One of the more useful fundaments of the German language is the general rule that you pronounce everything you see. Every single letter in every single word is voiced. For an English speaker, and indeed I would imagine a French speaker, two languages in which the Silent Letter is considered royal, if not King, this is something of a novelty. It also means learning how words are actually said in German is the easiest part of the entire gig. It is a very rare occasion on which you will be caught out by a lurking, unvoiced letter, the type that abound in English and make spelling a competitive sport at school.
Unless, of course, we are talking about borrowed words. Borrowed words constitute something of a murky territory. The word ‘Paris’, for instance, is given the full treatment by English speakers, from the P to the S. The people to whom Paris is a capital city, drop the ‘s’ and thus Pah-ree sort of somersaults off the tongue with almost careless aplomb. The Germans agreed this is the superior pronunciation of ‘Paris’ and so they, too, allow ‘Pah-ree’ to roll forth, smoking a Gauloises and looking bored.
However, this is not the case with the word ‘ballet’. Here, English speakers go for the elegant ‘ball-ay’ which befits the entire dance form. There is no place for a harsh ‘t’ in ballet. The word must spring, wearing satin slippers, and land softly on upon a surface more gently rounded than ‘t’. Not so, say the Germans. Ballet, in German, rhymes with pallet. Instead of silver slippers springing, one is forced to think more of a silver bullet shooting out of a German’s mouth, quick and hard. It is incongruous, but incongruity is part of the ride in German; this is a language that assigns its three genders to objects at utter random, and sits back and watches sadistically as learners get them wrong 66% of the time.
And so we arrive at the word ‘buffet’, a French gift to both the English and German languages and a German obsession. It is also a word that has come to be something of a symbol within my marriage. My husband, like any good German, appreciates a decent buffet. Prior to moving to Germany, I had little need to use the word ‘buffet’ because my parents hate them and we never really attended them as children, if it could he helped. However in the seven or so years I have been here, I have had cause to attend a buffet at least three times a year; birthday lunches, Easter brunches, all-you-can-eat situations. (As an aside, I am a bad buffet-goer. I get terribly panicked and feel judged, although the latter is something I have overcome here because while Germans may judge you on many thing, it is rarely on a well-filled plate at the buffet table. At such a sight, the primary reaction is deep respect.) This means that I have cause to use the word ‘buffet’ in both English and German with relative frequency. And so I did as I so often do in the matter of all things German; I took my cue from my husband. Whenever we spoke about buffets – and we speak English to one another – he would always say, erroneously to my English ear, ‘buffet’ to rhyme with muffet of the little miss variety. It was a charming quirk, one I assumed simply came from the fact the Germans say ‘buffet’ to rhyme with ‘muffet’ and didn’t comment on immediately, but must have commented on at some point. Over time, I, too, began saying ‘buffet’ even when speaking English as a sort of really private inner joke with myself, one I figured he must be in on because I wouldn’t have let him continue saying ‘buffet’ as if it were the most normal thing in the world.
As it turns out, my husband was actually say ‘buffet’ to rhyme with ‘muffet’ because he assumed that is how English speakers say it. As it turns out, Germans actually pronounce ‘buffet’ like English speakers pronounce ‘buffet,’ with the silent ‘t’. He knew this. I did not. I was labouring under the precise opposite impression. Cut to us sitting up at the table with his mother, and me talking about buffets, for whatever reason, and her gently saying, ‘it’s pronounced ‘boo-fay’.’ An almost pitiful pause, as if she had been waiting to break this to me for years. ‘It’s French.’
I was so very confident that she was, in this instance, wrong, that in a foolhardy act, I stood my ground. ‘I know it’s French,’ I said, ‘but Germans say buffet with the ‘t’ sound.’ I turned to my husband for his confirmation. People get things wrong in their native tongue all the time. This was clearly one of those occasions. To my terrific surprise, he shook his head and supported his mother.
I looked at him for a long time, processing a key element of our marriage. ‘You mean this whole time that I have been saying buffet to the Germans, as in ‘the wind is buffeting my hair’, I have been flat out wrong and you never said anything?’
I don’t quite remember his response, but let’s say it was an easy-going shrug. As if it weren’t a big deal. As if having his mother explain to me, gently, as if I were a complete idiot, that the word buffet is French.
‘Why do you say buffet?’ I demanded.
‘Because you say buffet.’
‘No I don’t, you say buffet. I say ‘buff-ay, because it’s French and it has a silent ‘t’.’ I turned to my Mother-in-Law. ‘Like ball-ay. But Germans don’t say ball-ay, do they, they say ‘ballet’.’
It is a most frustrating thing, when one is learning a language, to feel like you have a grasp on a general rule or at least a key brick in the haphazardly built wall of your ongoing linguistic education, to be confident in at least one aspect of the entire ride, and then to discover you have been wrong this entire time. Learning a language is, in itself, an exercise in almost pure frustration, one which makes you look like an utter idiot and sound like a three-year-old every second time you open your mouth. One is constantly retraining one’s brain to allow for the other language’s odd customs to zoom down neural pathways that lost their flexibility a long time ago. To learn that, for once, German and English shared a pronunciation, that I needlessly trained ‘buffet’ with a ‘t’ so it could zoom down a neural pathway – it very nearly brought my entire German journey crashing down. It absolutely rocked my marriage.
Not one to waste any training, I have continued to say ‘buffet’ with a ‘t’ to my husband, because I tend to feel that if you work so hard to allow something to come to life, even an erroneous pronunciation, then live on it shall. Besides, ‘buffet’ with a ‘t’ is a truly more satisfying word than when said with a withering end. There is a robustness to it, that suits the entire meaning; buffets with Germans are not a time to wither. They are a time to stand strong and endure being buffeted by elbows and the rims of fellow diners pressing their plates into your back as you hover uncertainly over the cold-cuts plate.
And so buffet it never really was, but buffet it shall stay.