For those who may not know, I am in Paris for the month of July. It is a working vacation–Jay has math workshops, I have a linguistics conference, and we have about two weeks inbetween these things. We are hooked up in a nice apartment in the 2nd, after a pretty harrowing experience of being scammed. That story to come. Being back in France allows me to reflect on the 3 months Jay and I spent here in the summer of 2006, and in fact, all the times I’ve come to Paris since the first time in 1990. Man, I’ve been coming to France on and off for 18 years. Crazy.
France and I have a history. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I have a love-hate relationship with the French. Many people feel this way about the French. Rather than listing the things that both irk and endear me to these wonderful people, I’ve decided that the aspects of my love-hate relationship should get a series. In the first of the LHRF series, I will discuss my love-hate relationship with French Humor.
The French have an unusually wry sense of humor. I am a fan of wry humor. Except when it gets used on me. And the French like to do this. One instance that I was subjected to more than a few times last time I was here was something like the following, usually at a restaurant:
Me: Do you have a toilet?/Are there toilets?
Waiter: No, I’m sorry.
Waiter: No, I’m just joking. They’re over on the left.
So yesterday we walk by a fromagerie, and in the display case on the street are plates of cheese; The plates are advertised for 6 euros each, and there are about 4 different cheeses on each plate. They were brie-looking cheeses, but I couldn’t tell what kinds they were. 6 euros seemed like a decent price to pay for 4 different kinds of cheeses, so I thought I’d ask what they were. And I get this:
Me to the cheesemonger: What is on the plates?
Is this really necessary? To a stranger no less? Do they get their kicks out of the person’s reaction? Yes, catching someone off their guard is funny, I’ll admit. But in everyday transactions like finding the bathroom? Are French just unmercifully cruel on people who can’t identify cheese by sight or don’t make the assumption that a restaurant has a public toilet?
You know what happens when you make a supposition. You make a supp out of os and ition. Like myself, perhaps the French need a snark stripper.
But as I am also a linguist, I have to wonder: is this interaction only a result of humor at play, or is there something subtly linguistic I’m missing here. Is there something about the questions est-ce qu’il y a des toilettes or qu’est-ce qu’il y a sur le plateau that warrants that kind of response?
Comments, especially from native speakers, will be carefully considered, and earn you a coupon good for “one less frog joke” redeemable when I have been hitting the Bordeaux a little hard.