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Mais oui, nein? Tiens!

The other week, barsine, daegaer and I were lounging about in my sitting room, drinking wine and watching Dorothy L Sayers DVDs, when barsine raised a point that I had never considered before. The Lord Peter/Harriet Vane mystery was centred around a mysterious Russian emigre who was an exhibition dancer at a hotel (my dream occupation, I think. If I could, you know, dance), and he had several exhibition-dancer friends who, like himself, hailed from other lands. And like lots of "foreigners" in English literature and film, the speech of these people was peppered with random words in their native tongues, like "mais oui", or "nein". But barsine (who, like me, studied a furrin language at university - French for her, German for me - meaning that, like dancing Russian emigres, we are both well used to rambling incoherently in non-native lingos) pointed out that when one speaks in another language, one can usually remember the words for yes and no automatically, making this literary practice even more ridiculous. How can Poirot discource at length upon various poisons, and yet be forced to resort to his native French when saying "but yes"? I mean, if I were talking about, I dunno, the effects of strychnine on the nervous system in German, I doubt the words "but yes!" would have me scuttling back to English. I think I'd have been flummoxed by detailed medical terms first. In fact, I think I'd be saying basic German things like "aber ja" or "leider nein" every five seconds in order to give the (false) effect of native fluency. So why do these faux-immigrants keep dropping easy furrin words into their perfect English? Ah, because it's a lazy way for writers to indicate the dodgy presence of Johnny Foreigner! I forgot.

In other non-linguistic news, how the hell did I forget how much I absolutely and utterly love the Jam? Oh yes, because all my Jam albums are on vinyl and have been sitting on my wardrobe in a huge box with my other records for two years, waiting for me to have room for my stereo's turntable in my room. Which I now do! But so that I can listen to them on my iPod, I just downloaded a bunch of my favourite songs, and am now jumping about in my seat remembering the days when I used to trot about in a little Fred Perry shirt and listen to lots of Northern Soul. 'Eton Rifles' still has the best bass line ever.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 21st, 2005 03:13 pm (UTC)
I say "but yeah" a lot when I speak (appallingly bad) french. But if I was fluent I probably wouldn't. You could argue that with Poirot it's a conscious decision to attempt to lull the English into a false sense of security by playing up his Johnny Foreignerness. Doesn't pay to look too clever going into these things. Like Miss M playing up her old ladyness.

I listen to virgin classics at work. They play the Jam quite a lot. Except they don't seem to vary their playlist much, so the same great songs get played over and over.
Mar. 21st, 2005 03:36 pm (UTC)
I think the problem is that when you have native English speakers trying to act like foreigners, they can't pronounce the really difficult words without giving away their true origins. Which is exactly why I find it so amusing in anime when characters speak Engrish, either because they're supposed to be "American" (read: rude, noisy gun-toting maniac) or in order to sound chic. (Heh. Think I just made a case in point there.)
Mar. 21st, 2005 04:03 pm (UTC)
I don't know. I mean, yes, you know the words in the language you're speaking, but sometimes it's so automatic to use those simple words that you can't stop yourself. I specifically remember a conversation in English with a native Spanish-speaker who kept saying "pero" for "but". And I say "so" and "and" a lot when I'm lamely attempting to speak a non-English language (although the characters you speak of are all much better speakers of English than I am of any other language).

But also consider: those mais ouis and neins function as a literary device to indicate that the speaker is not a native speaker of English. A competing literary device is written-out dialect/accents, which... *shivers*

One thing I specifically like about Sayers' foreign characters, though, is that, for example with French, she'll write a French person's dialogue with a Frenchier syntax. Which is more subtle than written-out dialect or the added-in foreign words, but conveys foreignness pretty effectively and is accurate for the way a lot of non-native English speakers talk.
Mar. 21st, 2005 04:48 pm (UTC)
And I say "so" and "and" a lot when I'm lamely attempting to speak a non-English language

Yeah, I say things like "so" and "y'know" in English when I'm speaking German, but I'm definitely more likely to say thinks like "but of course" or "sadly, no" in German rather than English, because they're such basic German that I can't lose my chance to say something that I know is correct usage! I remember there was a girl in my German grammar class in my first year in college (when we were all terrified by the fact that the German department wouldn't speak to us in English) who really intimidated my friend J and I by constantly saying things like "na ja" and "keine Ahnung" - little phrases which made her sound a lot more fluent than she actually was! Perhaps that's why I find foreign characters who do the reverse of that so unconvincing.
Mar. 21st, 2005 05:32 pm (UTC)
I've just spent a week doing that very thing to try to make my very rusty French sound a lot more fluent than it actually is by peppering every sentence with idioms drummed into our heads in high school and the odd nugget from my French Phrase-a-Day calendar.

Of course, in Austria they hear me talk and just shove an English (or, twice so far, French) menu in front of me, and all I have are a weird accent and the names of rooms and meals. (Thanks, EBD!)
Mar. 21st, 2005 04:56 pm (UTC)
Just as I was reading this I heard my colleague refer to "ein guter Overview". Aargh.

I use the "na ja" etc when I'm speaking German but P says "oder" sometimes in English. "Mais oui" sounds incredibly forced, I know that much.
Mar. 21st, 2005 05:19 pm (UTC)
The Jam? I listen to them EVERY DAY. I loooooove the Jam. I loooooooooove Paul Weller.
Mar. 21st, 2005 05:21 pm (UTC)
I used to listen to them every day! But somehow, tragically, I got out of the habit.
Mar. 21st, 2005 05:28 pm (UTC)
Good thing you're getting back in. Who knows what that could have led to!
Mar. 21st, 2005 06:13 pm (UTC)
General scruffiness and un-Modness unsuitable for a Jam devotee, I'm afraid!
Mar. 21st, 2005 06:15 pm (UTC)
Or worse!

I don't think scruffiness has ever been a hindrance to Mod-ness.
Mar. 21st, 2005 09:16 pm (UTC)
Given my work circumstances, I do a lot of meetings with people whose first language is not English. Oddly enough, the one guy who I remember as interjecting "Mais oui" and muttering to himself cute little translations into French of whatever I'd just said to him was in fact a Francophone Belgian, like Poirot. It's rare, but not completely unknown, for other interlocutors to mutter "Ja..." (Dutch, German, Scandiwegian, Slovenian) or "Da..." (most Slavic, also Romanian for some reason). So while the literary convention is certainly exaggerated, it's not total fantasy.
Mar. 21st, 2005 09:40 pm (UTC)
But I think that "mais oui" is less a piece of language that a verbal tic, and those are harder to pull into a language you're not a native speaker of. I mean, my French is fairly good, but I still say "um" in English when I'm working out what to say next.
Mar. 23rd, 2005 06:33 am (UTC)
I know this is completely tangential to the point you are making, but I'm short of people to discuss Sayers dramatisations with in Ethiopia, and I just wanted to get the following off my chest:

I just watched the Gaudy Night series last night, for the first time since I read the book (i.e. for the first time in about 15 years). What the fuck? Why did they dispense with a perfectly good plot and dialogue and just, you know, completely make up their own? And the oddest thing is the way that completely irrelevant and unimportant bits of original dialogue are kept - things like, 'Do you think Lord Peter can get me access to that library? Oh, good' - stuff which has absolutely no relevance to plot or character development. Meanwhile, much more intersting and important stuff is completely ditched.

Rant over.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )


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