I know what I know, and French is French.

June 7, 2011 Comments Off on I know what I know, and French is French.

Extremely irritating choir rehearsal today. We’re doing a Québecquois folk song in French, and today we started on the words. One of the tenors got up and explained that he had a degree in French, had taught French at UW, and had lived in France and in Quebec, and proceeded to regale us with the differences between Québecquois French and European French. He’s one of those older guys so tickled to be in charge of a group that he can’t help expanding like a sponge, ending up too swollen to move. After maybe fifteen minutes of this, he actually got around to tackling the words, which he did very slowly, conscientiously explaining the principle behind every sound to us as he went along.

Now, a key feature of French poetry and singing is liaison, which is where the consonant at the end of a word, usually silent, is pronounced in front of a word that starts with a vowel. For example (case in point), the title of the song is “Un canadien errant” (A Wandering Canadian). Usually the n at the end of canadien is not pronounced, but because the word that follows begins with a vowel, it is included for the sake of fluidity. We tried it that way but then our learned professor decided “it didn’t sound right” and told us to stop.

WRONG. I will be the first to admit that I am not an expert on Québecquois French, but that cannot be right. French speakers always make liaisons in singing, no matter how unrefined their speech is, no matter how provincial their accent. It’s an inherent feature of the language. When in doubt, do the liaison is the rule of thumb every chorister knows. But hey. Maybe Quebeckers are weird. I mean, they are. But maybe their liaisons are weird, too.

But there is no way “en expirant” (“while dying”) has no n in it. It was an unambiguously bad call, and I was furious. By that time we’d been working on this stupid song for an hour, just trying to learn the words. My only comfort was that every other French speaker in the room was also beside themselves. You know it’s bad when speakers of French as a second language have intuitions that conflict with the guy at the front of the room. (It’s not supposed to work that way!) But I’ve had French in my mouth for enough years that I can tell when something isn’t right, at least on that level. Some of his other calls—like no liaison between dis and à in “dis à mes amis”—I wasn’t entirely sure about, but they didn’t feel wrong. They didn’t offend my Frenchness the way “en expirant” did. And you really need to watch yourself when you start offending your American colleagues’ Frenchness.

There are two good things about this experience. One is that at least we’ll all be saying everything the same way. (No one wanted to argue with Bill; it would be like trying to coax a bulldozer out of its treads.) The other is that Ben, the director, probably won’t make the mistake of asking Bill for help again. In fact, it might be a good idea—that I will file away for future reference—to never call on a choir member during rehearsal. If you need their help, get it privately, beforehand, and then present it to the choir yourself. The number of times I’ve had a Hebrew speaker lecture us at length about the difference between h-with-a-dot and ch, trying to get us first to hear it and then to produce it… *shudder*

The moral of the story is, if you want something done right, do it yourself. If you want a pompous, ponderous, time-wasting, inaccurate lecture instead… get Bill.

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