Tuesday, 9 July 2019

On Language Learning and the Many Meanings of a Quenelle

There are always different ways to learn a foreign language, and sometimes quite interesting ways of developing a deeper cultural understanding of a place than watching online tutorials or sitting in lecture halls.
Take French, for example. I have retained a very small amount of French from secondary school, which I have expanded slightly through a combination of personal study and multiple visits to France itself.
However, things like slang terms, colloquialisms, and often uniquely French insults, can often remain closed off to the student and tourist alike, so other sources must be found to develop a deeper understanding of the culture and sub-cultures of the country you are getting to know.
You might be able to deduce a few of these from perusing the pages of satirical newspapers and magazines like Charlie Hebdo or l'Echo des Savanes. Of course, mass movements can be a tremendous education too. The content of banners and placards must be short and punchy, which also makes them easier to key into an online translation website. The current Gilets Jaunes are no exception.
For example, in one video posted online I noticed a protestor with the words "Macron la sens-tu la quenelle?" written on the back of his yellow vest. Online translation tools can help with most of this sentence, but offer no alternative or explanation for that last word.
Roughly, it means something like "Macron do you feel the quenelle?"


With the abundance of information available on the Internet it is not hard to work out that a quenelle is a dish consisting primarily of elongated fish balls.
It gets better. Or worse, depending on your appetite.
Some people have likened the shape of the quenelle to that of a suppository, which explains the phrase "glisser une quenelle" (which means something like "to slide the quenelle").
To top things off, around 2005 the controversial comedian and political activist Dieudonne used the word to popularise a hand gesture some people see as a kind of inverted Nazi salute which has become quite popular in France as a gesture of protest, solidarity etc. Others argue that it is primarily an "up yours" (a British term) to the establishment, although I am still trying to understand if the accusations of racism are genuine or part of a smear campaign similar to the one currently engulfing the British Labour Party. Anti-semitism is real and needs to be challenged, but it would be foolish to ignore the weaponisation of anti-semitism in recent years as a tool to smear those who dare to criticise atrocities committed by the state of Israel.
Islamophobia in France is of course built on the foundations of that countries' unresolved colonial history, particularly in relation to those countries like Algeria that fought bitter struggles against their colonial masters.
Dieudonne, the son of a French mother and father from Cameroon, whose comedy in the 1990s had been defined by a sharp anti-racist sensibility, was an early victim of the extreme political situation in the early years of the War on Terror.
In a style that could be seen as somewhat quintessentially French, when faced with prosecution for alleged anti-semitism, and many of his performances banned, Dieudonne refused to back down or compromise the provocative nature of his comedy. Today he is a vocal supporter of the Gilets Jaunes, and any passing foray into French language social media channels (like his own) that are supportive of the movement reveals just how prevalent the term "quenelle" has become as a kind of rallying cry for its supporters.
I wanted to share these thoughts in relation to my own language learning because such linguistic terms as these will likely be completely lost on people who only follow English language coverage of the Yellow Vests.
It would seem that sometimes learning a foreign language really does promote greater inter-cultural understanding.