Friday, November 13, 2009

French for Americans

In a couple of previous posts ("Flushing Away Convention" and "The Avant-Garde Nature of Winky Dink"), I brought up the name of the French artist Marcel Duchamp. As I edited these posts, I found I tended to put an "s" (called le sigmoid in French) at the end of his name. I have a vague recollection from my single year of French study in high school (l'êcole elevée) that most self-respecting French words have approximately as many silent letters as letters which are pronounced, so it seemed only fitting and proper to tack on the "s" at the end of Marcel's surname. The extra letter adds heft and a certain je ne sais pas to the word without affecting its pronunciation, which I believe is Du-sha, perhaps implying the "m" by pursing the lips diffidently at the end, or perhaps not.

Since my matriculation at Wawasee High School occurred shortly after the glaciers receded from northern Indiana, I thought it would be a good idea to brush up on my French. For this, I turned to one of the books I have managed to retain from my youth. Like my own epidermis, the cover of my copy of The Benchley Roundup (pictured above) has seen better days. The price of $0.75 further betrays the paperback's age. Fortunately, the inside of the book is intact. Turning to the essay, "French for Americans," we learn that that in French the vowels a, e, i, o, and u are all pronounced "ong." Robert Benchley goes on to explain that "the French language has three accents, the acute e, the grave e, and the circumflex e, all of which are omitted." He also supplies a number of "phrases most in demand by Americans," such as "What kind of dump is this, anyhow?" (Quelle espèce de dump is this, anyhow?) and "Two hundred francs? In your hat." (Deux cent francs? Dans votre chapeau.). Benchley provides other helpful travel tips, such as places to find other Americans in Paris, and where to find American food, and side trips that involve getting on a ship and returning to America to relieve the tedium of staying in Paris. He explains currency conversion, with the value of the franc fluctuating as follows:
Monday: 5 cents
Tuesday: 5.1 cents
Wednesday: 4.9 cents
Thursday: 1 lb. chestnuts
Friday: 2 1/2 yds. linoleum
Saturday: What-have -you
He concludes with a list of "Other Words You Will Have Little Use For," including vernisser (to varnish), dromer (to make one's neck stiff working at a sewing machine), and pardon (I beg your pardon).

If you're interested in reading the entire essay, a used copy of The Benchley Roundup may be purchased online for as little as $1.58, though I wouldn't part with my copy for less than a bushel of chestnuts.


Dave King said...

It's all beyond me, but I'm suitably impressed.

Anonymous said...

Great work, man!
Haven't time to brush up your french :) Quick notes
je ne c'est pas => je ne sais pas
Duchamp is pronounced with an "en" french sound at the end
(listen to french word "enfant")
Translating is fun ;) "Dans votre chapeau" doesn't exist in France,
"l'école élevée" is "l'université"
vernisser --> vernir
dromer --> (doesn't exist in french)

David C. said...


It's all beyond me too.


OK, even with only one year of studying French, I should have known it is je ne sais pas and have edited the post accordingly.

As to your other comments, I suggest you translate the phrase "get a sense of humor."