Your linguistic disasters

Etaoin Shrdlu

μεσσηγυδορποχέστης
One advantage of learning Latin is that your fumbling attempts to use it as a medium of communication aren't going to be humiliated by the perfect grammar and accent of a six-year-old. But if you've travelled to furrin, you may well have increased the general hilarity of the populace by attempting to speak the language, so talk about it here. Confession is good for the soul.

I should go first, I suppose, and I've got a wealth of ammunition, but I can't resist starting with one from someone who was doing classics at university. He was spending his summer on a dig in Italy where the volunteers were a mix of locals and foreigners, and wanted to get to know a young Italian woman better. He didn't know Italian as such, but one of his companions who did assured him he could get by with a few basic phrases, supplemented by Latin when the vocab ran out.

So at the end of the day, wanting to ask her if she was tired before seeing whether she'd be up for going for a drink, he asked, 'Sei tu fessa?' She looked quite offended, answered 'Non!' and stalked off.

At this point, others might have felt rejected, or at least rushed off to a dictionary. But he wasn't so easily discouraged, and repeated the attempt. Twice, with the same result.

It was only when he noticed his companion pissing himself with laughter that he found out that 'fessa' doesn't mean 'tired', but 'stupid'...
 

Etaoin Shrdlu

μεσσηγυδορποχέστης
You're all either linguistic prodigies or gutless cowards. I've got tales of humiliation in any number of languages, but I'm not sure if I should go ahead with them now, in the face of all this resounding silence.
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
You're all either linguistic prodigies or gutless cowards. I've got tales of humiliation in any number of languages, but I'm not sure if I should go ahead with them now, in the face of all this resounding silence.
As I haven't travelled much in my life, my oral exchanges in other languages have been extremely few, and I don't remember any big disasters happening then. Possibly my pronunciation is a disaster, but no funny disaster like your example. Most of my linguistic disasters will be found in written form on this forum, but again, I can't remember anything that was especially funny.
 

Callaina

Feles Curiosissima
For my high school French class (which was IB French) I had to prepare a number of oral presentations, which were recorded and sent into the official IB people for eternal marking. One of these was about the Ivory Coast, where my cousins lived for a while. As I was talking, I remembered that they had told me all sorts of stories about the large insects there (spiders, centipedes, etc.) which really freaked them out. I figured this would be amusing to relate.

But I couldn't think of any word for "insects". My mind ran over several possibilities. Spiders? What was the French word for those? "Arachides." That had to be right, I'd seen it before and it sounded like "arachnids".

So I ended up telling the IB external markers that my cousins had been absolutely AMAZED and shocked at how big the peanuts were in the Ivory Coast, and that these big peanuts were absolutely EVERYWHERE!

:D
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
:D
 

Terry S.

Quaestor
Staff member
I think my own most embarassing language moment was in a Scottish Gaelic class. The similarities with Irish are a great bonus, but there are significant differences. Also, I tend to think in Lowland Scots more than in English, and in Irish too.

So... teacher asked what we did over the weekend. I replied, "Bha mi ag coiseachd ar a' mhuir." [Apologies to Scottish Gaelic speakers - I can never remember where the fadas go - it's hard enough remembering in Irish.] This translates as, "I was walking on top of the sea." That was bad enough, but then one of the young girls said in a stage whisper for everyone to hear, "Iosa a tha ann!" i.e. "It's Jesus!" I was too embarassed ever to go back.
 

Terry S.

Quaestor
Staff member
I wanted to say that I had been walking on the "carrán", Irish for a type of rough moorland, but in my efforts to get the grammar right I arrived at the end of my sentence without remembering the Scottish Gaelic word for the same. My brain skipped a track and jumped to 'muir' probably because it sounds a bit like the English 'moor' which can be spelled 'muir' in Scots.. At least I lenited it correctly.
 

Etaoin Shrdlu

μεσσηγυδορποχέστης
Before we go any further, everyone should read this. Even if it makes you despair of ever having anything to tell as good, even allowing for poetic licence.
 

Westcott

Civis Illustris
An English couple retire to France, where the wife unfortunately dies. Her husband wants to be nicely turned out for her funeral so he heads for a department store. He thinks he can speak the lingo, but he isn't as good as he thinks. He doesn't know the difference between a chapeau (hat) and a capeau (cap, contraceptive) and the following conversation ensues. (Please excuse my French, which is even worse than the first mentioned Englishman's.)

"Je voudriais un capeau noir s'il vous plait."
"Ah oui monsieur, mais pourquoi un capeau noir?"
"Parce que ma femme est morte."
"Ah, quelle finesse!"
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
An English couple retire to France, where the wife unfortunately dies. Her husband wants to be nicely turned out for her funeral so he heads for a department store. He thinks he can speak the lingo, but he isn't as good as he thinks. He doesn't know the difference between a chapeau (hat) and a capeau (cap, contraceptive) and the following conversation ensues. (Please excuse my French, which is even worse than the first mentioned Englishman's.)

"Je voudriais un capeau noir s'il vous plait."
"Ah oui monsieur, mais pourquoi un capeau noir?"
"Parce que ma femme est morte."
"Ah, quelle finesse!"
I've never heard the term "capeau". It's usually "capote".
 

Westcott

Civis Illustris
When I was on holiday in Brittany (Northern France) with my family many years ago a young man came up and asked me something in French. I rose to the occasion and we had quite a conversation. It was only when I turned to my wife to keep her informed that the young man said "Oh - you're English!" and I replied "And you're American!". Still I suppose it was good practice for both of us.

But just when I was thinking I could manage quite well in French an old man spoke to me and I couldn't understand a word. It turned out he was a local, speaking Breton.
 

Etaoin Shrdlu

μεσσηγυδορποχέστης
One nearly as good as the capote story, but supposed to be true, though I only have it at third hand from an unreliable source. Someone I knew was cycling in France when his trousers split. So he went into a local shop, and tried to ask for needles and black cotton, as one does. Except what he said was j'ai besoin d'anguilles et de filles noires, all the time frantically pointing at his crotch.

Edit: I've changed the French from an original des anguilles et des filles noires, although of course I have no way of knowing how many mistakes he managed to cram into one sentence, assuming it actually happened (and I pray it did). Would I be correct in assuming that this is the correct way of saying what he didn't intend, if you see what I mean?
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
LOL that would be a weird fetish.
 

Imperfacundus

Reprobatissimus
A few weeks ago I learnt another of many embarrassing lessons on the pitfalls of spoken French:

Friend: Ma mère, elle parle bien anglais, non?
Me: Oui et mieux encore j'pense qu'elle est très bonne!

In retrospect, the smile and the thumbs-up probably made it worse.
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
Oh-my-gosh...
 

Etaoin Shrdlu

μεσσηγυδορποχέστης
I had to look that up. It confirmed my feeling that attempting to speak French is a fairly doomed enterprise.

I don't know if I have any amusing mistakes as such to recount: most of my forays into foreign tongues are undoubtedly riddled with errors, but I don't know what they are, because if I did I wouldn't make them, and if they aren't funny nobody is likely to react very much. But I do have pointlessly winding escapades of incomprehension.

I was fairly young when I acquired an Interrail ticket and went to Morocco, the furthest one could go back then, and had never spoken a word of a foreign language outside a classroom (I had small Spanish and less French). As a consequence, I couldn't. I wandered round Paris, where I had to change trains, unable to utter a simple sentence.

On the train going through Spain, I queued politely in the restaurant car to be served. I was there for some time. After a while, another customer took pity on me and told me in French (for some reason) to shout in Spanish. I did, and got served, which seemed like a small miracle.

In Morocco I discovered very quickly that I had to speak French, given that I only had about five words of Arabic. Most men, at least, speak very good French, and more to the point, they don't roll around on the floor laughing at you when you don't reciprocate very well, at least in your presence. I lost my contact lens case, and given that my tiny dictionary didn't cover them, had to try to by a container for small round things shortsighted people wore when they didn't have glasses. All great fun, and I've never been able to express myself so well in French before or since.

From Morocco I went to Italy, glorying in my new confidence to be able to communicate with people, given that I could speak English well and French apparently comprehensibly. Obviously everyone in tourist areas would speak one or both languages, right? Besides, Italian itself wasn't going to be difficult to get the hang of, given Latin and Spanish, and things would be much better organised than in Morocco, because it was in Europe. I turned out to be wrong about most of that, but I'll ramble on about that later. Meanwhile, if anyone has a neatly pointed story, feel free to post.
 

Callaina

Feles Curiosissima
I was chatting online (text chatting) with a guy (friend of a friend). His first language was Farsi, and though I had been studying some Farsi at the time, it was Medieval Sufi Poetry Persian -- i.e. nothing particularly useful for holding a normal, day-to-day conversation in. He knew some English, but it was minimal. Fortunately, his second language was German, so we decided to chat in that.

At one point I asked him where he had "verlernt" his German. I was a bit surprised by his hesitant reaction. It was only several minutes later in our conversation that he very politely informed me that the past participle of lernen was actually "gelernt", or words to that effect.
 
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