It must have been in primary school when I first became aware that many common words -ones I sometimes scattered around me like peas that wouldn’t stay on my plate- had unintended consequences. Had meanings I had not anticipated. Of course, that’s what school is for I imagine: cultural indoctrination that allows a child to mesh with his peers… or not.
One of my earliest inaugurations into the vagaries of language occurred really early in my schooling. My family had just moved from a different Canadian province at the end of summer, and because my birthday fell at the end of the calendar year, I was denied the usual apprenticeship in Kindergarten. I was plonked instead into the impenetrable machinations of Grade 1, a year younger than any in the class.
There is a certain sophistication worn by those who have come up through the usual ranks that is denied to interlopers. I knew nothing of this, of course, and my innocence likely condemned me to dunce-like status amongst the cognoscenti inhabiting the front row seats to which I was unceremoniously assigned.
We are all naïve in a foreign land, but especially so at 5 years of age. I had come from a province whose summers were rife with wildlife, forests, and mountains; I knew nothing of the prairies and its fields of waving, golden wheat, and skies that actually disappeared at the flat and faraway horizon, not at the ragged tops of towering trees. Here the clouds were not impaled on the peaks of mountains, or speckled with eagles circling quietly high above. Echoes of solitary ravens did not chortle and squawk forlornly high in a canopy of eternal green.
I remember being the subject of curious stares, and mocking whispers that first day in class. I remember wanting nothing so much as the familiar. Something -anything- I could relate to in this crowd of strangers. Unlike them, I had no history in Winnipeg, no understanding of how anyone could adapt to a land that seemed as squashed and flat as clothes fed through a ringer. Where did all the animals live? Why were there no forests, no mountains, no waves crashing against rocky headlands? And why did we have to move from Vancouver? I kept my ears alert for clues, if not answers that first day.
I suppose it is the lot of the child to wear his naïveté like the pain of new shoes he is expected to break in, however. There was a little girl in the next seat that seemed to sense my discomfort and I remember she leaned over and whispered something to me about some frogs in the school playground. She also said her name was Nancy.
That sounded promising: a friend.
“And they make such funny sounds,” she added with a twinkle in her eye when she saw she had caught my interest.
I must have looked confused -frogs are frogs; they make frog sounds -just like dogs make dog sounds. Only people sound comes out as words.
I suddenly noticed Miss Haversham, our teacher, staring at me. “I don’t know what students do where you come from,” she said with a kindly hiss in her voice, “But in Winnipeg, we don’t talk when the teacher is talking.”
I decided not to tell her I’d never been in a school before, and that anyway, Nancy had only been whispering, not talking. Fortunately at that point, a noisy bell sounded and everybody got out of their seats and started to leave the room.
“It’s recess,” Nancy explained. “We get to run around outside for 15 minutes.”
I wondered whether I could make it home and back in 15 minutes, and was planning my route when Nancy grabbed my hand.
“I’ll show you the frogs if you want…” She looked so earnest, I decided to go home at lunch instead.
She led me around the corner of the old red-brick school and pointed to a group of children playing tag in a dusty far corner of the field. I couldn’t see any frogs -for that matter I didn’t think they could even live in a dry, dirt covered area.
“There is a French part of the school,” she explained when she saw the disappointment on my face. “Just listen to them, though…” She turned to look at me. “Don’t they sound funny?”
I sent my eyes over to interrogate her face. “Where are the frogs, though?” I asked, genuinely puzzled.
She pointed at the children again, but this time rather impatiently. “Honestly, I think you must need glasses!” she said, shaking her head impatiently. Then she stared at me for a minute -her turn to be puzzled. “What do you call French people in Vancouver?” She said ‘Vancouver’ carefully to make sure she got it right.
I shrugged. “Les gens Françaises…?” My mother spoke French.
“Well,” she said, arms akimbo, “Here we call them Frogs.”
I didn’t really understand, and anyway, it sounded like she was making fun of them, so I walked away, confused that some words could have several meanings. Still, it was a revelatory discovery, and a wonderful tool to use if you were careful.
Years later, in my dotage, I stumbled upon a French language article about linguistics in an online publication the Conversation: https://theconversation.com/pourquoi-certains-mots-blessent-les-uns-et-pas-les-autres-cest-une-question-de-memoire-discursive-146803 It brought back those memories of Nancy and the frogs.
In the article, Dalla Malé Fofana, a lecturer at Bishop’s University, writes about the problems of communication ‘between individuals of different cultures, because the misunderstandings it causes are often based on reflexes and unconscious cues, which makes them all the more pernicious.’ And that, really, was all I got out of the article. To tell the truth, I just wanted to see if I could still read an article in French, so I waded through it without the Google translation. It seemed to take forever and I frequently lost my way, but I finally realized he was simply saying that people of different cultures sometimes misunderstand each other. I knew that already, of course.
Perhaps, had I been un vrai Canadien bilingue it might have been more relevant, but I was so tired by the end of it, I had a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and switched on the translated version.
It made me wonder if Nancy ever found out what the French kids called us in those days…