Pride and Pronunciation

Years ago, my wife and I made our first trip to Paris as newlyweds. It was a delightful and memorable experience. Being film buffs (understatement) we decided to attend a screening of French director Luc Besson’s “The Messenger”, as it was titled in the U.S. In Paris, it was simply “Jeanne d’Arc”, a biopic about the life of Joan of Arc.

We arrived at the very un-mulitplex-like theatre in the St. Germain district, complete with the traditional glass ticket booth. It was crowded, but I finally got my turn and approached the lean, elderly knife of a woman who sold the tickets.

“Deux billets pour Jeanne d’Arc, s’il vous plait,” I said in my basic French.

“Jeanne d’Arc,” she replied firmly, correcting my pronunciation.

“Jeanne d’Arc,” I replied, smiling and sliding my Francs through the hold in the glass.

Jeanne d’Arc,” she replied, not taking my money, and not smiling back.

“Jeanne d’Arc,” I repeated, adding impatience to my words, as if a tone of contempt would help me sound more French.

Jeanne d’Arc.”

“Jeanne d’Arc.”

Jeanne d’Arc.”

This almost comical back-and-forth went on for probably 15 seconds, but it seemed like a lifetime. I’m not sure my pronunciation improved, but eventually she gave up the two tickets, satisfied that I had pronounced the national heroine’s name correctly. Or maybe she just felt better having exhausted another American in Paris. I don’t know.

Joan, eternally vigilant, watches over traffic and pedestrians on the rue de Rivoli.

But the film was great. In English with French subtitles. Popcorn and a soft drink. In Paris. With the love of my life. Cherished memory.

Cut to: last week in a bookstore near the Sorbonne. A Parisian friend of mine had a birthday on the horizon. He’d been helping me with my French, and exercise in saintly patience. But more productively, we’d been discussing philosophy and ethics.

Michel de Montaigne, near the Sorbonne. Students traditionally rub his foot for luck prior to exams.

He hadn’t read Michel de Montaigne’s Essays. So I thought the influential philosopher’s work would be a great gift. It’s a huge bookstore, 3 stories and a basement full of packed shelves. Overwhelmed, I approach a sales clerk.

“Bonjour.”

“Bonjour.”.

“Je cherche pour Les Essais de Michel de Montaigne.”

De Montaigne.”

“Oui. Michel de Montaigne.”

De Montaigne.

Oh my god, I thought to myself, it’s a national pastime. I almost laughed, but this time, I decided to stay the course. He pronounced the philosopher’s surname. I pronounced it. He pronounced it, implying by his tone that I was not pronouncing it correctly. I replied, as best I could, but without impatience or any sign that I had anything else to do that day but stand with him and play verbal ping pong.

De Montaigne. De Montaigne. De Montaigne. De Montaigne.

I didn’t smile. I didn’t move. He didn’t smile. He didn’t move. I arched an eyebrow because I’d damn well had enough.

“Third floor,” he said in mumbled French. “Merci beaucoup,” I replied without sincerity. My victory, however, was short-lived. When I arrived at the third floor, I learned that the Essays had sold out, but I found them at another store, where the sales clerk quickly typed the philosopher’s name into her computer, cheerfully walked me over to the shelf, pulled the book, and handed it to me with a warm smile.

“Michel de Montaigne,” she said appreciatively.

I looked at her and smiled, grateful but wary. I wasn’t going down this road again.

Exactement.”

  • BGT

10 thoughts on “Pride and Pronunciation

  1. Ah, I was working my way through the “Essays” this summer. It is incredible how relevant much of it is. Regarding pronunciation, I have nieces and nephews who lived overseas in French-speaking countries since they were tiny. They are now in the U.S. but when I try to use my limited French with them, they look at me with pity and correct my errors (which I can barely detect, just like you) It’s humbling to get such a look from a 13 year old!

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  2. Byron, please repeat after me: “Je cherche Les Essais de Michel de Montaigne”. (In French, the preposition “pour” is not used.)

    P.S.: May I ask if you have received my email? I wouldn’t want you to think I forgot to send it. However, I am aware of the fact that it’s not exactly an old money subject. So, I would understand if you would pass.

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  3. Have you read the book, “60 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong?” It’s a great ethnography of the French and the authors have written two additional books also about the french and their language. I loved those books. They are written by two Canadians. A Quebecor who speaks and his bilingual anglophone wife. They have great observations.

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  4. Hello Mr. Tully,

    You mentioned in the post above you and your wife are film buffs. Film is something I enjoy but for the past few months I’ve been considering delving into further out of my own interest. I was hoping, perhaps, that you might have some suggestions for a neophyte such as myself. Maybe there is a list of must watch films to work my way through and a way to appreciate them. Anyways, I hope this finds you well.

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    1. Hi Austin, thank you for the question. I’ll give you a quick rundown of some films, and more than a few French titles, that I think warrant watching. Other readers are welcome to add.

      My list includes: Jeanne de Florette & Manon of the Spring (two part drama, in French, that will break your heart); The Professional, English language action film by French director Luc Besson; the original French language La Femme Nikita, also by Luc Besson; Mesrine (two part French film starring Vincent Cassel as France’s most notorious bank robber, based on a true story); Matewaon, by American director John Sayles; The Intouchables (not Untouchables) the most popular French language film of all time, an inspiring comedy; Samba, another French language comedy by the same directing team, both starring Omar Sy; The Starmaker, an Italian language film about a con artist with a movie camera in post WW II Sicily, and the original Diabolique, a wicked twist of a thriller, in French.

      That’s my short list. Hope you enjoy! Thanks again, Austin. – BGT

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