English to French or French to English ?

In the daily life that I eat, drink and live, English is my spoken medium. However, I come from an entirely 90% of French background from my upbringing in an ex colonised island by both the British and French. Hence, the duality of my linguistic affinities further plumped by other languages due to my Indian ancestry, ethnicity and regional influence. To cut the lard shorter, let us come back to my main concern. I think and breathe in French, but speak in English. Which makes my ear slightly more sensitive to linguistic mishaps when they do happen. Like nowadays the French influence is more than every swarming the cuisine, cooking, interior decor, expressions, statements of belonging to a certain class, and so forth. The snub Brit’s nose however, never lost its tangent. It remains firmly where it has been through the centuries. That is upward. Taking, mentioning or slipping a French word or two is very posh in some cases. But pronouncing it in the very English way. Which, of course, makes it difficult to admit, is wrong by its own utterance. All things said, you will be strung with glazing eyes if you ever pronounced those words in their proper way. That be French ! As if to say, what a disgrace you can be not to pronounce an English word properly.

What many many people don’t realise is how much the French language has influenced English.

English pronunciation owes a lot to French as well. Whereas Old English had the unvoiced fricative sounds [f], [s], [θ] (as in thin), and [∫] (shin), French influence helped to distinguish their voiced counterparts [v], [z], [ð] (the), and [ʒ] (mirage), and also contributed the diphthong [ɔy] (boy).

The other day, watching the much adored Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s cooking a classic bean dish on TV, I almost gulped in more air that I should take, when I heard him repeating ‘haricots’ with a heavy ‘ha’ giving all the weight on the ‘h’. A mega mistake in French. I was taught with taps on my palm when I got it wrong, that ‘haricot’ as a golden rule never gets its poor ‘h’ pronounced. It is called an ‘h’ muet, that is, mute ‘h’. And here it, to sound posh and different, crossing the Channel, our mute ‘haricot’ suddenly has been given speech !

Such blatant mistakes keep happening in every sphere, and intellectuals also repeat them, for the sake of being British, not informed British. But who should i blame it upon ? When did this all happen ? Why do the Brits carry on with such blunders ? My recent re-visit to Bayeux gives me the answer to those questions.

Bill Bryson calls the Norman conquest of 1066 the “final cataclysm [which] awaited the English language.” (1) When William the Conqueror became king of England, French took over as the language of the court, administration, and culture – and stayed there for 300 years. Meanwhile, English was “demoted” to everyday, unprestigious uses. In fact, since English was essentially ignored by grammarians during this time, it took advantage of it’s lowly status to become a grammatically simpler language and, after only 70 or 80 years existing side-by-side with French, Old English segued into Middle English.

My recent ‘Ideal Magazine’ had pages of the recent trendy buys and among them, I found the much loved pouf of the 70s which has made its come back. A double-page spread of them from different sources extolled their quality and design, but all spelled ‘pouffe’. Wrong. What do I do ? I can’t believe that editors of these magazines don’t check their journalists’ or contributors’ writings before publishing them. Our dear pouf which is an adorable seat, has turned into a verb ! How you conjugate it, is entirely up to your imagination. Similar to some people who say they are going to take the ‘apperrriteef’ when they could just say cocktail. It is not wothout chuckle that I overheard at the supermarket, a poor women’s woes looking for ‘jus’ which is a French word used as a new adage given to the clear gravy in certain dishes by chefs and cooks on TV. Poor thing !

During this festive season, I encounter ‘Noel’ on many items which would mean Christmas in French. Why not use English ?

It is afterall hugely important as an international language and plays an important part even in countries where the UK has historically had little influence. It is learnt as the principal foreign language in most schools in Western Europe. It is also an essential part of the curriculum in far-flung places like Japan and South Korea, and is increasingly seen as desirable by millions of speakers in China. Prior to WWII, most teaching of English as a foreign language used British English as its model, and textbooks and other educational resources were produced here in the UK for use overseas. This reflected the UK’s cultural dominance and its perceived ‘ownership’ of the English Language. Since 1945, however, the increasing economic power of the USA and its unrivalled influence in popular culture has meant that American English has become the reference point for learners of English in places like Japan and even to a certain extent in some European countries. British English remains the model in most Commonwealth countries where English is learnt as a second language. However, as the history of English has shown, this situation may not last indefinitely. The increasing commercial and economic power of countries like India, for instance, might mean that Indian English will one day begin to have an impact beyond its own borders.

Like American English, English in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa has evolved such that they are distinct from British English. However, cultural and political ties have meant that until relatively recently British English has acted as the benchmark for representing ‘standardised’ English — spelling tends to adhere to British English conventions, for instance. Elsewhere in Africa and on the Indian subcontinent, English is still used as an official language in several countries, even though these countries are independent of British rule. However, English remains very much a second language for most people, used in administration, education and government and as a means of communicating between speakers of diverse languages. As with most of the Commonwealth, British English is the model on which, for instance, Indian English or Nigerian English is based. In the Caribbean and especially in Canada, however, historical links with the UK compete with geographical, cultural and economic ties with the USA, so that some aspects of the local varieties of English follow British norms and others reflect US usage.

Talking of US English, that’s another note to be written. For it is as broad as it is long. The Americans have developed a form of English that differed in a number of ways from the language spoken back in The British Isles. In some cases older forms were retained — the way most Americans pronounce the sound after a vowel in words like start, north, nurse and letter is probably very similar to pronunciation in 17th century England. Similarly, the distinction between past tense got and past participle gotten still exists in American English but has been lost in most dialects of the UK.

But coming back to dear Blighty, for more than half a century, immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and the West Indies have added variety and diversity to the rich patchwork of accents and dialects spoken in the UK. British colonisers originally exported the language to all four corners of the globe and migration in the 1950s brought altered forms of English back to these shores. Since that time, especially in urban areas, speakers of Asian and Caribbean descent have blended their mother tongue speech patterns with existing local dialects producing wonderful new varieties of English, such as London Jamaican or Bradford Asian English. Standard British English has also been enriched by an explosion of new terms, such as balti (a dish invented in the West Midlands and defined by a word that would refer to a ‘bucket’ rather than food to most South Asians outside the UK) and bhangra (traditional Punjabi music mixed with reggae and hip-hop).
The recordings on this site of speakers from minority ethnic backgrounds include a range of speakers. You can hear speakers whose speech is heavily influenced by their racial background, alongside those whose speech reveals nothing of their family background and some who are ranged somewhere in between. There are also a set of audio clips that shed light on some of the more recognisable features of Asian English and Caribbean English.

However, I still do not fall in the categories above as the Indian Ocean English has not been catalogued as yet. But you can spot it. Mauritians who look a lot like Indians. They speak clearly with a slight French accent without overdoing it. The obvious ‘z’ is left to the French only or to Berenger ( a Mauritian politician of French decent). For now, am still in my muddle with my Welsh accented husband living in an English evironment speaking Middle class English. I never got the accent contrary to my departed father who has been a Londoner for more than five decades. So, and am still tearing my hair profusely for the above named reasons.

Amen.

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