To the eternal annoyance of many American travelers, France is a country that cares enormously about its language. The national pride is evident — and controversial — in the very existence of the Academie Française. More generally, though, despite the stream of incoming English words (le weekend, le brunch, OK), passionate attention to the joys and peculiarities of la francophonie feels normal here in a way that passionate attention to American English (which was, after all, initially the language of immigrants) never has.
Take the coming month. It begins with “La Semaine de la Langue Française et de la Francophonie,” or “Week of French Language and the World of French,” and continues through “Le Mois de la Francophonie,” dedicated to all the countries in the world who still employ some version of the language of Molière. Just a few of the events we’ll be seeing here in Paris in the coming weeks:
Grande Dictée de la Ville de Paris. Dictées are fascinating to me. If you ever took a French class in high school, you know what I’m talking about. The teacher reads a text, slowly, line by line, and you write down what you’re hearing. On the surface, this fairly rote practice reveals lapses in orthography, punctuation, and vocabulary. But if you’re the least bit interested in the language, copying by hand paragraphs by Victor Hugo or André Gide gives you an almost muscular sense of their syntax and the rhythms of their prose. In this case, students from six Parisian elementary-school classes will install themselves in the elegant Salle de Conseil at Paris’s magnificent city hall, and experience a dictée “taken from a major text of francophone literature and read by an important figure in the francophone cultural world.”
Dis-moi Dix Mots sur Tous les Tons / Mes Dix Mots à Moi. At various libraries in the Paris suburbs, participants will come play with 10 words — shouting them, singing them, speechifying with them, improvising on them, writing with them, owning them. The 10 words chosen this year are accent, bagou, griot, jactance, ohé, placoter, susurrer, truculent, voix, volubile. Not all of these bear translation: bagou is slang for sales pitch; a griot is a sort of raconteur in the North African tradition; ohé is an interjection, a sort of “Look over there!”
Quartiers en poésie. Children and adults alike from Paris’s 20th arrondissement have been working for a year to write poems, among which 200 have been selected to be displayed on the walls of the quarter, as celebratory graffiti.
Livres d’Artistes et Projet Poétique Planétaire. Trust the French to launch an initiative (at the Marguerite Duras Center, no less) entitled Planetary Poetic Project. It’s sponsored, of course, by the Oulipiens, writers and mathematicians who deliberately constrain writing techniques in order to produce a certain je ne sais quoiin literary works.
Paris Expat’ Café. There’s even a place for nonfrancophones in this celebration of the language, in which various expats answer questions like “What’s the most difficult word for you to pronounce in French?” (Mine would be pour. The final r, pronounced properly, does not lend itself, in my mouth, to preceding a word beginning with a consonant. So when I reserve a table for two at a restaurant, I have to say, “pour-ah deux personnes,” because I can’t seem to go directly from r to d. I’ve also been misunderstood when I tried, for instance, to ask what doorway to use to walk along the roof of the magnificent new Philharmonic building. People kept thinking I was asking for the third floor [le troisième] rather than the roof [le toit].)
As I say, hard to imagine in English. At the same time, the French continue to wrestle with the tiger of linguistic evolution, especially when it comes to issues of gender. Outside the Philharmonic, we noticed a recently planted plaque celebrating “the achievements of Man.” People here care about their language, and that can mean disapproving of changes that otherwise might feel like a breath of fresh air. Still, it often feels as though the air itself here is made of French words. A lovely voice on the métro announces the stops, twice, once shortly before the station and the next time just as we’re pulling in. It says, “Châtelet? … Châtelet.” And each time, in the short silence between, I silently say the word just as the voice has. Then it confirms my excellent pronunciation aloud, and imperceptibly improved, I disembark.