One of my French teachers once observed the difference between French and English: English has a million words which all have the same definition. French has only a few words which all have a million definitions. How confusing is it that Je suis means “I am” but also “I follow” depending on the context. And don’t even get me started on the insane number of homophones; because of the mystical rules of French pronunciation, words like parler, parlez, parlé, parlais, parlait, and parlaient are all pronounced the exactly the same way.
To be fair, English has its own trove of bizarre homophones: night / knight, aisle / isle, cereal / serial, where / wear, and the good ol’ standby they’re / their / there. But the French take homophones to a whole different level. Try these on for size:
- sans / s’en / c’en / sens / sent / sang / cent
- pris / prit / prie / pries / prix
- ver / verre / vers / vert / vair
Apparently the latter group has caused a controversy over whether Cinderella’s slippers were actually made of glass (verre) or fur (vair). And the first group has been known to cause some confusion here in Chambéry, where our beloved Elephant fountain is known as the “quatre sans culs” (the four without butts) or – incorrectly, but more hysterically – the “quatre cent culs” (the 400 butts).
Suffice it to say that there is many a trap for an unsuspecting foreigner without much study of phonetics to fall into.
And now for the amusing personal anecdote where the foreigner gets homophones confused and very unexpected things occur: On Friday, I was sitting in my room, minding my own business, and probably watching Netflix, when there arrived a knock on my door. It was my roommate Sandy. “I was just on my way to work,” she tells me, “and I saw une poule on the porch.”
Okay, I thought. She must have meant that she saw a sweater, un pull, outside. And she’s wondering who it belongs to… Those words sound kind of similar…I must have misunderstood.
“Come and see!” she laughs.
And here’s what we found on the porch:
The most sherlockian amongst you have surely figured out by now that I was not at all mistaken. Sandy had indeed seen une poule on the porch. And une poule means a chicken.
Throughout the course of the evening we gradually found out that the chicken belonged to friends of our roommate Manon, that it would be staying for the weekend, and that it would be fine out on the freezing porch. We gave it some stale baguettes (because this is France) and a cup of water and left it to do….whatever chickens do.
Sometimes the misunderstandings aren’t because of a language barrier. They’re because of an imagination barrier! And homophones. ✽