Muet

‘Tis better to be a vowel than a consonant if you want to be heard en français.

In French, while the likes of r’s, s’s and t’s are often silent, every vowel is given a voice. Thus the word for mute – muet – is pronounced ‘mew-ay’.

Two voices that defined French culture have gone silent this week. The news arrived as death often does: seemingly out of nowhere, then one after another.

First was Jean d’Ormesson. The 92-year-old ‘immortel’, as members of the Académie Française are known, was a larger-than-life character and a bon vivant among the aged and wise members of that illustrious body responsible for governing the French language. This France 3 clip (in French for those who understand enough to enjoy it) is a portrait of the man in all his wit and personality.

Yesterday morning broke the news that we would no longer hear the voice of Johnny Hallyday, notre Johnny national, icon of French rock music and a personality as deeply engrained in the culture as les frites (not a bad analogy as Jean-Philippe Smet was born to a Belgian father). He was ‘only’ 74, far too young these days even for one who has led as wild a life as Johnny.

When I first came to France I scoffed at this so-called rock star, seemingly a throw-back to an outdated notion of rock and roll, more Chuck Berry than French Elvis as he is often dubbed abroad. Yet I came to appreciate Johnny’s fine voice, honed to a richness that somehow transcended time, and his unstoppable stage presence. Here is a clip of how he set the Eiffel Tower on fire (Le feu) back in 2000.

By the way, while no one will ever replace our Johnny, my application for a place on the Académie Française still stands.

Chère Académie française,

academiePlease accept my application to become one of ‘les immortels’.

I have always dreamed of being immortal. Imagine my surprise and delight upon discovering that such a job description exists, and that it can be found among your illustrious number on the Académie Française, protectors extraordinaire of the French language!

Why should you consider my humble application?

Firstly, let me assure you that I meet your sole qualification of being under the age of 75 at the time of application, and, as an aside, that jacket would look good on me. Secondly, although English is my first language, I have spent nearly half of my life in this fair land and have come to appreciate both its language and its denizens, along with the produce of its labours, namely the fine foods and wines of la belle France. At the same time, I have become intimately familiar with its weaknesses as perceived both from within and beyond its borders.

Let me put this simply: I think you need me. As someone who has long worked in the field of communications, who understands brand and is familiar with the blogosphere, I can bring you kicking and screaming into the 21st century. The Academy has a bit of an image problem, you see. The French perceive you as a bunch of decrepit old coots, completely disconnected from reality, falling asleep in your plush chairs – I among them, until it became clear that I had confused you with the elected members of our National Assembly.

My confusion can perhaps be forgiven. You, too, are elected by vote, although uniquely among yourselves, a far more civilized approach than asking the public to weigh in, n’est-ce pas? What, after all, does the average Joe (sorry, make that Jacques) know about the language of Molière?

I do realize, bien évidemment, that you will not be able to consider my candidacy until a chair has been duly vacated, that is, until one of your number has gone on to better things – oh, let’s just call a spade a spade: popped his clogs, kicked the can, croaked. As you can see, I have a fair grasp of the vernacular in my native tongue and une maîtrise certaine in French.

I will be an ardent defender of French. I will fight to the death against the dumbing down of this great and wonderful language and resist further indignities like that of the spelling reform which has recently brought your name into the news. I understand it took from 1990 until the present to implement the reform, based upon a decision not of the Académie Française but of the Superior Council of the French language.

In conclusion, I will do everything in my power to maintain the original orthography of our language, from the jaunty circumflex in ‘août’ to the inimitable ‘i’ in oignon.

Till death us do meet.

Madame Mel

Bonjour, je m’appelle mél

shutterstock_53107357Hi, my name is email.

After a decade or more during which email became the generally accepted term for an electronic message, the French decided to invent their own word. Perhaps because it’s so close to the word ‘émail’, which means enamel, although the pronunciation is completely different (eh-my). In the meantime, 99% of the French population had already adopted the English word into their daily vocabulary, mostly commonly using just ‘mail.’ For example: “Envoyez-moi un mail pour confirmer.”

This was not so unusual. The French often adopt English words directly into their language — they’re somewhat less paranoid and protectionist than their French Canadian cousins. They also hijack English words and invent their own meanings for them, resulting in a hybrid dialect of franglais (to which I’ll devote a future post.)

Common anglicisms used in France today include, as just a small sampling: weekend, hot dog, parking, shampooing, Kleenex, Black. French friends are welcome to add your favorite (or most detested) examples to this list in the comments.

Once a habit is taken up by the French, bonne chance trying to change it. In 2003, the powers that be tried adopting the Québec French word, ‘courriel’, but have had trouble making it stick.

Not long ago I discovered that my name had been conscripted by the Académie Française.

The Académie Française is that most illustrious of institutions whose raison d’être is to officiate over the French language. Its 40 members are appointed for life (not necessarily that long as most are appointed at an advanced age). This body of sages decides which words can officially be added to the dictionary, and which ones should be banned. Seems they decided an official abbreviation was needed to designate the email address in footers, business cards, etc. Similar to ‘tél’ for telephone, they came up with mél,  a contraction of message and électronique.

It’s been years since I adopted the use of my initials as a nickname. I started signing my name as ‘MEL’ rather than my full moniker, and at some point I became Mel. I’ve gotten used to being called by different names: Madame, Mom, Maman, (sometimes also ‘casse pieds’, but that’s a different story). Also, various pronunciations of Mel – from Mail to Melle. Now it seems that it’s officially mél.

With this blog post, I would like to officially lodge a copyright infringement complaint with the Académie Française.

I have been Mel in this country since 1992. I, too, am abbreviated (5’2”). I, too, have an accent (encore et toujours).

So please, can I have my name back?