Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Ladies and Gentlemen, I generally try and keep my posts both humorous and informative, but today, I’m afraid I must speak seriously about an up-and-coming issue which has already ransacked the world of American fashion and restaurant decor: Unnecessary French Syndrome.

The Symptoms

You may have experienced this terrible, terrible disease yourself. Have you every walked into a restaurant, only to see trite phrases like “C’est toujours la fête” (‘it’s always a party’) framed and hung on the walls, with other French words stenciled at 10 foot intervals, ranging from “le rendezvous” to “le vin”? Have you walked down the street, only to see a young lady’s handbag prominently featuring a French phrase meaning ‘the cat is beneath the tea kettle’? If you’ve experienced these gratuitous, nonsensical uses of the French language aimed at creating pretense, then your life has been touched by this awful syndrome.

Generally, the syndrome is caused by the desire of an American business to fictitiously align itself with European Culture (or Couture). Once that desire is in place, some businesses choose to start using snippets of a European language (like French or Italian) in advertisements, menus, locations, or even on their products. These snippets, although incomprehensible to the vast majority of Americans (usually including the proprietor of the business), are presented as a means of gaining status, allying themselves with European Culture and elevating themselves above English speaking America.

The most disturbing aspect of this syndrome is that the French (or Italian) used doesn’t necessarily need to be grammatically correct (or even real). I’ve seen t-shirts that say “J’ai Paris!” (‘I have Paris!’), probably intending “J’aime Paris!” (‘I love Paris’). When I asked the wearers, they weren’t sure what it meant in the first place, confirming my suspicion that, really, it doesn’t matter what it says, so long as it looks French.
Another beautiful example of made-up words used for status is the Olive Garden restaurant’s catchphrase “Hospitaliano!”. I’m yet to find “Hospitaliano” in any Italian dictionary, and a Google search simply turns up references to the restaurant chain. So, it sounds like somebody just combined the English “Hospitality” and the Italian “Italiano”, then started throwing it on banners. Permissible, yes, but not responsible.

The Diagnosis

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t object to the use of foreign languages in American restaurants and clothing lines. I think that multilingualism aids in creating a healthier culture, and if anything, more people should be encouraged to learn foreign languages and use them even in American contexts (talking with American friends, for instance).

What irks me about Unnecessary French (and Italian) Syndrome is that it’s not actually anything to do with the languages themselves, but instead, simply a question of status. I suspect that I could write the French equivalent of “We have flaming porcupine my back pocket” on a designer t-shirt and sell it to the status crowd, and I’m not sure it would matter to them what it said, just that it’s in French. In these sorts of usages, the meaning is irrelevant, and the language used is really just a symbol worn by the people, roughly translated as “I’m better than you”.

The Cure

So, in an effort to preserve these languages and keep them from becoming mere status symbols, I propose that we linguistically oriented citizens take action. Here are just a few steps you can take to help raise awareness of Unnecessary (Language) Syndrome:

  • When you’re in an American restaurant which advertises with another language, uses it on the Menu, on the Walls, and on the napkins, order in that language if you’re able, or start asking for translations if you’re not.

  • Feel free to translate slogans on T-Shirts for oblivious owners and inquire as to their meanings. If they’re going to wear a shirt, they should at least know that it means “My penguin is on fire in Paris”.

  • If you stumble across a group of t-shirts with French writing on them, ideally in a High Couture type of shop, ask for translations. Then, ask if they have the same shirts in Spanish, because “I really don’t speak much French”.

  • Ask people what their Chinese/Japanese tattoos mean. (Note, if you actually read the language of the tattoo, I don’t recommend telling them what it REALLY means when there’s a discrepancy. Ignorance is usually bliss, and tattoos are harder to remove than tacky shirts.)

Don’t be mean. Don’t be cocky. Remember that the store clerks are likely just as oblivious to the linguistic posturing as the average customer. Just make people think. We can fight Unnecessary French/Italian/Other Language Syndrome together! Allons-y!

… well, nobody’s completely immune.

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