Travel Tip #478: In Germany, Turnips are Sexy, And Other Language Lessons from the Road to Elsewhere
Stranger in a strange land? Your tongue can show you the way home.
I HAVE ALWAYS been good at accents.
I learned this as a seven-year old, when I flawlessly repeated the ad line “It’s not fried, it’s Shake n’ Baked, and I hepped!” with a deep-south accent. It made the grownups laugh, especially in southern Connecticut, where the primary accent is on making loads of money to pay for life in southern Connecticut.
It gave me confidence to make all sorts of funny noises, including French.
One reason I wound up in Paris, in fact, was that I loved the sibilant murmur of the la langue Française.
Peter Sellers, in the Pink Panther movies, wasn’t so much a clown as a man lost in the monotone wonk-wonk-wonk of spoken English. “Do you have a lee-sawnse for your minky,” is in fact a much more interesting way to say it. For me, in French class in college, it was a license to slip through a linguistic trapdoor into something fabulous.
Why do I love French? Let me compte the ways.
Because they call bad coffee “jus de chaussettes” — sock juice.
And because a naturally affectionate person has “un coeur d’artichaut” — the heart of an artichoke — because s/he has a leaf to share with everybody.
And because L’Academie Française has maintained a snooty governance of the language since 1635. It was the first culture to do so, more than a hundred years before the French Revolution, when most French people didn’t even speak French.
With a language panel in place, they standardized spelling and grammar, which made it easier for people to learn it. Not that it’s easy, of course. There are some 20,000 new French words invented every year, which means I’m approximately 840,000 words short on vocabulary since I last lived in France.
And for all the new nouns, I’d need to learn their gender, along with spelling and accent marks. Oh lá lá, as an exasperated French person might say.
But that is another thing I love about French: Every thing is either male or female.
The moon absolutely is a woman (la lune),
the sun male (le soleil).
La chaussette — female — does more for a foot than “sock” ever did. But le vagin is a masculine noun, derived from the (male) Latin word for sheath.
But la moustache is feminine. Take that, Sam Elliott.
La tristesse may be sad, but beautifully so as a female noun. If sadness were male, men would ruin it, applying to sporting events and failed investments.
And of course, France itself is female (la belle France). Les Etats Unis is masculine, which is the whole problem.
But there are plenty of French masculine nouns that I enjoy, as well. I eat them up, in fact. Butter is masculine (le beurre), as are breakfast (le petit déjeuner), lunch (le déjeuner), and dinner (le dîner).
Cheese, as a coagulation of male butter (le beurre, ick), is also masculine (le fromage), spurting forth in masculine form (le lait) from a sharing, caring female bovine (la vache).
Follow all that masculinity through pepper (le poivre), salt (le sel), apple (le pomme), chicken (le poulet), and fish (le poisson), and you’ll be well nourished.
Wine is masculine too (le vin), but after too much of that, you might want to chase it with water, which is feminine (l’eau), as are all of its forms, including ice (la glace), and steam (la vapeur).
But if you’re called to pay for this largely masculine feast (le banquet) at the male restaurant (le restaurant), the penis-packing waiter (le garçon) will present the check (l’addition), which is feminine. Think twice about rudely blurting out “garçon” at that guy in the white apron, because the literal translation is “boy,” which pisses off even 7-year old males.
This parade of food masculinity stops at the feminine meat (la viande), which may be a kind of #MeatToo transgression. Predictably, the French have made a hash of that hashtag.
When you trace this binary vision of genders through the French dictionary, it winds up back in Latin, the source of all romance languages. So maybe it wasn’t a group of masculinist French chefs who claimed all the most delicious words for themselves. (Le chef is of course masculine; there’s no feminine version of the word in French.) But rather, some French monks (male) got it rolling in the late 1600s, which perfectly teed it up for Mark Twain.
“Every noun has a gender,” the Bard of Hartford wrote, complaining about the German language, which adds “neutered” nouns to the boy and girl nouns. “There is no sense or system in distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip,
and what callous disrespect for the girl.”
And that’s another reason to study language: It can make even a turnip seem sexy.