Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Nitpickers Gone Amok

A retired professor and some colleagues exchange emails regarding their concern over what they see as a subtle deterioration of their spoken or written language. “I saw this in the newspaper yesterday, and it really disturbed me,” says one of them. “In this sentence, written by X, it seems to me that the subjunctive is not justified”-- after which he provides an example of the correct usage.

The slow creep of anglicisms into the French language in everyday discourse is alarming to some francophones. It's so pervasive, in fact, that even when I remember to use annuler instead of canceler, for example; or boycottage instead of boycott, other francophones tell me it's no big deal. ("People still understand you, right?")

In defense of the nitpickers and those annoying people who find themselves inadvertently becoming the grammar police, I must admit that I, too, sometimes exhibit similar behavior. Maybe it’s the editor in me, but when I see alot written as one word instead of two, or it’s with an apostrophe when it should be its (to denote possession), or hear people say “Walla!” when what they mean to say is Voilà--out jumps that cursed mental red pencil. (Ça me chicote un peu—mais pourquoi?!! ) It is why, I think, I can sympathize with the language purists to some extent. A little erosion is unavoidable. But look how many languages today have become completely extinct. The Melting Pot aside, the idea of One Language for All--if civilization ever came to that point--to me smacks too much of a numbing one-dimensionality.

Replacing words you can't spell or pronounce with easier-to-remember, substitute words reminded me of a friend I once knew from Czechoslovakia. His name was Vladimir. People at his workplace called him "Val" because, he told me, they found it too difficult to pronounce the consonants V and L together without a vowel stuck in between. So rather than try, they simply re-named him. Say your birth name is Josef (pronounced YO-seff.) How does that make you feel when you introduce yourself to someone and pronounce your name and instead of their repeating it, or at least attempting to repeat it, they say: "That's Joseph, right? In English your name would be Joseph. I'm gonna call you Joe (spoken as a fait accompli; i.e., your new name, to this person, is now Joe.)

How utterly arrogant a frame of mind that reacts to unfamiliarity with another culture or language, not by trying to learn something about it but by finding it necessary to ignore, redefine, or change it in order to deal with it. It shows a certain lack of interest and respect, I think, when one succombs to re-naming a person with a substitute name in one's own language, simply to make saying it "easier".

Not only native English-speakers engage in this unflattering practice, of course, and, to be fair, not all English-speakers do. (Perhaps more prevalent than anglicizing foreign names is the predilection, at least in the U.S., for nicknaming. If your name is Robert, for example, be prepared to be addressed and referred to, automatically, as Bob. If your name is Richard, who can guess what your preferred nickname might be? Dick? Rich? Richie? If you're a Barbara, you could be re-named Barb, Barbie or Babs; and if you're a William, it could be "Will", "Willie", "Bill" or "Billy". Take your pick.) (Bush's nickname for Vladimir Putin is "Pooty-Poot" . No comment, haha.)

In our French conversation class we are four. (Before, I would have said, "there are four of us. " The way I sometimes express a thing in English, I notice, has changed as a result of my living in Quebec.)

In class we all speak French with a “foreign” accent: Spanish, Russian, or in my case, "Murrikan". This is good for the ear because spoken French differs: Belgian French sounds a bit different from Algerian French; Parisian French differs from the French spoken in Quebec. Each French-speaking country has idioms other French-speaking countries do not use, much less understand.

When my Spanish classmates pronounce chaque as “chock” instead of “shawk”, or my Russian classmate trills her r’s (making prendre sound like “prrrrrrrrrrawndrrrah”, I learn something about the pronounciation patterns of their native languages as well. As my ancestors spoke Slavic, a rolling "r" is familiar, but Spanish pronounciation is not and it may someday come in handy to be aware of the how things are pronounced in Spanish. We all, in the class, somehow, understand each other when speaking French, though.

It’s the darn word contractions that continue to confuse! When I first arrived here, one day I heard my mate talking to the cat, murmuring something that sounded like “moan tee-CUR.” I recognized “moan” as the personal pronoun mon but the “tee-cur” was a mystery. I went to the dictionary and looked under the T’s. How would that be spelled in French? I wondered. Tikker? Ticur? Tyquer? What he was actually saying was mon petite Coeur (my little heart), but he somehow swallowed the “pe” part before the “t” and I heard the remaining portion, tite, as TEE. (What a delightful term of endearment for one's beloved pet: My little heart!)

All languages do this—contract or eliminate words in daily use. My French grammar says the sentence Je ne sais pas” ("I don't know") should be spoken like this: zhe-neh-say-PAW. But that’s not how people say it here. You’re much more likely to hear it pronounced "Shay-PO." Moi, je pense ... comes out sounding like "Mwashponse ..."

Bostonians do this with their pizza, ha ha. (It's pronounced PEET-za by the rest of the world, but PEET-zer in Boston). "Square" is SKWAY-uh, "park" is PAWK, "car" is KAHH. (Pawk ya kahh in Hahvid Sqway-uh"). "Barb" sounds like BOB and "Worcester" is WOOSTA. "Gloucester" is GLAWsta. "Revere" is Reh-VEE-uh. "Leominster" is LEMON-sta. "Peabody" is PEA-buddy. "Waltham" is WALTH-ham but "Chatham" is CHATT-um. "Medford" is MEFFA and "Woburn" is WOO-ban. (I’m allowed to make fun of this because I'm a former Bostonian!)

Hey, that gives me an idea for a short story! A guy--let’s call him Bernie--becomes an obsessive compulsive nitpicker re: spoken and written language. He forms a little club whose six members take it upon themselves to scan published articles and monitor local television broadcasts, making a note of the grammatical inaccuracies. They then email each other and pontificate on the correct usage. Of course they’re all preaching to the choir, so to speak, but certain members are more observant than others and the less conscientious ones are made to feel, well, less important. One day the group decides to have an election to choose who will be their president. A hilarious competition ensues whereby each member tries to top the others in locating and presenting ever more vigorous erudition about the day's offending texts or emissions. They pout and squabble and bicker and the group finally ends up disbanding. Bernie finds a new soulmate.

Well, that’s as much as came to me this morning just as I was waking up, thinking about grammatical nitpickers and the peculiarities of language, and all things strange and wonderful about the French and English languages.

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