Language in the South of France

I shared a room with three girls in a hostel in the south of France.

One was from the German speaking part of Switzerland. I didn’t know until recently, but the land of the Swiss actually has four official languages, not including English, which they treat as one also. Aside from their version of German, which, from what picked up, isn’t understood by a German who hasn’t studied Dutch—something that my mind doesn’t like when it considers the fact that the Germans refer to their language, German, as Dutch. I’d be interested in finding out how they call what we call Dutch, but apparently not enough to open google.

I asked my “German-speaking” roommate if she, as an example of a Swiss resident, spoke three of the languages of her country, on top of English which she was speaking with me (I say three, because the fourth language is quite strange, and hardly acknowledged. Everywhere you go, you see everything in four languages, “Bienvenue, Benvenuti, Willkommen, Welcome,” but their fourth, obscure language is generally ignored. I was told it’s a mix of Latin, German, French and Italian, or something along those lines, and it’s spoken in a very small area of the country). Her answer was no, she didn’t speak the other languages, though she was in the process of studying French in France.

To me, and to a German girl who was there as well, this idea was rather absurd: that she couldn’t speak to other of her country-folk. Not just that, but she couldn’t speak to the majority of her fellow citizens. She went to Geneva to work at a time in her life—I believe as a waitress—and had to speak to everyone in English as she didn’t speak French.

Then there was the problem I had with the “German” girl. As I said, she was “German,” and honestly I believed her, but my mind will never see her as such. She was a pale girl with light brown/reddish hair, who’d been living in England, just below the Scottish border, for a year and a half at the time I met her. She was working in a university, as a “Mitrologist,” as she put it, After some investigation, it turns out she was really a Meteorologist. She spoke with such a dainty, English-Scottish accent that my eyes will never look at her as a German, no matter how many times my brain reminds them. I told her about a professor I had in Spain, who claimed he was Spanish, and I’m sure he was, but as in this new case, I never once saw him as such. He’d learned English in the four years he lived in Germany, and he taught us a class on international marketing in English, due to the internationality aspect. Never hearing him speak Spanish, excepting one time he asked us how to say Farmacia in English—which blew my mind—he was just some guy with a strange, rural German accent. It helped my case that he fit a German profile physically more so than a Spanish. That man will never be Spanish to me. And this girl from the northern UK will never be German.

I got up to go to the bathroom, and it didn’t take long before they started speaking their own Germans—this “German”-northern UKer had stated earlier, when I asked whether they’d be able to speak together, that she could because she’d studied Dutch. It was all so strange. In Switzerland they speak German, but the Swiss girl was first to answer my question, answering in the negative, to then be proved wrong by the UKer’s defense of her having had studied Dutch. As I said, none of this seemed logical to me, and I asked them to speak together, so that maybe I could convince my brain that she was indeed German, but for some reason which has since left my mind, she refused. Unconsciously I reasoned it saying that it was because she was in fact nothing but an imposter, damned meteorologists. And I’m certain that I’ve forgotten her real reason due to my brain’s preferring his rationalizing, “don’t listen to her logic, she’s saying it because she doesn’t speak German.” Of course if I ever caught my brain in the act he would get a good whipping, something like a heavy drinking binge as punishment. Because I know all that, my brain’s poor-though-successful attempt at strange control, blocked the memory after I got up to go to the bathroom, in which time they began speaking their Germans, as I said.

But even that is not enough to convince me—though I said I’m certain she is in fact German—my unconscious response was, “Hey! This English girl speaks German!” It wasn’t just me, though. The third girl was French, and when there was a question on the English language, the Swiss and the French went directly to the German girl. Time and again I tried to make clear the fact that I was the only native English speaker in the room, that I was the appropriate heir to the throne, but there’s no getting past the authority of the UK accent, and, I must admit, I more than once looked inquisitively to her for proper grammaticism or vocabulary.

There’s just no convincing the senses.