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A Man of a Few More Words - by Swan Morrison

French Comprehension

‘When is the next bus to Paris?’ I asked an elderly Frenchman who was sitting at the bus stop.


‘When le next bus à Paris?’ I translated with increased volume in a stereotypical French accent.

‘Pardon monsieur, je ne comprends pas.’ He turned and called to a man across the street. ‘Pierre, comprenez-vous cet homme de l'Angleterre?’

Pierre joined us.

‘Hello Pierre,’ I said, ‘when is the next bus to Paris?’

Pierre shook his head. ‘Non René, je ne comprends pas trop lui,’ he conceded.

Bus,’ I stressed, drawing the shape of such a vehicle in the air with my index fingers.

‘Je pense que c'est un film, René, n'est-ce pas?’ ventured Pierre.

‘Non, Non,’ replied René, ‘Je pense que c'est un livre.’

Encouraged by their efforts to understand, I mimed the doors of a bus opening followed by my boarding of the bus, my paying of the conductor and then finally my alighting in central Paris – the latter being rather cleverly illustrated, I thought, by standing with my legs wide apart with arms raised above my head and fingertips touching in perfect resemblance of the Eiffel Tower.

‘C’est peut-être un ballet?’ suggested Pierre.

‘Non,’ responded René, ‘il doit être un livre ou un film ou une émission de télévision.’

We were joined by a large, bearded man. ‘Och Aye it’s hot,’ he said, sitting down and wiping his brow.

‘You speak English,’ I said to the new arrival with relief.

‘Ah prefer tae hink ay it as Scottish,’ he replied in a heavy Glaswegian accent. He turned to the Frenchmen. ‘Dae ye ken th' time ay th' next wee bus tae Paris?’

‘Oui monsieur,’ René answered, ‘le bus arrive en cinq minutes.’ René raised a palm with fingers spread to confirm the number five.

‘Cheers mun,’ said the Scotsman.

‘You understood him?’ I said to René in amazement.


I pointed to the Scotsman and then my mouth and then my ear.

‘Je suis certain que c'est un film,’ proclaimed Pierre. ‘Est-il “Braveheart”?’

‘Bien sûr, ce film a été sur le thème de les grands Écossais et les Anglais stupide,’ noted René.

‘Ah hink it's yer accent,’ suggested the Scotsman. ‘Tae be frenk, Ah hud tae kin' ay guess whit ye waur sayin', myself.’

‘But I speak with a very neutral southern English accent,’ I protested.

‘Yah sassenach disnae hae mony common pronunciations wi' other languages an' dialects,’ he continued. ‘Tak' th' way Ah say “bus”. It soonds jist loch th' way th' French say “bus”. Ye say “baas”. Soonds loch naethin' but a wee lamb lookin' fur its maw.’

This Celtic Professor Higgins was about to expand further on these finer points of linguistic difference when the Paris bus arrived. He and René climbed aboard.

I was about to follow when Pierre tapped me on the shoulder. ‘Excuse-moi, monsieur,’ he said, ‘est-ce que le film est “Braveheart”?’