Come again? Comment? When spoken French is an utter mystery

How many times can you ask someone to repeat themselves without it getting embarrassing, wonders Nick Inman

‘I tried to visualise the phrase but there was no match in the grammar book I carry around in my head’

I was in the chemist a few weeks ago and the lady at the counter told me she did not have a particular item on my prescription.

I would not find it anywhere, she continued, because the factory had stopped producing it. But, she reassured me, I should not worry because “eelsonon”.

At least, that is what it sounded like, but it meant nothing to me. I furrowed my brow and asked her to repeat it so that I could have another go.

This time, she spoke a little more slowly: “Ils onent.” No better.

I tried to visualise this phrase but there was no match in the grammar book I carry around in my head.

I grasped the context – “they” (meaning the staff of the hospital where I had an appointment) are doing something, but what they were doing was not apparent. What was this verb, oner, that I had never heard used before?

Read more: Chépa, Chui: Six French ‘slurred’ words you may find hard to recognise

‘It was an utter mystery’

It is hard to know what to do in such a circumstance – when someone is telling you something unimportant but you do not get the message.

For the lady in the pharmacy, it was patently clear and could not be simplified more. For me, it was an utter mystery.

Should I nod nonchalantly as if I have understood and risk missing something vital?

Or should I ask for it to be rephrased with diagrams and expose myself as a simpleton who does not speak as much French as he thought?

I have tried both approaches in the past and neither is satisfactory.

Here I deployed a compromise. I said d’accord (“okay”) and memorised the phrase so that I could get someone to explain it later.

What had thrown me was one of the most common words in the French language – en. To an English ear it sounds almost identical to ont (“have” in the third person plural).

The phrase I had heard but not deciphered was ils en ont (“they have some of it”).

Simple, when you see it written down, but spoken French invariably slides words together and this little word en becomes a lubricant between other language items.

Read more: Common mistakes French learners make and how to fix them

‘This is not the first time it has fooled me’

Early one morning a few years ago, I was on the way to the university where I was studying French.

I was listening to talk radio and a reporter was carrying out a semi-humorous vox pop on the streets of Paris.

Vousonnet?” she kept asking people and they would laugh and give her an answer.

It had a certain musicality to it: a phrase that has been used so often by so many French people since the beginning of time that no one bothers to separate the words for the benefit of an English listener.

I thought it must have something to do with honnête (honest), but “Are you honest?” did not seem like the right answer to the puzzle.

I spent the whole of the rest of the day thinking about it. I did not want to ask anyone because I was busy pretending that I was at intermediate level.

Besides, analysing language is part of learning.

Eventually, I saw it.

Space out the sounds and you get vous en êtes? (“Are you one?” or “Are you one of them?”).

I cannot remember who the “them” was on that occasion, but I have been using the phrase ever since.

And the first chance I have, I am going to tell someone “eelsonon”.

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