The Acute and the Grave
“So,” my friend Martine asked, “what city do you fly into?”
I was headed for the States, with a first port of call on the eastern seaboard. “Newark,” I replied—although, because we were speaking in French, I didn’t really say “Newark,” but instead replaced that clipped little name with the stretched-limousine version, separating the vowels and turning the metropolis of belching smokestacks into something suddenly svelte: “Nou-ark.”
Martine pulled a look, one eyebrow rising as the other dipped. Was it possible she’d never heard of it? I clarified where the place was located: “Nou-jair-ssay.”
Her eyes rolled toward the heavens. “Mon dieu. I suppose you think that’s clever.”
She was talking, of all things, about my accent—or rather, about my pretending not to have one. I am, for better or worse, an American, so what business did I have pronouncing words like “Newark” and “New Jersey” à la française? Such names were among the few things I was expected to utter correctly—which is to say, like the Yank I am.
I managed a pinched smile, but in that little notebook I keep tucked in the back of my brain, I jotted a phrase: See? You can’t win. Most of the time, if you plop an American name or word into a conversation without churning it through the processing plant of French pronunciation, nobody knows what you’re talking about. I noticed this long ago, back during the Bush presidency. Hapless but well-intentioned French-speaking Americans faltered in conversations having to do with Dubya. In the American version, the U of Bush is so relaxed it has practically gone on vacation, whereas French makes you choose between stark alternatives, turning our man of state into a homonym for bouche (“mouth”) or bûche (“log,” or, in slang, “blockhead”). Despite the temptation of the second option, it’s the first that gained currency. Nevertheless, a lot of Americans opted for a third option—that is, doing what Martine had told me to do with New Jersey: just blurt the thing out in American. But if you do that, then French people tend to squint and wrinkle their nose. They are lost. Saying “bush” instead of bouche or bûche is like shifting a beehive six inches while the drones are out: the poor critters never make it home again.
French people have it easy: they routinely Frenchify American names. Americans, though, always have a choice to make: when speaking with a run-of-the-mill Frenchman, you should Frenchify pronunciation for ease of communication; however, if your interlocutor prides himself on his English, you’re expected to yokel it out with exaggerated Americanness.
At least most of the time. A little experimentation reveals that the American accent you employ has to be in line with the drone of network news anchors—pretty much what you’d find in central Nebraska. Try dropping Nawlins or Loosiana—or, for that matter, New Joy-zee—into your French, and even the sticklers will start to back down.
It’s hard to know how far to take this. Some cases are easy. For instance, after decades of brainwashing by imported crime series, the French have learned to refer to our Federal Bureau of Investigation as the Eff-Bee-Eye, and only the most overzealous American would attempt to twist it back to the French letters, Eff-Bay-Ee. But what about the ends of those shows, when the crime has been solved—or, even better, thwarted? Then you’re in front of a happy ending—a story-telling concept so American that the French have no word of their own for it, calling it le happy end—beheading the h of happiness when they say it. What then? Are those of us with US passports all supposed to twang out happy end with an American accent, as if people actually use this expression in the New World?
Of course, Americo-Parisians (or Pariso-Americans) get to deal with this both coming and going. Stateside, I hesitate at the American pronunciation of words like croissant or crêpe. Depending on the situation, I wonder if I’ve been deputized to carry the banner of false-Frenchness, or if this is one of those occasions where croy-sant and crayp are more appropriate. The French and English wires often cross in my brain, and as sparks fly, I utter some monstrous twining of the two. If I catch myself in time, I simply choose something else from the menu.
The accent business may not be as big as Google or 3M, but there are legions of French teachers in the US, each one training students to gargle their Rs and squeak their Is. They make a big deal of it. The idea seems to be that when you travel to a foreign land, you should try to fit in. When in Rome, etc., etc. In particular, you should take a stab at the accent.
Unless, of course, your travels don’t require you to change languages. We expect students learning German and Chinese to pronounce things like Berliners and Beijingians, but for some reason, when Americans hoof it to Great Britain, taking on the local accent is verboten. All it does is turn you into what we call a pompous ass (or, if you prefer, arse). Strangely, the reverse does not hold: A Brit coming to the US is allowed to dilute his accent over time and at least partly adopt our own. That’s normal enough, I guess: he’s finally letting down his hair, no longer feeling compelled to pretend he belongs to the prop department of the BBC.
The accent police may be on patrol everywhere, but their headquarters are definitely in Paris, and they even threaten natives with their billy club of elocution. A friend of mine hails from Narbonne, down near the border with Spain—a place where Rs come with a Spanish trill and vowels hum in the nose. But Thomas speaks like your typical buttoned-down Parisian, only his grin and affability betraying his origins. “I lost it,” he said of his native patter, “when I came to Paris.” He didn’t mean that it went missing, the way you lose an umbrella; no, he had ditched it, the way a criminal tosses evidence into the river as special agents from the Eff-Bee-Eye close in on him.
The problem is going to get worse before it gets—well, let’s be honest, it’s never going to get better. Languages have always snuck over borders, engaging in eyebrow-raising miscegenation, but you may as well get used to it. These days, thanks to the Internet, and telecommunications, and low-cost airlines, and pretty much everything else, all bets are off. Hordes of words scuttle across those dashed lines on the map, and no wall is going to stop them. It’s a fait accompli. At dinner parties, you get button-holed by a guy in le marketing, and he yacks about some nouvelle startup—one with an exciting business plan. It has become de rigueur to discuss les piercings of your host’s teenage daughter, which make her look like a femme fatale, or le coming-out of your co-worker’s son. Worse, les reality shows on television have delivered the coup de grâce to high culture, not to mention haute couture and even haute cuisine. Everywhere you look, the hive has been moved six inches or more, and you realize, finally, that this is what’s been killing the bees! And, in the bargain, you.
In such conversations, I attempt to ping-pong between languages and accents, but I don’t have the savoir-faire, or else the savoir-vivre, that it requires. I’m missing a little… I don’t know…a little… je ne sais quoi. Yes, that’s it. So, my pronunciation ends up halfway between Paree and New Joy-zee, and as the wrong sounds tumble from my bouche, I feel like a bûche, or even like George Bush. And that, I can assure you, is no happy end.