Sunday, December 26, 2010

Vikings, Normans and the English Vocabulary

Johnson is the Economist newspaper's (magazine's) language blog (named after Dr Samuel Johnson). It is produced by a team of writers-linguists and deals with everyday language matters with great authority. 

Johnson recently gave a good thrashing to Stephen Fry – and others – who like to boast that English language has the richest vocabulary in the world.  If you heard such claims, or repeated them, or argued with your French friends about the subject, I suggest you read the Johnson take on the topic to have a clearer idea of what we are talking about:

STEPHEN FRY, whom I always enjoy,  makes a claim (at about 6:10 of the video) [English] certainly has the largest vocabulary ... by a long, long, long long, way. Rather as China is to the rest of the world in population, English is in the population of its words. Is that true, a friend e-mails me to ask?

There's a longish answer. For the summary version, skip to the end. For the really short version, though, the answer is "Sorry, Mr Fry." English is certainly rich in vocabulary, but this claim is nearly always made by enthusiastic lovers of English who don't really know how the many varieties of language beyond English work. It's not that another language has more words. The comparison simply can't be made in any agreed apples-to-apples way. 

For example: 
Moreover, many languages habitually build long words from short ones. German is obvious. Are compounds new words? Given the possibilities for compounds, German would quickly outstrip English, with new legitimate German "words", which Germans would accept without blinking, coined every day. Just one quick glance at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung's home-page finds Abschiedsvorstellung ("leave-taking performance", about South Africa putting on a display for the departing French in the World Cup), Weltmarktführer ("world market leader"), Stromtarifrechner ("electricity bill calculator")  and so on. There's no reason to say "it's incredible how the Germans have a word for 'leave-taking performance'," because to create such words ad hoc is banal in German. This is even truer for Turkish. So Turkish and German and a host of others like them have "more words" than English. 
And, giving the summary, Johnson comes to us, Normans:
We could go on in this vein for quite a while, but that will do for now. If I had to give a short answer to the question "does English have the biggest vocabulary?," I'd say "Who cares?" English is a rich and beautiful language, not least because England has been conquered by Vikings and Normans, and has happily been open to foreign influence through its history. We know more of its wonderful rare words because English has been written for over a thousand years, and its many dialects are well described. That's good enough for me.  We shouldn't need it to have the biggest vocabulary—which can't be defined in any sensible way—to enjoy it.

And here is Blackadder trying to rewrite Johnson's dictionary with the help of Baldrick:

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Patchwork Planet, by Anne Tyler

Ten years ago, oh happy day, shopping in Tesco's (that isn't the happy bit), I spotted a new book with Jeremy Paxman's comment on the back cover; 'I was bowled over... I finished the book wishing it had been twice as long'. Paxman impressed? This had to be worth reading! Conclusion: Anne Tyler is brilliant.

AT washes gently over every day issues (relationships, expectations, temptation, the dependency of old age...) and gives them a normality – life is like that. She writes with such acute observation and insight that the minutiae are like moments of revelation. Her protagonist Barnaby Gaitlin lives in a dark shadow of disapproval, cast aside by his parents, particularly his caustic mother. His old, wealthy Baltimore family set up the Gaitlin Foundation, patronizingly dispensing compassion (which doesn't extend to Barnaby). Ironically, through his 'menial' work with elderly people, Barnaby discretely personifies the compassion for which his family so publicly stands. In spite of strained family relations, a broken marriage, a faltering father-daughter relationship, he is generous, funny, curious, sometimes profound and importantly to the plot, trustworthy.

Anne Tyler  provokes an appreciation of the ordinary and unremarkable and shows everyone has the potential to offer something extraordinary to the patchwork of life. This is the Pulitzer prize winner’s 14th novel and if you haven’t yet discovered her this is a good book by which to make her acquaintance.

review by ©Marie Hayward

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Faux Amis

With the French bemoaning the English invasion of their language and the English sniggering at Franglais, it is important to show how much it is the other way round – how deep is French penetration into English. There is a huge overlap in words, phrases and notions, but there is also a mass of faux amis, words that sound or look the same, but have different meaning.

Ellie Malet Spradbery put together a delightful little book False Friends – Faux Amis based on her own experience of traveling in France. I recommend it to anyone who has a lust for all things French, and it should be a must have book for Brits who settle in the old Angevin Empire - from Normandy to Poitou to Dordogne to Provence.  

The book is not an academic study of how words travelled from French to English and from English to French acquiring different meanings, nor is it a dictionary. It is rather a fun collection of language curiosities picked on the move. And it reads as such, which makes it really enjoyable. 

Apart from faux amis there are sections with current French idioms to enliven your vocabulary and lists of trees, fruit, fish, animals, vegetables and flowers, all handy when you go shopping in France or chat to you neighbours. In fact, the book is published in a format fit for a handbag or a large pocket, and has wide margins where you can scribble down your own favourite pickings of faux amis or just useful words and expressions.

The publishers' note sent to me suggests that Faux Amis is an ongoing project and the book is to be expanded and improved. Spradbery runs a blog at, so I hope anyone can go there to offer their own finds.

A few nitpickings. 

I wish there was an alphabetical index of all the words, English and French included in the book. It would be better if it had more examples of how the words are actually used - or misused by both the French and the English. And of course while spelling may be the same, pronounciation is very different. Coin is not pronounced as coin in English, but koo-ehn. At a vide-grenier the other day, an Englishman was trying to attract buyers to his stock of 'crocodile' flip-flops by shouting all day 'trois yoo-rohs' (euros). Euro in French sounds more like Ero from Eros. There is very little, if any, help on how to say words the French way which is a pity.

One of my own favourite faux amis are cheminee (fireplace) and chambre (bedroom). You can see French estate agents describing property in English as 'three-chamber with chimney' (three-bedroom house with an open fire). This is not in the book. 

Another one, demand (request, in the book) slips into English-in-France so quickly, many stop realising they are different. And every time I see the sign deviation on the road I go mad trying to remember the actual word used for the same purpose in England –  diversion. 

Here are a few more, some not in Spradbery's book:

Defense - not allowed - Defense de fumer (no smoking), Defense de stationer (no parking), Defense de uriner (no urinating, yes, there are many of these too)

Donjon - keep of the castle, not dungeon.

Sensible - is sensitive in French, English sensible is raisonnable

Special - difficult (character)

Mouton - sheep, not mutton.

Send in your own favourites to put here or on Ellie's blog.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Asterix surrenders to McDonald's

Gerard Depardieu played Obeliks

McDonald's has signed up cartoon star Asterix the Gaul in its latest marketing campaign in France. The tiny French warrior is to replace Ronald McDonald next year, it is reported.

The new Mac-do campaign is to start at the time the movie Asterix and Cleopatra is released.

Leader of the French green movement José Bové led an attack on a McDonald's restaurant near Millau, southern France, in 1999.

Asterix is France's favourite cartoon character. About 300 million Asterix comics have been sold since 1961 when it first appeared.

Depardieu played Obelix, Asterix's giant mate in the 1999 film
Astérix et Obélix contre César. (Asterix and Obelix Take On Ceasar)

Photo by Georges Biard

Friday, June 18, 2010

'Appel du 18 Juin', 70 years since

General De Gaulle made his famous appeal on BBC Radio 70 years ago. Even though few people in France heard the general, the day is considered as the beginning of French Resistance to nazi occupation. Almost single-handedly De Gaulle saved the honour of France. He urged the French to fight on.

"Is defeat final? No! De Gaulle was saying.
"Believe me, I who am speaking to you with full knowledge of the facts, and who tell you that nothing is lost for France. The same means that overcame us can bring us victory one day. For France is not alone! She is not alone! She is not alone! She has a vast Empire behind her. She can align with the British Empire that holds the sea and continues the fight. She can, like England, use without limit the immense industry of the United States."
Here is a recording of the appeal made four days later, on the 22nd. On the 18th the BBC didn't record the speech. However the word spread in France after 18th and on the 22nd many more listened. And on the 28th Churchill's government recognized De Gaulle as 'leader of all the Free French'. 'This was vital, but it laid him open to accusations of being a British puppet, ' write Robert and Isabelle Tombs in their brilliant book on Anglo-French relations, 'That Sweet Enemy' ('Cette Exquise Ennemie'). Not only few heard, initially, even fewer joined the General.

'Petain's authority and ambient Anglophobia blighted de Gaulle's efforts to rally support. ... Those who did join de Gaulle were not only adventurous, but junior and often rather unusual... This gave the Free French a reputation for extremism and eccentricity. De Gaulle was no more successful among permanent French residents in London, of whom there were about 10,000: only 300 volunteered. Civilian refugees, like those in uniform, mostly wanted to get home.'  
(from 'That Sweet Enemy')

Full text of the appeal is here in English and here in French.

On the same day Churchill spoke in Parliament of the coming 'Battle of Britain'. It is that speech which is remembered by the rousing words, in a thousand years, men will still say: 'This was their finest hour.'

President Sarkozy is in France today for commemorations of l'Appel de 18 juin:

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Birds. A Fair Distribution.

The Big Bird count today starts in France - take part if you're not heading for the beach.

We're absolutely swarmed with little birds. Tits, finches, starlings, wrens, swallows - everywhere. Open windows - and they start flying in and out of the house! At times it's a bit like in Daphne Du Maurier's The Birds. At least they are not (yet) attacking us.

One swallow got into the kitchen and couldn't find a way out. I threw a tea towel over him and gently let him go outside.

Which reminded me of a passage from Henry Thoreau's 'Walden. Life on the Golden Pond'.

November 9, 1857

Mr Farmer tells me that on Sunday he went to his barn, having nothing to do, and thought he would watch  the swallows, republican swallows. The old bird was feeding her young, and he sat within fifteen feet, overlooking them. There were five young, and he was curious to know how each received its share; and as often as the bird came with a fly, the one at the door (or opening) took it, and then they all hitched round one notch, so that a new one was presented at the door, who received the next fly; and this was the invariable order, the same one never received two flies in succession. At last the old bird brought a very small fly, and the young one that swallowed it did not desert his ground but waited to receive the next, but when the bird came with another, of the usual size she commenced a loud and long scolding at the little one, till it resigned its place, and the next in succession received the fly.

Some of the links here take you to If you shop from France use the 'livres en Anglais' search box at the top of the side-bar to save on delivery charges. 

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Tireless Lover Who Reduced State Deficit and Instilled Tolerance

France has found a new political pin up: a charismatic leader who reduced the country's deficit by a third and embodied the legend of the tireless French lover - Henri IV (see the Daily Telegraph article).

Henry IV was King of France from 1589 to 1610 and (as Henry III) King of Navarre from 1572 to 1610. As a Huguenot, Henry was involved in the Wars of Religion before ascending the throne in 1589. Before his coronation as king of France at Chartres, he changed his faith from Calvinism to Catholicism.  "Paris is worth a Mass", he declared. In 1598, he enacted the Edict of Nantes, which guaranteed religious liberties to the Protestants and thereby effectively ended the civil war.
He cut the state deficit by 30 per cent and increased state revenues by 50 per cent while barely raising taxes
One of the most popular French kings, both during and after his reign, Henry showed great care for the welfare of his subjects. Henry was nicknamed in France 'le bon roi Henri' ("the good king Henry"). He is perhaps best known for promising all French workers the "means to have a chicken in the pot every Sunday". (See a recipe for poule au pot).

He was assassinated by a fanatical Catholic, François Ravaillac, in Paris 400 years ago (May 14, 1610.) The anniversary spurred a wave of national nostalgia, with his prowess being feted across the country with a series of books, exhibitions and articles. Henri was a success for France in every sense – politically, economically and romantically.

His right-hand man, the Duke of Sully, managed to cut the state deficit by 30 per cent and increase state revenues by 50 per cent while barely raising taxes. All this has turned him into a national icon.

Henry IV is the eponymous subject of the royal anthem of France, "Marche Henri IV".  Here is a video of the song:

And below is a Russian song about king Henry IV from the film 'The Hussar Ballad' (1962, music by Tikhon Khrennikov, events relate to Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812)

Friday, May 7, 2010

German Humour and American Shooting

8-9 May 2010 marks the 65th anniversary of the end of the second world war in Europe

Brits - and many others - think of the Germans as a rather humourless lot. Antony Beevor's book D-Day: The Battle for Normandy dispels many myths about the Allied landings in France and the subsequent fighting. Among them is the myth that Germans don't have a sense of humour.

Beevor cites this German joke that was circulating among the Wehrmacht soldiers.

'The almost total absence of the Luftwaffe to contest the enemy's air supremacy continued to provoke anger among German troops, although they often resorted to black humour. 'If you can see silver aircraft, they are American,' went one joke. 'If you can see khaki planes, they are British, and if you can't see any planes, then they're German.'

The other version of this went, 'If British planes appear, we duck. If American planes come over, everyone ducks. And if the Luftwaffe appears, nobody ducks.' American forces had a different problem. Their trigger-happy soldiers were always opening fire at aircraft despite orders not to because they were far more likely to be shooting at an Allied plane than an enemy one.'

I highly recommend the book. Even if you are not a history buff, soldiers' stories Beevor collected would liven up any of your tours to D-Day sights and memorials.

Tip: if you are buying second-hand, check that the first 17 pages of the book are not missing. Last year, as the 65th anniversary of D-Day was approaching and publishers were rushing the book to sellers part of the circulation came out without  them.

And if you shop from France use the 'livres en Anglais' search box at the top of the side-bar to save on delivery charges.

Below is a fragment from the war epic 'The Battle of Britain'. Goering asks his pilots how he can help them. 'Give me a squadron of Spitfires,' one of them says.

Monday, May 3, 2010

'Address Unknown' in Caen

poster from
 Please also read this post on 'A Russian Review of Books'

8-9 May 2010 marks the 65th anniversary of the end of the second world war in Europe
Tomorrow, 4 May 2010, in Caen-Mondeville the French theatre troupe Ultima Chamada performs a stage version of 'Address Unknown' (Inconnu à cette addresse or, in German, Adressat Unbeknownt), a super-bestselling story by American Kathrine  Kressman Taylor, based on true events leading up to the Holocaust. Tragic as it is, it's also extremely funny. And if there is one holocaust story everyone should read, this is the one. 

If you can't make it, there is a clip of the performance on the compagnie's  web-site.

And the book is available in most French mediatheques, because it was a huge bestseller in France in 1995 - the 50th anniversary of the liberation of nazi concentration camps. The second time it became so. Before that, in 1930s, it was one of the first stories to open eyes of Americans to show what was happening in nazi Germany.  And the author Kressman Taylor, then in her 90-s, was happily signing copies and giving interviews. If you do buy the book, make sure you get the edition with her son's moving afterword.

The stage version is set to music by Gershwin, Bach, Bernstein and Kurt Weill. 

Play at
La Renaissance
4 May, Tuesday
starts at 20:30

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Hair, Beauty and Body Care - in French

Je voudrais un bronzage par brumisation - I’d like a spray tan...

Summer is coming which means it’s time to get fit, get waxing, book a pedicure, put some highlights in your hair and have a spray tan. From Hadley Pager’s great little series of topical, pocket-sized phrase books comes Hair, Beauty and Body Care with every word or phrase you could possibly need for a visit to the gym, spa, hairdresser, beauty salon or pharmacie.

Price £6, orders from Hadley Pager on 0044 1372 458 550 or via the website


Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

Hers are slim volumes that, by their very perfection, put wordier efforts to shame

In 1913 the journey from Moscow to Charing Cross, changing at Warsaw, cost fourteen pounds, six shillings and threepence and took two and a half days. In the March of 1913 Frank Reid’s wife Nellie started out on this journey from 22 Lipka Street in the Khamovniki district, taking the three children with her - that is Dolly, Ben and Annushka. Annushka (or Annie) was two and three-quarters and likely to be an even greater nuisance than the others. However Dunyasha, the nurse who looked after the children at 22 Lipka Street, did not go with them.

This is the perfect opening of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring, written with her usual talent for sparse, meticulous prose. Hers are slim volumes that, by their very perfection, put wordier efforts to shame.

In March 1913, Frank Reid's wife abruptly leaves him and Moscow for her native England. The children, wonderfully self reliant and precocious, only make it a couple of train stops before being delivered back into the hands of the Moscow station master and from there to their bemused father.

(by Miranda Ingram)

Friday, January 29, 2010

What is bocage? It's the Brave New World where we live

I was leafing through a copy of Huxley's Brave New World and stumbled upon 'boscage', an English word rarely used these days. 

It is in the dictionary, though:

A mass of trees or shrubs; a thicket.

The word comes from Old French 'boscage' and related to the word 'bush' - and also to 'bocage' - the word describing French pastureland divided into small hedged fields interspersed with groves of trees, or, figuratively, rural hinterland. That's where most Brits head when they move to France.

Huxley wrote Brave New World while splitting his time between England and France.  So, perhaps, the bocage inspired him to use boscage in the book.