Questions with only one right answer

You’re in country X.  Let’s say that the local language is called Xish.  Here are the only correct answers to the following questions:

Q: So, what do you think about Xish?  A: It’s beautiful.
Q: Xish is really easy to speak, isn’t it? A: No.
Q: Do you think that Xish is hard?  A: Yes.
 Q: What’s more difficult–English, or Xish?  A: Xish.
 Comment: You speak Xish wonderfully!  Response: Oh, no, I speak Xish terribly.

In some technical sense, your answer to all of these will have been been false, except for the one about speaking Xish poorly.  “Difficulty” is not a meaningful word when applied to languages.  Neither is “beauty” in a technical sense, although I won’t belabor that one.

It occurred to me as I wrote this that the picture that I’ve painted here could be interpreted as suggesting that people who speak any language other than the one that you speak are easily fooled. In fact, that’s not the case at all.  This is about shared human culture–as far as I know, most people in most places love to talk about their language with foreigners, and how hard that language is will pretty much always be a good conversational tack to take.  (Obviously, I haven’t been everywhere or talked to everyone, but I’ve probably done this little exercise in somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 countries by now.)  In fact, in a lot of places, the Your Xish is great! thing is a sophisticated opportunity to let you show your grasp of the culture (or not)–in many cultures, accepting a compliment is quite gauche, and the only proper response is self-deprecation.  Respond with “oh, thank you–I’ve really been working on it!”…and you’ve just shown yourself to still be clueless.  Respond appropriately and you’ve just shown your grasp of, and respect for, the culture.

Ironically, I can’t quite figure out whether or not that’s the case in France–in general, this is not a country where self-deprecation is valued.  It’s a real problem for Americans, since self-deprecation is more or less our default attitude any time that we meet someone new, and often for much, much longer than that.  You could think of this whole isn’t-my-language-hard thing as an instance of not “exoticizing the Other,” as we academics like to say, but rather, of exoticizing oneself–of supporting a sort of exceptionalism for one’s own language, in the sense that we talk about “American exceptionalism” (the idea that America is just plain better than the rest of the world and has something to offer it–I certainly agree with the second part of that) and “French exceptionalism” (the idea that France is just plain better than the rest of the world and has something to offer it–I certainly agree with the second part of that, too).

English notes

Picture source:

gauche: lacking social experience or grace; also :  not tactful :  crude  (taken directly from Merriam-Webster).  I think that the best French equivalent might be maladroit, but couldn’t swear to it.  How it was used in the post: In many cultures, accepting a compliment is quite gauche, and the only proper response is self-deprecation.  Some examples from the Open American National Corpus, a collection of 15 million words of American English, collected and annotated by my colleague Nancy Ide, that you can download to do with as you please.  I used the Sketch Engine web site to search it.

  • You are correct that you cannot come right out and say, “It is gauche to come over and serenade me with your potato chips , so please go away.”
  • Gauche, gauche, gauche, and tacky.  (I love this one even more than the previous one.) 
  • Your take on his behavior was correct: It was gauche. Prudie does have one slight bit of curiosity about the faux pas.

to take a tack: to go in a particular direction, metaphorically speaking.  It comes from nautical language, where the verb to tack means to change the direction of a ship by turning the bow into the wind.  Confusingly, it can mean something like tactic, but it is not related to that word at all.  How it was used in the post: Most people in most places love to talk about their language with foreigners, and how hard that language is will pretty much always be a good conversational tack to take.  Some examples from the Open American National Corpus (see above):

  • Britain’s Independent took a similar tack, observing, “The situation is far from precisely parallel, but it is still a chastening thought that the Kosovo Liberation Army is, under conditions of vastly greater duress, handing in its guns at a rather faster rate than the Provisional IRA seems able to arrange  “
  • But rather than pursue that obscure tack any further (place names such as Washington are surely both proper nouns and eponyms) , let us see if the proper categories of words really end there as grammar books tend to suggest .  (Different verb–pursue, rather than take–but, same meaning)
  • Having apparently grown tired of obsessing over just how skeletal the Ally McBeal Über-waif has become, the tabs take a different tack: They bare their fangs and become positively McCarthyesque in their zeal to rat out celebs who’ve become the least bit unsvelte.
  • I think it’s one of the tacks Gerald Posner took in his book JFK book, Case Closed.

French notes

gauche: according to, this adjective can mean awkward, clumsy, or gauche, but with this sense (meaning) it is soutenu.  

le langage soutenu or le registre soutenu: according to the French-language Wikipedia, this is especially a written form of the language, used in official letters and literary texts.

6 thoughts on “Questions with only one right answer”

  1. I can’t find a total and correct translation for the meaning of “gauche” in your “accepting a compliment” example . Several possibilities implying different connotations exist, “inélégant” is a strong one, but depending on your personal nuances you can say immodeste/prétentieux, or puéril, or ignorant, or bête, or even maladroit yes . If I had to express this I would probably use a phrase such as “accepter un compliment est un signe de …” the ellipsis being what I attribute to this attitude in the particular context .
    About this French weak self-depreciation you must not forget that French folks use it a lot, except it is not for humour . It is quite common to hear people self-depreciate their abilities but when they do they mean it, so it is bitterly funny at best and more often downcast . Humour is not used for the same goals in France .
    But you still find a minority who does it in the Anglo-Saxon way, and minorities being more creative when a French does it he brings unusual charms in it . It’s the kind of things that makes me enjoy becoming close to people when I’m abroad : the guys I meet who could be my mates if I was from there -and they naturally belong to a minority – have an unusual way ( for me) of being great . I really love this .

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Answer to Comment: “Of course it’s not really necessary for me to speak Xish, since you all speak English so well, but I thought it would be polite for me to try.” As far as I can tell, this comment is partially true in big cities in France and Germany, and entirely true in Holland and Scandinavia. For the latter two, the only other plausible reason for learning the local language is to enjoy entertainment and culture: it really is entirely unnecessary for coping with life.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Comment not on the vocabulary which is an interesting mix, but on the psychology of self-deprecation I disagree with. Much healthier to accept compliments in a nice, natural and subdued way, with an appreciative smile 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

      1. So maybe that’s why there are so many self-help books to build up a more balanced attitude? Sorry we’re probably moving into other terrain here, but I’m very surprised by this self-deprecation concept

        Liked by 1 person

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