Saturday, 24 October 2009

Les mots et les sens des mots

I speak football and apparently it's la trêve, which never, in my opinion goes on long enough.  So we're making the most of not having the green channel on to chat over dinner.  There is life in between football.

The conversation turns to a mutual friend who is universally recognised to be Very Clever.  Monsieur R surprises me by suggesting that, OK, he's clever, but not necessarily intelligent.  I get the feeling, as I sometimes do, that we're not actually talking about the same thing (always a risk when one of you isn't talking their own language, especially when that someone is me).  But as the discussion continues, it transpires that we are talking about the same thing, it's just that our perception of it is different.

It's not that I like being right, but…I hate being wrong.  So I go off to root-out the French-English dictionary.  I get sent back for the Larousse and also grab the Collins English dictionary.  Comparisons are made.  And sure enough, the definitions of the word "intelligence" differ in French and in English. 

Intrigued, we then check the definitions of other "big" words – success, value, life, death, etc, etc…  Some definitions are similar to the point of being almost the same, others differ in such subtle ways that we can't even explain them.  And how can you, when you can't be sure that your borrowed words mean what you think that they mean?

It left us with a strange feeling.  We can understand the words, but can we be sure to understand the hidden sense of the words, the meanings that lie embedded within and are carried and given life by the words?

And where does that leave our bilingual daughter?  Where the meanings of words differ, will she grasp the whole spectrum of nuances conveyed by both the English and the French?
The mind, quite literally, boggles.

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