Monday, September 20, 2010

Mangled French

Despite the heading, let's start with German.

Americans can't do umlauts, so today I read that the prominent Presbyterian theologian Frederick Buechner pronounces his name "Beekner". That triggered thoughts of American pronunciation of some other languages, especially French.

In my early days, I didn't care much about French, although I studied it at my British-style prep school (typically age 8 through 13). I continued to study it without enthusiasm, when I moved to the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, where Naval training shared class time with a general secondary school curriculum. We were "streamed" for academic subjects into four groups, according to our ability. I was always placed in the "A" group--with one exception. At the start of one term, I was initially placed in the "B" group for French, but one of the masters (teachers) who taught French was either called up, or possibly suffered a long-term disability. The classes were reduced from four to three, and I found myself back in group A. That seemed to communicate a message! From that day forward, I have learned to appreciate French, and I can still speak enough to find my way around France.

The secret for English speakers in France is to start to communicate in French; if the person to whom you are speaking has better English than French, she or he will soon switch languages.

Particularly in California, French is not widely spoken or understood, because we have an unofficial "second language": Spanish. The French that I see and hear is mangled in several ways:

1. There are certain sounds, common in French, which Californians cannot pronounce. A particularly egregious example is the feminine of masseur. This is pronounced "massoose", instead of something like "masserz".

2. Usage. The main course (and this is true generally in the US) is called an entree. (This is usually pronounced with an approximation of correctness, as "ontray".) As the meaning of the word ("entry") suggests, an entrée is the course preceding the main course.

3. Pronunciation. Good pronunciation of French requires care with the stress. The phrase "Gay Paree" illustrates this point. Stress in French requires a light and delicate touch, not a heavy emphasis on the final syllable.

What does one do when using French words in California? If I pronounce the words correctly, I risk being identified as the linguistic snob I am. To "dumb down" my French risks being considered an ignoramus by those who know better. In defense of my amour propre, I have developed a middle way.

Perhaps this just makes me sound like an ignorant snob...

P.S. To my readers: I am going to mark a time close to my anniversary of blogging, by asking Jane to copy and publish, in two long(ish) episodes, something I wrote in 1993. Normal blogging service will be resumed thereafter..


  1. Nigel, I notice that I could join those on the list of Followers of your blog. Is that like being a disciple?

  2. Mark, you could call yourself a "follower", but you will not suffer if you decide to abandon the trail...