Thursday, July 18

I think about pronunciation and accents and try to explain "La chute de e".

I said "bonjour" to a little dog that approached me while being walked by an older woman, but he was shy. The woman said to her dog "Dis bonjour à monsieur." The dog was being rambunctious. The woman said "va doucement," which means "calm down, be more gentle". "Doucement" does not mean "sweetly". The French adverb for our "sweetly" is "gentiment". "Va doucement" is certainly something a parent would say to a child. And I've heard it said that the people in Tours speak "plus doucement" than the people in Paris. I think that just means "more softly". The dictionary definition is "gently, softly, quietly, slowly". As an idiomatic interjection it can mean "wait a minute, hey, watch it, hold your horses". An an example of a compound form, "faire sortir document" means to "ease out", like if you had to leave a lecture early and did it as unobtrusively and quietly as possible.

French dogs understand you when you say "bonjour chien" and "va doucement". They're smarter than I am.

5 am. Grammar homework and one load of laundry done. Next up: Study for phonetics test and finish second laundry load. Good morning Paris!

There were so many tourists taking pictures of each other on the stairs of rue Rollin yesterday that the rest of us were hardly able to go up and down. Annoying. And one of them took a picture of my big blue door for some reason I can't fathom. We've all given up trying to figure out those silly Americans.

These classes are such hard work. Our lecture this afternoon was on vacations in France. The lecturer joked that "of course, none of you are on vacation". That got some groans. Talking to Deo before class this morning I said "J'ai besoin du week-end" (I need the weekend). He said that when tomorrow afternoon finally gets here "je ne ferai RIEN" (I'm not going to do ANYTHING). It's only 20 hours total per week in classrooms and lecture halls, but with all the homework and studying for tests and quizzes it probably adds up to 60 per week. It will get easier when the phonetics class ends in two weeks.

I thought our test in phonetics this morning was easier. The prof took more care to make sure we all understood the sentences we had to speak, and that was a big help for me. I think I even did a good job chuting my e's (they're not really e's, it's a symbol in phonetics for a particular kind of "e" sound that looks to me a bit like a lower case Greek delta). I properly pronounced "Je ne veux pas le voir" as "jen_veu_pal_voir". She spoke the question "Tu veux le voir?" and we had to respond in the negative. Lots of e's getting chuted in that sentence.

By the way, "je suis" is one syllable, pronounced "chui".

First exercise this morning: Say the four words "eux eau heure or". All four words are spoken with the mouth in an "O" shape and the lips extended outward. For the first two, the mouth is closed, for the second two it's open. For the first and third, the tongue is advanced, up next to the bottom teeth. For the second and fourth, it is in the back of the mouth. Say it fast. Then do 19 more of them that are even worse. Then get tested on it with a microphone and recorder. And that's the easy class.

The comprehension is also slowly improving each day but is still a huge problem.

I think the phonetics class is helping my pronunciation. On the way home from lab I stopped in a boulangerie on Boul St-Germain and ordered "un sandwich jambon crudité" (ham sandwich on baguette with lettuce and tomato). I got no quizzical looks from the clerk or attempts to switch to English. If I had tried this when I first arrived a month ago she wouldn't have known what I was saying because my pronunciation was so bad (not an exaggeration). I would have had to repeat it or speak franglais with her.

Note that pronunciation and accent are different things. I'll always have a bad American accent, but I can at the same time have proper pronunciation. For example: At the pub yesterday when I left I told the waiter that I had left the money on the table, "sûr la table". An American with bad pronunciation would pronounce "sûr" almost like our word "sir". An American with better pronunciation would make the effort to make the right kind of "u" sound with the tongue and lips positioned properly. It will still sound like an American accent to French ears, but with proper pronunciation - understandable.

I think that unless you learn a language as a very young child, you'll never sound like a native. But you can still sound "good". When I was in high school my Mom had a friend who was from Germany. He spoke flawless English with perfect grammar. It was remarkable. He used to correct our grammar when my sister and I made mistakes. I don't think anyone ever had problems understanding him, but he had a strong distinctive German accent. And perhaps you remember my talking about my colleague at Northwestern, Martin Mueller, the professor of Classics and English that I worked with for so many years. He was also German and also spoke perfect English, in his case with hardly any accent at all. I think he learned English as an older student in Canada (but I could be wrong about that). I remember when he retired from teaching recently (not research), at his retirement party, the chairman of the department in his speech said that he was always a bit frustrated and annoyed by Martin, because Martin knew more about the English language than he did and he didn't even grow up with the language. But I think Martin may well be the exception that proves the rule. Finally, a comment comes to mind that the lecturer on the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe made. He said that he's had colleagues (probably like Martin) who learned French as a second language who spoke it perfectly and were in fact academic experts in the field, but who told him that they never felt truly "French" when they were part of a conversation with Frenchmen. Part of the problem is that it's as much about non-verbal things like facial expressions and body language and attitudes and world-views as it is about what is actually spoken.

Standard disclaimers apply. In other words, I have no idea what I'm talking about. But that never stops me.

Does this picture of my lecture notes help understand "La chute de e"?

For example: "tu le veux" (you want it). The "e" in "le" is a "delta sound" kind of "e". It's surrounded by two pronounced consonants ("l" and "v"). So you can (optionally) drop ("chute") it and not pronounce it. That gives "tu l veux". You chain "tu" and "l" together into one syllable ("enchaînement) to get "tul veux". The final "x" of "veux" is always silent. Voila: "tul_veu" in Paris, "tu_le_veu" in the south.

Chuting e's is optional (facultatif, pas obligatoire). It's done in Paris, but not in the south of France. That's another thing that makes Parisians harder to understand for us foreigners.