Humor of Mark Twain's French

Humor of Mark Twain's French is adapted from his book Innocents Abroad:

We could not get on the pier from the ship (in Marseilles harbor). It was annoying. We were full of enthusiasm--we wanted to see France!

Just at nightfall our party of three contracted with a waterman for the privilege of using his boat as a bridge--its stern was at our companion ladder and its bow touched the pier.

We got in and the fellow backed out into the harbor. I told him in French that all we wanted was to walk over his thwarts and step ashore, and asked him what he went away out there for.

He said he could not understand me. I repeated. Still he could not understand. He appeared to be very ignorant of French.

The doctor tried him, but he could not understand the doctor.

I asked this boatman to explain his conduct, which he did; and then I couldn't understand him.

Dan said: "Oh, go to the pier, you old fool--that's where we want to go!"

We reasoned calmly with Dan that it was useless to speak to this foreigner in English--that he had better let us conduct this business in the French language and not let the stranger see how uncultivated he was.

"Well, go on, go on," he said, "don't mind me. I don't wish to interfere. Only, if you go on telling him in your kind of French, he never will find out where we want to go to. That is what I think about it."

We rebuked him severely for this remark and said we never knew an ignorant person yet but was prejudiced.

The Frenchman spoke again, and the doctor said: "There now, Dan, he says he is going to allez to the douain. Means he is going to the hotel. Oh, certainly--we don't know the French language." This was a crusher, as Jack would say. It silenced further criticism from the disaffected member.

We coasted past the sharp bows of a navy of great steamships and stopped at last at a government building on a stone pier. It was easy to remember then that the douain was the customhouse and not the hotel. We did not mention it, however.

With winning French politeness the officers merely opened and closed our satchels, declined to examine our passports, and sent us on our way.

We stopped at the first cafe we came to and entered. An old woman seated us at a table and waited for orders. The doctor said:

"Avez-vous du vin?"

The dame looked perplexed. The doctor said again, with elaborate distinctness of articulation:

"Avez-vous du--vin!"

The dame looked more perplexed than before.

I said: "Doctor, there is a flaw in your pronunciation somewhere. Let me try her.

Madame, avez-vous du vin?--It isn't any use, Doctor--take the witness."

"Madame, avez-vous du vin--du fromage--pain--pickled pigs' feet--beurre--des oeufs--du boeuf--horseradish, sauerkraut, hog and hominy--anything, anything in the world that can stay a Christian stomach!"

She said:

"Bless you, why didn't you speak English before? I don't know anything about your plagued French!"

The humiliating taunts of the disaffected member spoiled the supper, and we dispatched it in angry silence and got away as soon as we could.

Here we were in beautiful France--in a vast stone house of quaint architecture--surrounded by all manner of curiously worded French signs--stared at by strangely habited, bearded French people—everything gradually and surely forcing upon us the coveted consciousness that at last, and beyond all question, we were in beautiful France and absorbing its nature to the forgetfulness of everything else, and coming to feel the happy romance of the thing in all its enchanting delightfulness—and to think of this skinny veteran intruding with her vile English, at such a moment, to blow the fair vision to the winds! It was exasperating.

We set out to find the centre of the city, inquiring the direction every now and then.

We never did succeed in making anybody understand just exactly what we wanted, and neither did we ever succeed in comprehending just exactly what they said in reply, but then they always pointed—they always did that--and we bowed politely and said, "Merci, monsieur," and so it was a blighting triumph over the disaffected member anyway. He was restive under these victories and often asked:

"What did that pirate say?"

"Why, he told us which way to go to find the Grand Casino."

"Yes, but what did he say?"

"Oh, it don't matter what he said--we understood him. These are educated people--not like that absurd boatman."

"Well, I wish they were educated enough to tell a man a direction that goes somewhere--for we've been going around in a circle for an hour. I've passed this same old drugstore seven times."

We said it was a low, disreputable falsehood (but we knew it was not). It was plain that it would not do to pass that drugstore again, though--we might go on asking directions, but we must cease from following finger-pointings.

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