Sunday, 19 October 2008

France-Britain and the whiffy Wifi language divide

A word of warning before you launch into a rapid read of this post. Much of it probably won't make any sense until you've made it to the end. And even then you might need to start all over again.

To begin with, I would like to say that I think I have a pretty good grasp of the English language.

Well I should do. It's my mother tongue and I was born and brought up in Britain, although I've spent the best part of the last couple of decades living and working abroad and alternately murdering and mangling other languages with abandon.

Throw in the fact that I have a teaching qualification (although no longer used) and actually do a fair amount of talking for a living, and I should have a handle on "proper" pronunciation.

As I stress, "I would like to say." Sadly that's not always the case.

All right so I know that Britain and the US are supposed to be two countries divided by a common language (among other things). And I'm well used to be gawped at with almost total incomprehension when I open my mouth in a restaurant on the other side of the Pond and ask where the loo (restroom) is or request the bill (check).

Even though I know Americans "stand in line" the devil in me means that I still cannot resist asking where the "queue" is for tickets at the cinema, and I know that someone, somewhere is going to tell me that my plummy accented way of pronouncing tomato (tommarto) is either "cute" or completely "foreign".

But never, ever in my wildest dreams did I imagine that my fellow Brits would have a problem with the way I talk. Well apart from once in Scotland, when I was told that my accent was too "alienating" to be heard on the local radio station. Harrumph.

Now though, I have to own up that perhaps I no longer have a grip on the language I used to claim to be able to master.

And it's all the fault of modern technology. That's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it.

You see, a couple of months ago I had the local Internet provider here (Orange) install a Livebox in my home. It means that I can log on from my laptop anywhere in the house. Yes that's right Wifi is now available "chez moi".

It's great and means I'm not desk-bound to the study but can use my computer anywhere in the house; perched on my knees while I goggle at the box if I fancy, or (weather permitting) even outside in the garden.

All right, so it's not the hottest of news. I mean, I've been using Wifi all around France at various hotels and airport lounges for quite a while. But to have it within my own four walls has been rather a novelty.

Anyway, on a recent trip "back home" to London, I took my rather overweight laptop along for the journey, and while checking in at the hotel I naturally asked - as I always do here in France - whether they had Wifi available.

The receptionist gave me a rather puzzled look, but asked politely, "Wifi sir? What exactly would that be?"

"Wifi," I replied helpfully. "Wifi. Do you have Wifi available here?" Repetition seemed to be the best way of making myself understood, I thought.

"I'm sorry sir. I don't understand what you mean. What precisely do you want?" She asked.

Even after the shortest of exchanges, the conversation was becoming more than a little tedious for me. I'm not renowned for my excess of patience especially when faced with an idiot.

I mean Wifi is Wifi isn't it? Everyone knows what it is, even a technophobe such as myself. Either the hotel had it or it hadn't. The receptionist really couldn't be as dim as she appeared.

That at least was what was passing through my mind.

Fortunately as it turned out, I held my tongue and rather slowly, but with clinical precision enunciated, "W.I.F.I - you know the thing that allows me to connect to the Internet without those interminable wires and wotnot."

Silence. Then.

"Ah," came the reply. "Wye - Fye (proper English mother-tongue pronunciation of Wifi). Yes of course we have Wye-Fye sir," she added with a smirk.

It was one of those "please-let-the-ground-open-up-to-swallow-me" moments as I realised that too many years in France and the fact that I've only ever used the word here, had led me to believe that the correct pronunciation was "wiffy" as in "whiffy" (meaning smelly) and not wye-fye, as I've since learned much of the rest of the world calls it.

I sheepishly admitted defeat, not daring to look her in the eye as she could clearly see I had arrived from Planet Zog, albeit with an English accent and a seemingly dippy IQ.

So now I know how to pronounce the word, there should be no stopping me - at least not when I'm either in Britain or next visiting the US.

But for the moment there is - something stopping me I mean.

I just can't bring myself to say it.

And even as I double check the spelling and grammar here, I'm mouthing the word "whiffy, whiffy, whiffy" in my head as I read.

Quelle horreur.

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