status of colonized people, and think like a colonized people, when we use structures from English, without really explaining his point of view. “Thinking,” to reuse his words, requires both structure and vocabulary, and vocabulary is even more important than structure in terms of communication and comprehension. Such a strong statement on his part needs to be better explained and nuanced. I understand this was a talk show and not an academic essay, but all the more reasons to be extra careful with such strong, unfounded statements. I’m open to his idea, but as it is, I’m very resistant to it, for it seems like yet other arbitrary boxes to scold the lower classes that apparently think like colonized people, while “educated” people are apparently free from this.