Saturday, 3 January 2009

Flâneries - Pardon My French

One of my reasons for starting this blog was to post from time to time small, inconsequential items about French, the French and France that might be of interest to students on the intensive French Extension course for future language teachers whose e-learning element I deliver each summer. This will be the first flânerie of many, I hope. The word suggests an idle, dawdling stroll - so here, like the blog itself, it denotes a rather purposeless, haphazard topic.

Its other virtue is that Baudelaire, my favourite poet, was the originator of the concept of the flâneur, a fin-de-siècle metropolitan dandy who, filled with ennui, listlessly wandered through the arcades of late ninteenth century Paris. The concept has been appropriated into Postmodern aesthetics through the writing of Baudelaire's commentator, Walter Benjamin. My use of it is also intended to be an ironic reference to contemporary critical art practice.

Baudelaire's grave in Montparnasse cemetery, visited November 2008

I've recently read two very different books on the French language aimed at an English speaking readership and would recommend one to all lovers of the language however adept or inept their mastery (mistressy?) of it is.

Pardon My French by Charles Simoney is a delighfully funny and self-deprecating guide to the pitfalls and potential faux pas of speaking French to the French, of which The Guardian columnist Simon Hoggart wrote, "If you use the words and phrases here, you'll be so convincing, French people will talk very fast to you." Even Parisians, perhaps? Praise indeed. It's invidious to single out one entry, but it will serve as an appetiser. In the section called How to sound French, Timoney, who has a French wife and now lives and works in France, lists the false friend 'photographe' and writes:

"This is one of the dirtier tricks that the French language comes up with to upset foreigners. If you were faced with the term 'un photographe', what would you think it meant? I imagine that you would assume, like I did, that it was French for a photo. But no! It is French for a photographer. If you say, as I once did, 'Il ya beaucoup de photographes dans mon album,' people will be most surprised and wonder how on earth you manage to carry it around. The correct word for photo is 'une photographie'. This is generally shortened to 'une photo'. There is another common word for photo which also causes confusion among foreigners - 'un cliché'. If someone offers to show you their 'clichés', I don't know what you might imagine but it probably wouldn't be holiday snaps."

French for Le Snob by Yvette Reche, on the other hand, is little more than a directory of dull dictionary entries. Although, or perhaps because, Reche was born and educated in France and now lives in Canada, her lexicon is dry and humourless. The aspirations suggested by the title are assumed to be ironic, but on closer reading are found to pander to stereotypes of the Basil Fawltyesque English speaker acquiring foreign language skills only to impress fellow English speakers and not to converse with native French speakers. One example is enough to give a flavour of her style. In a sub section of the chapter on Architecture, headed Be a Snob, Reche writes with no apparent irony:
"Francophiles, snobs, or anyone who wants to be different and sophisticated can use any of the French phrases listed below."
She goes on to suggest that her misguided readers should interject into their (English) conversation ; "She has la bague au doigt. She is married" and "He is a gros bonnet; he is a very important person" among other phrases. Try it in company if you are foohardy enough and note the reaction.
Too large to hold comfortably, too self-satisfied and didactic to enjoy, this is one for recycling to my local charity shop.

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