01 February 2007

Neighborhood get-together (3)

(Past installments in this series are here: part 1 and part 2.)

So we stayed after the other neighbors left the party. The other couple there — I don't know their last name — are not close neighbors. They live out in the country about 10 miles southeast of Saint-Aignan. P and R, as I'll call them, are also my age.

They moved here from — guess where — Paris! It was two years ago. She was born in Paris; he was born and grew up in the area called the Auvergne, which is a rugged, rural country about three hours' drive south of Saint-Aignan. He had a career and a gendarme, so he was stationed and they lived all around France over a period of 30 years.

One of R's postings was to the town of Cheverny, just 20 miles north of Saint-Aignan. P said they liked the area and had made friends here, so when they decided to leave Paris and retire to the country, they bought a house near Saint-Aignan.

We talked a lot about language. The younger Mme J and her student of a daughter both seem to speak a little English, but I got the impression that nobody else in the group spoke any English at all.

P and R have some Irish friends, who are their neighbors. As is often the case, in my experience, with anglophone immigrants, the woman speaks some (sometimes good, just minimal) French but the man speaks none at all. That is the case with these Irish immigrants, who still live part-time in Ireland. Well, Northern Ireland, near Belfast, actually. They spend much of the year in France, P said.

P talked about her Irish neighbors a lot and said she was trying to learn a little bit of English so that she could communicate better with them. I got that the man's name is Christopher (which P pronounced as Kree-stoh-FUR), but the woman's name was a mystery. P pronounced it something like this: EYE-zlur. Izeler. I couldn't figure out what it could be.

After P had said it a dozen or more times, I finally asked her what the woman's first name actually was. What was she saying, exactly? Could she spell it? "I know I can't pronounce it very well, but it is spelled H-E-A-T-H-L-E-R," she said.

Oh, I said, Heather! No, it has an L in it, P said. "No, I said, I don't think so," I answered. "It's a fairly common first name for us." You would pronounce it EH-zur in French, or HEH-thur in English, I told her. She didn't look convinced. But P's husband, R, was listening, and he said "Oui, c'est ça! È-zeur!" P had told me that R knew more English than she did.

Now I'm only telling this story to make the point about the people at our neighborhood get-together not really speaking any English. Living here, and speaking both languages, I often forget how high and isolating the language barrier can be. And then French and English are so completely different as languages go, while being so alike in so many ways. It's paradoxical.

If you know French, you know how strange it must be for French people to find out that English-speaking people actually have a pronunciation for the letter H. That breathy, aspirated sound we make when we say Heather doesn't exist in French. French H's are silent.

And then there's that funny TH consonant cluster in English that you have to figure out how to pronounce. You actually have to stick your tongue out between your teeth to say it, and how ridiculous does that make you feel? If you don't stick your tongue between your teeth, the sound you end up saying is more like a Z than a TH — hence Hea-Z-er for Heather.

Meanwhile, P was remarking on how funny it was that Izeler and Kreestofur found it impossible to pronounce the French U vowel, the one in tu or vu or rue. When Americans say "déjà vu," for example, it comes out sounding more like "déjà vous."

Luckily, Walt and I both speak enough French to keep up and understand what people are saying to us, and even to each other. However, P kept speaking French very slowly to me, Pronouncing. Every. Word. Very. Carefully. It. Got. To. Be. Ridiculous. After. A. Few. Minutes.

The two younger J's, who were hosting the party, remarked on it, and pointed out to P that she could speak French normally with Walt and me. Her answer: Oh, I keep forgetting that I am not talking to Kreestofur! I am talking to Kent!

French people have always thought my name, Ken, must really be Kent. I'm used to that; I've been answering to Kent in France for nigh on to forty years now. Why Kent? Because of the cigarettes, of course. I suprised they don't call Walter "Winston."

And P had even more trouble with Walter's name. "I keep feeling as if I am saying Waters, as in les waters, she said. Les waters, pronounced lay wah-TEHR, is term used in French to say les WC (lay vay-say). Waters or WC means the water closet, which is the toilet, the loo, or, in American parlance, the bathroom.

Don't get me wrong — my point of view is that there's no reason to expect French people to know how to speak English. We know that very few Americans or Brits speak French. This is France, after all. People who come to live here are the ones who need to make the effort to learn the language.

Remember this the next time somebody says that "everybody speaks English" nowadays, all around the world. It's not true.

Moving on... I was going to talk about politics and the upcoming French presidential election. Nearly everyone — at least all those who expressed an opinion — expressed support for Nicolas Sarkozy, the candidate of the rightist party, as opposed to Ségolène Royal, the woman who is the candidate of the largest leftist party, the Socialists.

French people will say that Sarkozy frightens them, but that they are going to vote for him anyway. They don't want to vote for the Socialists. "On va voter Sarkozy," one friend told us. "On n'a pas le choix." There's no other choice.

(I need to write a little about French vs. English political terminology soon, because the same words, or cognates — Socialist, republican, government, administration, liberalism, etc. — have very different meanings, histories, and connotations in the two languages. But that's another post.)

At the neighborhood get-together, one neighbor described Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal in especially derisive terms. He said he had been vaccinated against the new disease called Ségolènicus Royalicus. There was much laughter.

On New Year's Eve, when we were with a group of younger French people, a couple of guys expressed the opinion that Mme Royal would never be able to hold her own in a debate with Mr Sarkozy. He would eat her for breakfast, they seemed to be saying. Chew her up and spit her out. It wouldn't even be a contest.

We shall see. On verra ce qu'on verra.


  1. I've been waiting for the rest of your story and I wasn't disappointed. I love the Heather tale and your apt description of the H problem the french have.

    A silly movie with French and Red Neck stereotypes and accents is "Talledega Nights" which premiered about 20 miles down the road from me. I don't know if Ricky Bobby's tale is available there, but look for it if you want a big laugh.

    Just how should deja vu be pronounced? I'm guilty of the vous sound...

  2. Evelyn, the way to say the French "u" vowel, as in "vu", is to round your lips in that typical French pucker and then, without moving your lips, say eee. So if you say "tea" in English and then pucker your lips it will come out as "tu" in French. "Vee" becomes "vu" if you pucker enough.

  3. There goes my social life... flushed down the les waters...

  4. My lips are already sore, ouf! The next time we're together I need a lesson. Meanwhile I work on the pucker;-)

  5. Heather would be just about impossible to pronounce for a Frenchman, or even to remember. To French ears, it is such a strange name.
    Anyway, you are right, hardly anyone speaks English, even though they get at least four years of it at school!

  6. Very funny musings about the language!
    As for the politics - last night I saw a PBS special where Charlie Rose interviewed Sarkozy in Paris. I am not elegible, but I wanted to run out and cast my vote for him! He showed so much charisma, self-deprication, humor and honesty - very unusual for a French politician. And his political platform (which I can understand how it could be viewed as revolutionary and dangerous to the old-guard French fonctionnaires) makes perfect sense to this forward-thinking American ;-).


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