Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Doin' The French Mistake

           Things are finally getting back to normal around here after the trip to the States and a short run up to Normandy. And that means the struggle to learn enough of this language to preserve my honor continues in earnest. This week's lesson was all about the subjunctive. Before Wednesday, I couldn't have told you what this was in English. Just so you know, in the sentence, "In France, it is important  that I be speaking French", be speaking is the subjunctive - I think.

            When I started studying Spanish at nearly 30 years old, and learned terms like indicative and imperative, the only reason I had been even vaguely aware of such things in English was because one  of the guys had brought a Playboy - several actually- to band camp my senior year.  In one of them was the following joke: “A man is on his first visit to Boston, and he wants to try some of that delicious New England seafood that he’d long heard about. So he gets into a cab and asks the driver, ‘Can you take me to where I can get scrod?’ The driver replies, ‘I’ve heard that question a thousand times, but never in the pluperfect subjunctive.’” Of course we all laughed uproariously while, except for the scrod part, having no fucking idea what this meant.  I'm still not sure and after a year and a half in France I'm only marginally able to carry on even the simplest conversations yet children know how to use the subjunctive. I'm considering wearing a sign labeled "MUET" (mute) and just communicating in hand signals.

            A large part of my problem is because of how French is pronounced and the way I hear it. In the first place, one of the basic principles of speech here seems to be to condense entire sentences into a single word. For example, on the tape I was listening to today was Il a bu de l'eau, He drank some water. This comes out sounding like ilabooduloh. When I was trying to learn Spanish and even German, I could almost always hear the individual words. This has been almost impossible for me in French and as a result I have to listen with all my might. It is not unlike the strain associated with trying to relieve constipation.

            Another big factor for me is the way you pronounce things and how your mouth forms the sounds. Let's take something in French that most people, even Americans, are familiar with - Champs Élysées, which mean Elysian Fields and is pronounced shawseleeZAY, again like one word. You'll notice that three letters are missing, the m and p in Champs and the final s in Élysées. (By the way, if you don't include the accent marks the word is misspelled unless you're in the UK, then it's misspelt.) Final esses are usually not pronounced unless the next word starts with a vowel, which is why you hear the "s" in Champs. The m and p aren't enunciated, just because, but that doesn't mean they have no effect. Their presence indicates that the ending of the word will be uttered nasally which means that as you say the long "a" you have to stuff the silent letters up your nose with the back of your tongue.  This nasal part is a difficult concept for Anglo-Saxons as there's no equivalent in English. But at least my Yankee tongue has an easier time than some folks, like my wife's cousin, whose instructor at Milsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, felt compelled to inform her, "the word oui does not have three syllables."

            I've come up with a theory that French was devised with the purpose of making it so difficult for the English to pick up that they would simply give up and leave them alone. Or maybe they knew instinctively that most of the ones coming here wouldn't bother to learn it anyway, so why make things easy.

           However, I have made some unexpected progress, as we discovered a couple of weeks ago after seeing The Selfish Giant, an English film based on a children's story by Oscar Wilde. By the way, if anyone can explain to me how, other than the title, this flick bears any resemblance to the Wilde story, I'd be obliged. Anyway, after two hours of trying to decipher the character's impenetrable Yorkshire accents, I realized that if there hadn't been French subtitles, I'd have had no idea what was being said most of the time.

            And last night a friend of ours from Normandy called and for the first time I understood probably three fourths of what she told me - at least I think so. But even if it was only half, it's more than I've ever been able to manage. Unfortunately, this triumph was followed today by the realization that, in trying to explain that the mailman had given us her mail by mistake, I told the young woman across the hall that, well, I'm not really sure what I told her but at least she got her package.

            This week I was reminded that much of the time, French still sounds to me like Sid Caesar. I can make out some familiar words but mainly what I hear is double-talk. Everyone keeps telling me that someday, voilà, I'll get everything that guy just said. And someday the indicatif, conditionnel and subjonctif  will just roll off my tongue. I doubt it but it would be nice, once and for all, to finally get that joke I heard in high school.



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