It’s ‘Uge: A Little French Lesson

Recently, the National Review devoted an entire issue to the scary, gauche thing that is Donald Trump. In it, they published what may turn out to be the most famous sentence ever to appear in their magazine. It is being repeated all over. Let me repeat it again:

He and Bernie Sanders have shared more than funky outer-borough accents.

Dahlink, I’ve got a funky “outer-borough” accent. Technically, mine is from New Jersey, but it’s not the Upper East Side. Sorry folks. I’m not partial to the Donald’s taste. I was once a decorative painter and I have a nearly painful awareness of the intersection of taste and class. I’ve advised clients to not add one more curlicue. However, one thing I hate more than the taste of the overly ornate arriviste is the taste of fear, the abject people who seek approval and dress in fear, and furnish their homes in fear, and speak in fear.

What does this have to do with French? Not much except free association inside my noggin.

“Moé, chus bonne.” One of the most remarked upon differences between Quebec French and Standard French is the pronunciation of the “oi” sound. Today, in Standard French “moi” is pronounced like “mwah” (ipa: mwa). However in Quebec it is pronounced as “mweh” (mwe). (I know the typical way of transcribing the pronunciation of é is “ay,” but “ay” is a dipthong and they sound very unlike. We don’t have the sound in English.) Louis XIV, in all likelihood, said “L’etat, c’est moé.”

The French typically tell me that the Canadians speak “eighteenth century French.” This of course is incorrect. Obviously, we are in the twenty-first century and the French-speaking Canadians are, but definition, speaking a variety of twenty-first century French. France lost Canada to the English in 1763. This was before the revolution. “Mwe” was Standard French. “Mwa” was the working class, Parisian pronunciation. In linguistic terms, it was highly marked. We might call it stigmatized, it marked you as a lower class person. During the Revolution, however, these things got turned upside down and having an upper class accent could get you killed. It was only in the wake of the French Revolution that French became standardized throughout the country. I’m not sure why the “wa” pronunciation spread, but it did. Certainly, Canadian French has changed since 1763, but it did not undergo the changes wrought by the Revolution, which is why is sounds “eighteenth century” to some French people.

Another distinction between Standard French and Quebec French is the pronunciation of the r. This is the main element of a Canadian accent that my French retains. To an English speaker, it is a subtle difference, both are uvular fricatives, meaning that they are “rolled” in the back of the throat, however Standard French is voiceless (ʁ) and Canadian French is voiced (χ). For those of you unfamiliar with linguistic terms, this is the difference between a “p” and a “b.” “P” is voiced while “b” is voiceless. If you say “puh” and “buh”, you’ll see what I mean. Your lips are doing the same things, but your vocal cords are not. A voiced “r” does appear in some regional French accents. (Quick – how many nasal vowels are there in French? If you said four, you probably learned French in school like I did. Different regional accents have different numbers of nasal vowels, anywhere from three to six.) In English, the more noticeable your regional accent is, the lower down on the class scale you probably are. I’m not familiar enough with French culture to be certain, but I believe a similar dynamic occurs there. It is definitely the case the Quebec. At the same time, however, if you speak French in Quebec with a voiceless r, you will be accused of putting on airs. One of the reasons I have a Canadian r to begin with is that my ex-husband was obsessed with my pronunciation of this one sound. He kept telling me that I sounded like a “snob.” Since I could barely speak French at that time, I thought this was a bizarre fixation on his part. However, it goes to show how closely tied our accents are to social signals and identity. At times, I’ve thought it would be socially useful to speak without an accent and have thought about changing it. The reason I haven’t done so is that I would feel like a faker.

Before going onto my next free association, I thought I might add this video I found more or less by accident a few months ago. The girl in the video strikes me as looking and sounding typically Quebecoise. Sometimes when trying to give and example of French Canadian accents people give examples that either highlight or downplay the differences between Quebec and France depending on the point they’re trying to make. This strikes me as the sort of language I heard on a daily basis.

I recall reading when I was kid about the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. One story I read talked about how, if a kid walked into a neighborhood where he was unknown, he might be grabbed by a gang of local kids and forced to recite the alphabet. If he pronounced “h” in the wrong way he would get beaten up. Different social groups had different accents and the pronunciation of the “h” was a distinguishing feature.

I don’t drop my h, but then I’m not from Brooklyn or Queens. Still, I know that I have a lower middle class manner of speaking. I have one rich friend who visibly winces when I say certain words.

From Matt Welch writing on the libertarian website Reason:

Yes, Trump is nobody’s conservative, but it’s not at all clear that many voters really care about such things. His rise is a rebuke to the stories that political commentators have long told themselves, and to the mores they have long shared even while otherwise disagreeing ideologically with one another. You can despise Donald Trump (and oh Lord I do), and appreciate National Review’s efforts here, while simultaneously wondering whether his forcible removal of a certain journalistic mask might also have some benefit.

Strangely, despite disagree with Trump on a variety of issues and doubting that he has the requisite experience to make a decent president, I can’t help rooting for him. I know that the people who hate him hate me too. It’s a strange feeling. I understand why someone wouldn’t vote for him, but I don’t understand the hysteria. We have a republican form of government. What’s the worst that could happen? I’m supporting Sanders despite not being a socialist in large part because I don’t think he’d be able to get his most socialist ideas through Congress. I think Sanders’ focus on working people is good and Congress will prevent him from going too far. It would be even more dramatic with Trump. My own hunch is that if Trump becomes president he will be able to do less than even Sanders because he’s not as familiar with the inner workings of government. We’ll have four muddled years. The earth won’t stop turning. Frankly, I don’t see Trump as having enough support to do something like invading Iraq, so I doubt he’ll even be as damaging as President Bush, Jr. After that, we’ll probably get a more mainstream politician.

As far as Trump being an embarrassment, I don’t really care. Between the welfare of the American people and the good opinion of European high society, I’ll take the welfare of the American people every time. Trumps accent, lack of style, hair, wife, interior decorations are all non-issues to me. Everyone was so thrilled that President Obama cut a dignified figure on the world stage, but, while he did so, the gap between the rich and the poor grew. Dignity be damned. My concern about Trump is that he is too unfamiliar with government to govern well.

Anyway, the person who truly scares me is Senator Cruz.

 

 

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2 comments
  1. Unitémaritale said:

    Why did the pronunciation change to [mwa] after the Revolution? Simply because as power shifted from the ruling class of nobles to the bourgeoisie, so did the “right” pronunciation. It happened over time, positions of prestige being more and more held by the [mwa] speakers. Nobody woke up one day demanding the pronunciation be changed. I’m pretty sure nobody really noticed it. It went on with the other changes of the era. But, as you said, this change in the “correct” pronunciation didn’t occur in Québec since Québec became an English colony in 1763.
    If I may, I think an easier way to differentiate the voiceless and voiced consonants is to use [s] and [z] in words like “sue” and “zoo”. The first one being voiceless, the second one voiced.

    • fojap said:

      Thanks for the additional information. Yes, you’re right. S and z are probably better examples.

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