Not long ago, the following sentence was entered into the personal literary canon of my household:

“She is m’ennerve because she is toujours trying to cache my doudou.”

It’s an even larger mess and a more resplendent marvel when you hear it.

The line was uttered by my four-year old who wanted to say that her sister is “getting on her nerves because she is still trying to hide her favorite plush toy.” But instead she spoke this one sentence from the two languages she has yet to fully unbraid. I stood over her at the time, ready to respond “Quoi?” before reminding myself to stick with English and leave her mother to the concerns of the tongue with all the accents.

But I’d understood my little girl, needing neither to parse nor translate her words, and I hadn’t immediately identified this as a hybrid sentence. It marked a loopy milestone. I’d grown fully comfortable at the intersection of French and English. I’d grown comfortable perhaps nowhere else.

Is there really such a thing as bilingualism? How can one reconcile two separate running tracks hard-wired into the language circuits of the brain? How can something that fundamentally shapes your experience and perception exist in a duo? Or rather a deux? What are the habits of the mind, to borrow of phrase from the linguist Guy Deutscher, when there are two different habits of speech there to cultivate them? Can the two worlds ever be at peace?

Our household has blathered over these questions for seven years now, ever since our first daughter was born in a Paris hospital where her father didn’t know the word for “breathe.” Since then, she and her younger sister, who appeared on the scene three years later, have fared well. The older one turns to the right parent with the right language without effort and, during extended family gatherings, performs like a miniature UN translator going between the two politely smiling trans-Atlantic parties. Our younger, while still mixing her doudou in with her toys, nails a perfectly nuanced French “r”. Neither one of them ever sits down to ponder why it’s odd that Dad says “potato” and Mom says “pomme de terre” and, to their credit, don’t bother to join me in asking why it’s called an “apple of the earth.” They consume both raw. I, meanwhile, chew slower because I can’t help taking the words apart.

The problem starts with the cognates, most of which are false.

In French, your throat becomes a gorge. When you ask, you instead demande. Where you want to walk, you are forced to marche. Anytime you fart, you are really releasing a pet. When you grate cheese, you suddenly have to râpe it. When you disturb people, you’ve managed to dérange them.

A paper clip is somehow described with a straight face as a trombone, gasoline is nothing but essence and when you take a shower, it’s time for a douche. It took me awhile to get comfortable with douching. But what do I know? For the past seven years I’ve been raping cheese, spending too much on essence and deranging just about every one of my new friends.

In my daughter’s case, to hide is cacher, but the word doudou (pronounced in the scatological) has no direct English counterpart besides “blankie” or “teddy” or “beloved bedtime cuddle toy.” But trying to hide the toy is one thing, trying to cash a doodoo is another.

Idioms are, naturally, worse. A heavy rain comes down not in cats and dogs, but “in ropes.” If you have something better to do, you have, not other fish to fry, but “other cats to whip.” When someone dies, they “break their pipe,” as opposed to kicking the bucket. When you’ve gone crazy, you’ve got, not a screw loose, but “a spider on the ceiling.”

Then, the French have certain common expressions that English doesn’t offer at all. Full of energy you are capable of “bursting the fire.” If you are “pissing into a violin,” you’re doing something completely useless. This one I’ve since appropriated for myself and my own purposes because it feels like an apt metaphor for what I’m doing when I speak French. I’ve been defiling this beautiful, otherwise finely-tuned violin for so long.

English is just as curious. The famous examples of “driving on parkways” and “parking on driveways” or the cruelty of phrasal verbs where “fill in” and “fill out” mean the same thing make the current worldwide pervasiveness of my native language astonishing.

But beyond that, it also holds its own wonders apparently. A French friend once told me English is a language of comic books, action and adventure. He cited the onomatopoeic word for dropping into water.In French, a diver makes a plouf. The English equivalent “splash” sounds, according to my friend, graceful, athletic and confident.I didn’t see it.I was too busy being amused all over again by the word plouf, almost as magical as the fact that, in French, a rooster doesn’t cock-a-doodle doo, but rather crows “Cocorico!”

I dwell on words to a fault. I hang my hat on the specifics, the roots and the sounds. Despite my endless grappling, I also frequently don’t trust words, always looking for fluid meanings and peripheral connotations. Though this works for me on screens and paper, words never flow smoothly out of my mouth. There are too many pitfalls leaving the gate at my brain. For these reasons and also because I was no longer in my elastic twenties, the linguistic carnage and horrifying confusion I’d left in the wake of my French learning curve was deep and wide. Rather, profond and large.

My girls don’t care if they hide doodoos or derange anyone or even pee into a stringed instrument. They want merely to talk. And, in this way, they belong in their surroundings.

Because one thing the French do, above all else, is talk. Like my daughters, most native French speakers have a built-in knack for conversational flow. Lulls and awkward pauses have been somehow designed out of the language, perhaps as a result of the sounds itself. The French know how to start a polite conversation, they know how to ask pleasant-sounding questions, they know how to stimulate additional discussion that draws others in, they know how to focus on that which both parties can relate to, they know how to keep the humor breezy. They know, most of all, how to linger just long enough over the power of words.

I linger with them, stumbling and backpedaling and feeling unpolished even after a thorough douche, but kept in the fold all the same as the words hang between us and I try to mimic the habits of their minds that a melodious, mysterious language has shaped since birth.

While my daughters wait, once again, somewhere way out in front of us.

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NATHANIEL MISSILDINE lives in Dijon, France with his wife and two daughters. He is the author of the 2012 travel memoir SAVE FOR FIREFLIES as well as a recently completed novel. Online writings, by turns comical and puzzling, are on display over at nathanielmissildine.com.

52 responses to “Pissing Into the Violin”

  1. Brian Eckert says:

    Language is a potentially comical thing, indeed. Through my vagabonding over the last few years I’ve become quite objective about English (to the extent that its possible…as you point out, language is ingrained in our brains and way of thinking). English is, quite frankly, a wild fuck up of a language. Just consider how many different ways we have of saying the same thing, and the “creativity” of the language (by that I mean the ability to generate totally new phrases but have others understand me). I don’t know the statistics on number of books written in English, but its got to be near the top of the list. And man, only when you start to teach English do you begin to realize how extraordinarily complex and lawless it is. I stopped even teaching rules. I wold just tell students “you have to memorize this.”

    Living in South Africa, I had to try and speak Afrikaans, which requires conjugating in the back of the throat. I could never work it smoothly into my words like a native…it always just kind of sounded like I was trying to clear a phlegm wad from my throat.

    Good luck with the French. I’m going to go poop in a saxophone.

    • Yes, English is incredibly lawless and unruly. I’ve been teaching it over here too and to people who don’t understand why we had to steal words from their language, shift the meaning slightly and then add a synonym or two, with various accompanying connotations. My students want to know why, the rules, the logic, and I rarely have good news for them.

      And I still have a phlegm wad I haven’t fully cleared yet either.

      Thanks for the comment, Brian.

  2. Matt says:

    For the past seven years I’ve been raping cheese, spending too much on essence and deranging just about every one of my new friends.

    Oh god, that line had me rolling on the floor.

    When I first started learning Spanish back in high school, I was struck by how very literal a language it was, especially after being raised in a household that only spoke English.I was very good at speaking it (to the point where I even dreamed in it from time to time) but never quite got past that middle point where you keep trying apply the grammtical rules of one language to the other, as it were. Guess I was burping at the proverbial pinata, as it were.

    If I remember correctly, the Spanish onomatopia for a rooster’s call is “quiquiriqui.” Matthew Gavin Frank or Ryan Day would know better than I.

    • I wish I’d spent more time on Spanish myself, it would have paid off for the next romance language I’d need. And I envy people who have a facility for speaking a foreign language, since I never really did. I found myself immersed in French just before I turned thirty and the language center of my brain had already begun to ossify.

      Animal noises are always fun. The Spanish and French rooster calls make more sense than the English. How in the hell did we spin “cock-a-doodle-doo” from that sound? I don’t know, we’re annoying.

  3. Joe Daly says:

    Nat, you really timed this one well. I had dinner at the home of some French people this Saturday night, which dinner marked a milestone of defeat for me. I studied French, and did rather well, for nearly 8 years, before mistakenly following the counsel of my college guidance counselor and choosing Classics as my major, rather than Modern Languages (at which I was excelling). I had to begin studying Latin and Greek concurrently, which was bad enough, but I had to skip a year of both languages to meet the major’s graduation requirements. Consequently, I was the bane of the Classics department and graduated near the bottom of my class.

    To this day, I regret not rocking my French studies and seeing where they would have taken me. Maybe I would have been your wacky neighbor in France!

    Anyway, the milestone of defeat? For the first time I can remember, I chose not to attempt to speak any French in a room full of French speakers. I understood much of what they said, but pride and acceptance of my now-atrocious accent, kept me in check.

    You keep on keeping on, man. I will be forever envious of your bilingual opportunities and experiences.

    • I could have used a wacky neighbor like you. It’s never too late. This country needs a little more Joe.

      I studied Latin in high school myself, which I thought was a smart move at the time that would give me a facility in all romance languages. Looking back though, it had the effect of setting language as a list of declensions and root words that needed to memorized. Like I said to Matt, I would have been better taking even Spanish, since I see more and more that learning one new language in its practical usage gives you the skills to acquire others. Instead, when I arrived on these shores, I knew only how to ask where Gaul was. So the learning curve was steep.

      But -what’s that expression they use in America -c’est la vie.

  4. Irene Zion says:

    Nathaniel,

    This is truly wonderful.
    I want more examples of the differences in the idioms between English and French.
    Your girls are glorious!

    • Thanks, Irene. There are hundreds of funny idioms. Another one I like that I cut from this piece because I could have kept listing them endlessly is that instead of saying someone is “out of their mind,” they say that person must be “smoking the carpet.” For instance, used in a sentence “That flasher was crazy, she must have been completely smoking the carpet!”

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Irene,

      I have this book somewhere among my stacks. It’s a good one, if already just a tad dated (language moves *quickly*!).

      http://www.amazon.com/101-French-Idioms-Jean-Marie-Cassagne/dp/0844212903

      • Nathaniel Missildine says:

        A book like this could have come in handy several years ago, but I always have to go and learn things the hard way. And yes, language does move, as they might say, “super rapide.”

      • Irene Zion says:

        @Uche,

        Thanks, I just happened by here again and saw your comment.
        I don’t usually get email notices of comments, unfortunately, what with the famous TNB poltergeist.
        I’ll look that book up now, since we’re going to France/Belgium/The Netherlands/ Luxembourg on a driving trip this Spring.

  5. dwoz says:

    pas du sweat.

  6. Nathaniel! I think this may very well be my favorite piece that you’ve written. This is wonderful. So entertaining and funny and poignant. AND I learned many, many new things, like that I douche every day.

  7. Quenby Moone says:

    I love this! I too piss in violins!

    No. I don’t, actually. But my son is better at two languages at seven that I was with one by his age. He has Japanese homework and I don’t know it’s homework because I can’t even tell it’s LETTERS (which, technically, it’s not. Not really. It’s one of THREE written forms: Hirigana, Katakana and Kanji. Beyond these facts, I’m in the rough.)

    So I order my sushi and say “arrigato” poorly but nothing else. Our son will be blabbering away soon enough with the sushi chef in both languages and we’ll be sitting there looking mildly mentally challenged.

    Anyway, I feel your pain, brother. I feel your pain.

    (Loved your piece on McSweeny’s too!)

    • Turning Japanese, huh? That’s pretty impressive that your little guy is learning to write in an entirely new alphabet at age seven. I bet his “R” sounds are even better than the ones in my household. Thanks for reading, Quenby, here and there.

  8. Don Mitchell says:

    Laughed and laughed, Nathaniel. I really love false cognates or, even worse, invented ones.

    Long ago, I was looking after a dozen biomedical researchers in a small village on Bougainville. None of them could speak a word of the local language, which I could speak. Some of them imagined that they could speak the local trade language, Melanesian pidgin, which I could speak and all the people working for the biomedical guys could speak. One of the biomeds looked after the meals as best he could, trying to see to it that the food was prepared and served.

    Melanesian pidgin pasim means “hold, stop, fix in place, arrest.”

    Biomedical guy figures you can take any English word and stick “-im” in the end, and you get a pidgin verb. So he tells the kitchen workers, “pasim plates.”

    They stand still, holding the plates of food. He raises his voice, “Pasim plates!”

    They look at me. They say in their language, “Why can’t we serve the meal?”

    I said, “Because this fat white guy thinks he can speak pidgin. But never mind, go ahead and serve the food.”

    Pissing in the ukelele!

    • Yes, I’ve had dozens of moments like your researcher. I still insert or remove syllables all the time. I once had to declare a document of “filiation” at city hall after my daughter’s birth. When I asked for said document it came out pronounced as “fellation.” You get inured to death by embarrassment after awhile.

      Thanks for the comment, Don.

  9. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Oh, a word piece. *love* This is wonderful!

    I grew up in a community where French and English co-mingled. “Cajun French,” to be exact. Words and phrases creep into my speech on occasion. (No, I NEVER say Laissez les bons temps rouler.) I’m careful not to roll them out in front of people who would have no clue what I’m talking about.

    • Thanks, Ronlyn. I’ve had only a little exposure to Cajun French, but I enjoy hearing the differences. For instance, maybe you know the word “doudou” instead used as a term of endearment, like “darling.” Anyway, I’ve always found the unusual cultural mix fascinating, so I’ll just need to visit your neck of the woods one day, at the very least to compare boudin recipes.

      • Ronlyn Domingue says:

        Yes, doudou is vaguely familiar. “Cher” is/was far more common, and of course sullied to death by Hollywood.

        The last generation of real French speakers is almost gone. My grandparents spoke French primarily as children and learned English when they went to school. (There’s a lovely history of how the French-speaking children were punished for using their native language.) A great-uncle comes to mind….someone who is deliriously funny. If you do visit here, let me know. If he’s stilll around, I’ll have to connect you.

        And because I’m a vegetarian, I’d have to inquire where the best boudin is!

  10. Greg Olear says:

    A great piece, as usual…but I would expect nothing less from a cheese rapist.

    I will be in France in less than three weeks, and I’m so nervous I’m pissing in my pants…and, I suppose, into a violin…

    • Don’t be nervous about les français, they’re probably just as nervous about meeting an American novelist, not to mention one who comes from a breakdown (sorry, I mean it was just hanging there). And remember, your books were originally written in that adventurous, swashbuckling language, so a certain amount of false confidence is expected. From there, you can insert the eternally useful “ca va” at will.

  11. Gloria says:

    Such a great piece, Nathaniel. The part about a dad not knowing the word for “breathe” really grabbed me. This is the first word that my ex-husband said to baby #2 when my twins were born, as he was not breathing. What a thought.

    I like “spider in the ceiling.” Next time I’m feeling a little out of sorts, I’m going to use that phrase instead. It’ll just make me appear all the more nuts. 🙂

    I love the differences between how water sounds and what a rooster says in French and English. David Sedaris says in one of his essays that the first question he asks a cab driver when he gets to a brand new place is what their roosters say. It’s something we take for granted – that roosters say cock-a-doodle-do – and it can be jarring that the same rooster doesn’t say the exact same thing to every language. Fascinating.

    I’d never thought about raising children with two different languages spoken at home. Again, absolutely fascinating.

  12. I’ve had many of the same observations about language over the years, first with French and then again with Turkish, which has adopted a number of French nouns, but horribly misspelled. I, too, dwell on these differences. Whenever I come across a new word in conversation I find myself caught up in it for minutes, missing the rest of the sentences that follow because I’m so fascinated by how this one word relates to words in my own language. I love all of the examples you pointed out, and I had never heard of pissing into a violin, so thank you for teaching it to me.

    • Turkish has elements of French? That’s interesting, and you’ve taught me something as well. Yep, I get hopelessly caught up on the details and connections, which makes me an amazingly slow learner when it comes to speaking a new language. “Pisser dans un violin” may in fact be uncommon in many circles, I just know it’s popular with my in-laws. Thanks for the comment, Rebecca.

      • Yep, Turkish has a lot of French cognates. I found myself constantly looking up words only to find that I already knew them once I sounded them out. Here are a few for you to mull over for awhile:

        şoför (pronounced “chauffeur” and with the same meaning)
        kuaför (coiffeur)
        lavabo (self-explanatory)
        duş (douche)

        Like I said, the spelling truly threw me for a loop.

  13. This is a great piece, Nat. My favorite of yours so far. Linguistics is eternally fascinating for me, but the best research always comes anecdotally, from la cuisine de famile. Or a child’s mouth.

    • Nathaniel Missildine says:

      Thanks, Sean. The linguistics is always fascinating to me too and the child’s mouth increasingly likes to correct me on my usage.

  14. angela says:

    nate, i keep going back to your daughter’s utterance and just laugh to myself. it’s so hilarious and adorable!

    growing up surrounded by both Chinese and English, my brother and i spoke Chinglish constantly. “Daddy’s xiao-ing,” my brother said once, xiao meaning “laugh.” and my mother always asked, “How come ni bu yao. . .” How come you don’t want to. . .fill in the blank. then my mother will get English cursing wrong. once she called my ex-husband a “bitch” when i think she probably meant “son of a bitch.”

    and i love the French idioms you cite. the only Chinese ones i can think of are pi dan or dao dan, “rotten egg” for a naughty kid.

    • Nathaniel Missildine says:

      Thanks, Angela. I love hearing these examples of similar problems in other languages. And cursing is always tough to pull off. Whenever I try to swear in French, it never comes off as anything else besides pure hilarity somehow. The more serious my merde, the funnier it is.

  15. Gregory Messina says:

    I can totally relate. I love the reaction of the French when I tell them about “killing two birds with one stone”.

    • Nathaniel Missildine says:

      I know, these things just don’t translate, do they? We just leave people wondering “Why do the Americans want to kill the birds?” Easy to say when you’re a violin pisser, I guess. Hope your own language learning is proceeding well.

  16. M.A. Coppolino says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this Nathaniel! …far from a turnip, this is a great piece. 😉

    As a French teacher, I think it’s so important to be able to teach students not just to communicate effectively, but to be able to convey subtle nuances across cultures. It’s so fun to delve into these idiomatic expressions…thanks for making me laugh – I almost fell into the apples reading some of this stuff…really funny.

    • Thank you, this comment means a lot, coming as it does from a French teacher and one who seems to understand that language is much more than conjugation and endings and accent marks. Very glad I could make you laugh.

  17. D.R. Haney says:

    Well, I had almost completed a longish comment when I accidentally caused the page to disappear, taking my comment with it.

    I started by saying that I regretted having gotten to this piece so late and that I really enjoyed it. Then I wrote a little about my own efforts at speaking French, and my frustration that I don’t pick up languages easily, and I speculated about how early exposure to more than one language may help to learn others later. Like so many Americans, I was only exposed to English as a child.

    I also wrote about the French and conversation. You’re right about that, of course. A few years ago, I watched a documentary about Francois Truffaut, and there were many talking-head interviews with his friends and colleagues, who spoke of his character, and the character of others, in ways that would never occur to Americans, no matter how intelligent. It was as if each person interviewed had a touch of the novelist, imaginatively considering this personality trait and that one; and more to the point, each person interviewed was articulate. Americans don’t take pleasure in talk, not really; they favor action over contemplation; they’re too pragmatic. I think that’s the difference: there’s an aesthetic value in talk for the French, but then, there’s much more emphasis on aesthetics for the French generally.

    I no longer remember what I wrote the first time, so I’m not sure if this comment is any match for it, but I’d better post right away, before I make the page disappear again.

    • Thanks, Duke. I’m just now getting to a response, which I almost didn’t do because of how late I am. But then that seemed like a bad reason, so here I am.

      It’s true what you say that Americans don’t really take pleasure in words. It’s a little like the approach to food between the two cultures, things in France are savored and old recipes are practiced for generations, where in the US, food is either a carburant or a style/recipe becomes popular just for its newness. The language works the same, where in France the beauty and flow of the language is something to be practiced, and English is fast and loose and changing constantly.

      Anyway, glad you took the time to comment, despite technical hitches.

  18. Simon Smithson says:

    I know a Spaniard who speaks to her relatives in flowing combinations of English and Spanish; I constantly wonder what language she thinks in.

    Heh.

    Pissing into the violin is nicer than pushing shit uphill, I think, or banging your head against the wall.

    • Yes, one day we’ll all speak in language combinations, or wait, nevermind I suppose that’s already happened.

      I like the phrase “pushing shit uphill” too though, but then I’ve always had a lot of sympathy for dung beetles.

  19. […] All this, despite the fact that a) my Q rating can be roughly calculated by subtracting Barack Obama’s Q rating from Kim Kardashian’s Q rating, and b) my French, despite nine years of classes in junior school, high school, and college, can charitably be described as un peu. (There will be a lot of ça va-ing and pissing into violins). […]

  20. […] has an ever-so-slight French timbre in his voice. This pissing-in-the-violin stuff is a ruse, I think; he speaks French just fine. He is—and this will come as a shock to no […]

  21. Dana says:

    Nate,
    I just wanted to share that I printed out this piece and mailed it to my parents (my father so used to being summoned to the computer for the pleasure of peering over my mom’s shoulder to view some 8 year old flash animation or animals dangling precariously, he is now and forever suspicious of anything “online”). Anyway… when I spoke with them last night they both mentioned how much they had enjoyed it, and just how clever you are.

    So there you are, appealing across oceans and generations.

    🙂

  22. Gloria says:

    Thanks for your article.

    Jeez, Nat. Who’d you piss off?

    • Gloria says:

      Oh, never mind. There’s some sort of bot or spider or whatever going in and leaving random weird shit all over TNB right now. It was more awesome when I thought they were targeting you specifically since you’re, like, the nicest guy ever.

      Carry on.

  23. What an amusing and wonderful piece. I’m forwarding it to my husband. We will be in Paris for a year beginning next fall, with our eight-year-old (American) daughter, who is learning French now and planning to go to a French school while we’re there, so I’m looking forward to hearing our own franglais. So adorable!

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