Monday, January 17, 2011

Language Difficulties

I knew this could happen, but I expected it years from now.

My wife and I were cleaning out a walk-in closet on the ground floor and moving everything to a first floor cupboard¹. We needed to make room for the pushchair (stroller) so that life would be easier when the baby arrives. I pulled out a basket of shoes and noticed that several of them needed minor repairs and my wife mentioned that she was going to take  them to a ...

Monza Grand Prix
While we're on the subject, I want these shoes
She's French and simply didn't know the word in English. I'm American, but I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't know the word in English. I did, however, know that the word she wanted was schoenmakerij in Dutch. I was flabbergasted. I don't speak Dutch and my studies of it have been haphazard at best, but I always try to read Dutch signs and pick up little pieces here and there. I only noticed schoenmakerij (shoemaker) because I thought of the word schoonmoeder (mother-in-law) and — not noticing the misspelling — wondered if they were related.

In this case it's a fluke, but I know that when I first met my wife, we were on a picnic one day and she said "sunburn" in English, but couldn't remember the word in French (coup de soleil), her native language. My father has a similar problem. He's an American who's lived in Germany for decades and while still fluent in English, often finds that due the love of cooking he developed while in Germany has left him knowing the German for many cooking terms and not knowing the English equivalent. It's led to some strange conversations where we he tries to describe the thing he's talking about and I just give him a blank stare.

And if you're wondering (you're not, I'm sure), the above shoe belonged to a pleasant Italian gentleman and the photo was taken while my brother Greg, our friend Tom and I were at the Grand Prix in Monza, a small town outside of Milan. I have photosets of this trip here and here.

1. Unlike in the US, the first floor in Europe is generally the first floor above the ground floor, the second the next floor, and so on. So my office at work in on the fifth floor, but Americans would refer to it as the sixth floor in the US.


  1. The word is 'cobbler'. Though I don't know anyone who would use the word, or in truth who would have a shoe mended.

  2. @ Anonymous: " Though I don't know anyone who would use the word, or in truth who would have a shoe mended."

    At least now you know someone who would.

  3. "Coupe de soleil" or "Coupe soleil" is used in the Netherlands as well. It means something totally different than a sunburn: it's a hairstyle where the hair is coloured in an alternating dark and light streaks. Perhaps that just shows that the Dutch knowledge of foreign languages isn't as good as they think it is.