Free Hat

I’m currently watching South Korea play Mexico (2-0 to Mexico at the moment). A few minutes ago, Mexico got a free kick, which made me realise how odd the word free can be in English.

It has two basic meanings:

  • liberated or unrestricted
  • not costing anything

This is a distinction we realise from a a young age, and we learn to easily determine which meaning is being used from the context. In fact, so confident are we in our ability to easily distinguish between the two that we can play with the word, assuming our audience will get the the joke. The image above, for example, is from an episode of South Park in which the phrase Free hat on a sign, promising a free hat, was mistaken for the imperative voice, with free used as a verb, demanding the release of notorious criminal Hat McCullough.

If you watch the episode, you don’t need someone like me to explain the complexity of the joke in such a dry way, because your brain processes all that boring grammar instantly.

The problems start though, when we take all this knowledge we have of English, and start applying it to other languages.

You see, the issue arises because most languages use different words to refer to the concepts of being unrestricted, and being free of charge. And when you think about it, the two are fairly distinct, so it’s not so surprising. In Irish, for example, free generally is saor, but if you want to say free of charge, you have to specify saor in aisce. In French, things are even more different. Free generally is libre, and free of charge is gratuit. The two aren’t interchangeable at all, and if you used the wrong word, a French speaker might not understand your meaning, unless they knew you were an English speaker, and had a respectable knowledge of English.

It just goes to show that despite all the similarities between some languages, there’ll always be fundamental differences too. I think of languages as slightly different ways of looking at the world. In spite of these differences though, we can still understand the different systems of logic behind other languages. It’s not so strange to us that French distinguishes between gratuit and libre, just, I’m sure, as most French speakers can understand that English uses free instead of both.

It’s just another of those little differences that you have to accept when you’re learning a language. It’s me, in terms of French and English, of OK. A simple little word, but it can have many different meanings. We can use it to express agreement, but also to say that something isn’t of particularly high quality or value (the meal was OK: nothing special), or to indicate a lack of problems (everything looks OK under the bonnet). Like free, we automatically understand the meaning in context.

In French though, we can’t always use the same word for the these different meanings. If we’re agreeing to something, we say D’accord. However, French only uses d’accord with this meaning though (it literally means, basically, in agreement). If you want to say the meal was OK, you have to say le repas n’├ętait pas mal (literally the meal wasn’t bad). And if want to use OK in a more general, positive sense, French usually uses the verb aller (to go): Tout va bien sous le capot (literally everything’s going well under the bonnet).

My problem in French was that I learned about d’accord early on, and then couldn’t help using it in every way we use OK in English, even when I knew as soon as I started saying it that it was wrong.

It’s understandable of course, because it’s very hard to forget the patterns of our native tongue when we’re using another language. Still, that’s what you’ve got to overcome if you really want to learn a second language effectively.

And why, you ask, does English use free with those two different meanings? We’ll look at that tomorrow!


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