I fell in love with a Frenchman – but didn’t speak the language

Lifestyle

My husband was trying, with some urgency, to tell me something. I knew it was important because he had thrown by the wayside the strictest rule of our bilingual household: no mixing English and French. We’d always tried to stay away from Franglish.

With its “j’agree”s and “le footing”s, it seemed slightly embarrassing, the labradoodle of languages. But there he was, saying: “There’s a hanneton on the wall! Get the hanneton!”

“A what?”

“A hanneton!” Olivier replied. “I don’t know how to say it in English.”

The fact that this French word, in our hour of need, began with the dread silent “h” wasn’t helping matters. Olivier’s vowel-heavy, evenly stressed delivery – uh an uh ton – left me grasping at syllables. I couldn’t tell what letter the word began with; where it started and ended; whether it was animal, vegetable, mineral, or, like, a dirty sock.

“What does it do?”

“It’s a bug.”

“How do you spell it?”

“H-a-n-n-e-t-o-n.”

I punched the letters into the Larousse app that occupied the bottom right-hand corner of my phone screen, as crucial to my daily getting around as Uber or Google Maps.

“Hanneton, nom masculin,” the result came back. The English for “hanneton,” it said, was “cockchafer”.

I wasn’t sure what Olivier was suggesting. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had a cockchafer on my wall. Eventually, with some more Googling, we deduced that a hanneton was a cockchafer, which was a May bug. Olivier and I may very well be the only people in the world that are privy to this little bit of strange, near-pornographic entomology-in-translation. I added another entry to our private dictionary, an obscure book that we’ve been compiling since we fell in love and started trying to have a conversation.

The critic George Steiner defined intimacy as “confident, quasi-immediate translation,” a state of linguistic harmony in which “the external vulgate and the private mass of language grow more and more concordant.” When Olivier and I met, six years earlier – a Frenchman and an American at a party above a Polish restaurant in London – our slate was essentially blank. He spoke good English, but I spoke zero French, and this inhibited our intimacy in ways that we scarcely comprehended. The words, most of the time, were there, but we had no common understanding of their deeper meanings.

Our messages to each other were diverted by context and intonation, returned to sender by virtue of body language and facial expression. I constantly thought Olivier looked irritated. I didn’t understand then that smiles are accessories. We put them on, same as hats or moustaches, according to the whims of our culture. When we argued, I would try to resolve the conflict as I’d been taught, saying, “I want this” and “I need that”, in an attempt to avoid the accusatory second-person. He took this as evidence of my narcissism and, furthermore, an infuriating attempt, on my part, to tell him what to do. I wanted compromise. He wanted the right answer and, being French, was sure that there always was one. Trying to access each other’s assumptions and intentions felt impossible, as though someone had deleted our shared hard drive.

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