Thursday, July 5, 2012
Slippery words: goûter, doudou, and pique
My husband, as I mentioned in an earlier post, once expressed his theory that language would eventually be boiled down to a single, highly expressive syllable, which he predicted would be bah. These are things you think about when you live in a bilingual household. Hard as you try, the one language begins to make incursions into the other; compression and spillage are inevitable.
This happens for a number of reasons. Some words get folded into your vocabulary because they are cultural institutions: goûter is not the same as "teatime," nor is it quite an "afternoon snack." My grandmother fed me goûters, never snacks, and that’s what they will always be to me. With other words, it’s because there’s no translation quite as convenient as the original: there's no good catch-all in English for doudou, the soft security objects children carry around and sleep with (blanky and teddy are rough translations, but they're too specific). If you have ever wondered why the French don’t make sense it’s because there’s no way to say that in French, although there is a growing movement in favor of “faire du sens.”
And then there are words that are just too tempting, too wonderfully versatile, to confine to just one language: "Ça pique!" is a good example. Its connotations are both positive and negative; among other things it can be spicy, prickly, pinchy, tickly, stabby, pokey, rancid, or bubbly; it may refer to a pepper, a beard, a cactus, a crawdad, a fork, a toothpick, a mosquito, a bed of nettles, a carbonated beverage, or bad wine.
Naturally, when our daughter was born I wondered how she would adapt to the separation and the spillage of bilingualism, how she’d deal with the cultural, the versatile, and the irreplaceable. Would she discover peekytoe crabs and think they are named that because their toes can pinch you? Would she be traumatized to discover that doudou, when you pronounce it with an American accent, becomes smelly and distasteful?
So far, it’s hard to tell. She has a roughly equal number of words in French and English, which, right from the start, she acquired more or less at the same time – bain and bath, banane and banana, biberon and bottle: all of these she has boiled down to a single, highly expressive syllable, which, just as my husband predicted, is “bah.”