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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.


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!)


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