Sunday, August 29, 2010

Accent Mark

Au carrefour de l’oral et de l’écrit, de l’usage et de la raison, de la mémoire et de l’oubli, l’accent circonflexe révèle l’ambiguïté de l’orthographe française. Il en illustre la passion. 
- Bernard Cerquiglini, from L’accent du souvenir

 At the intersection of the spoken and the written, of usage and reason, of memory and forgetting, the circumflex accent reveals the ambiguity of French orthography.  It illustrates the passion.
- Bernard Cerquiglini, from L’accent du souvenir

It is the third day of French class.  We have sung the alphabet, counted to ten, practiced our hellos and how are yous.  All so cordial, all enchantés to meet one another, inquiring politely and perpetually about each others’ well-being. 

At the beginning of each class, I ask them to have the one conversation they’ve all memorized with five new people.  It goes like this:

Bonjour !
Je m’appelle _____.
Enchanté !
Et vous ?  Comment vous appelez-vous ?
Je m’appelle _____.
Enchanté  !
 Comment allez-vous ?
Très bien !  Et vous ?
Bien !
 Au revoir !

They always laugh when the conversation’s cut short with an abrupt au revoir.  Afterall, mere seconds earlier the exchange seemed so promising, a new acquaintance they were pleased, no ENCHANTED to meet, someone who asked very earnestly how they were.  Then suddenly, they have nothing more to say to one another and find themselves ending the pleasantries without warning only to make their way through the script with someone else before dead-ending into au revoir, again. 

But, that is the way of language learning.  You say what you have the words to say, and then you say no more.

Shiny-eyed and eager, all of them, they know each others’ names, feel relieved that the alphabet is exactly the same, except sonically.  Take comfort in the fact that they were born to count to dix in Dixieland, named so because its inhabitants used “dix” for the said chiffre.

But this is day that French becomes foreign.  This is the day that I tell them about accent marks. 

There are five accent marks in the French language: aigu, grave, circonflexe, tréma, and cédille.  The most storied and for me the most fundamentally French, is the circonflexe.  It’s a linguistic example of the passé-présent or le passé qui ne passe pas (the past that doesn’t pass) so often evoked in France, perhaps most commonly in the signs and statues on each street, at each square, always reminding you of someone or something long gone but lingering. 

I cannot cross the Pont Saint-Michel, for example, without remembering the Algerians who drowned under it in the police repression of October 17, 1961, a story summarized in a sentence on a copper pont-side plaque.  

An equestrian statue of Joan of Arc, glittering and gold, on Rue de Rivoli reminds me that it was here, before the street sprung up and became a succession of vendors selling post cards, magnets, and pashminas to Louvre-bound tourists, that Joan tried to enter the city.

The other day, I passed a streetside plaque commemorating someone named Louis Baron, who “fell for the liberation of Paris in 1944.”  Someone had placed flowers in a hook attached to the plaque earlier that week.  In Paris, more than anywhere I’ve visited, the present is always rooted in the past.

The circonflexe hovers like a hat, wind-lifted for a brief moment before it blows away above certain vowels, indicating an “s” that once was but is no more.  It reminds you that forêt was formerly “forest” that hôtel in a past life went by “hostel” that before they became apôtres, the apostles were encumbered not only with a real back-stabber but also with an “s,” that an extra letter once appeared in paraît

The circonflexe serves no practical function except to whisper that words, like people, have ancestors, (or ancêtres,) that they’ve left their legacy, even if that legacy may at times elude us.  It reminds me of a beautiful poem by my friend Kim, in which she considers some of the daily signifiers of her Southernness, seeks her inheritance in her everyday surroundings.  She, too, has lived in places where an occasional drawl or y’all marked her as an out-of-towner.

This summer I was chatting with a professor at a conference in Paris and mentioned that I was in school in Louisiana.  Mais . . . she paused, studying me, Comment ça se fait que vous parlez comme 
ça ?  How is it that you speak like that?  Did you spend time in France when you were younger? 

I assumed she meant that I didn’t sound especially American, that nothing in my intonation or accent marked me.  I don’t remember exactly how I responded, but I must have said something along the lines of It’s not always like this. This is a good day, and you are generous.

The linguist Eric Lenneberg argued say that there’s a critical period for language learning, the cut-off point of which is sometime around the beginning of puberty.  If you begin learning a language after that time, you can never really hope to attain native fluency.  I know of a few almost-exceptions, friends who can pass for French much longer than I can, but in the end, our accents always betray us.  A garbled vowel, a fumbled “r,” an “ou” where “u” should be.

It used to be a game.  How long can I go before someone asks me where I’m from? 

Sometimes, only a moment.  This was the case with the taxi driver on one of the first nights in Paris.  I wasn’t in the mood to tell him, to assume all of the connotations of américanitéEt vous ?  I’d asked, after he’d tried to guess, (Irlandaise ?  Allemande ?)  knowing he wasn’t French either.  Moi, je suis de la race humaine, he volunteered, matching my mystery. 

Why would I want to go undetected in the first place?  Because sometimes an accent is a weapon wielded against you.  At a champagne tasting in Épernay, I’d been chatting with the woman serving us and the husband of another customer at the tasting. 

-I do like this champagne, he lamented, but I don’t know if we can carry another case.
-Oh, but you don’t have to buy a whole case!  Just get a bottle or two!  
We both laughed until his wife snapped.
-Et vous, vous allez lui vendre du champagne avec votre petit accent.  Vous êtes quoi,
stagiare ? 
 -And you, you’re going to sell him some champagne with your little accent.  What are you, an intern ?

We all knew that American interns had certain connotations. 

Mon petit accent.  Other people had called it little, too, but in a different way.  In a way that wasn’t designed to make me feel small.  

I remember that a friend and fellow southerner I used to teach with said that when he’d visited California a girl at a bar had commented on his little accent, one that, because we grew up in the same place, I had never especially noticed.  “That accent,” she’d said, “It’s gonna get you laid.”

It amused me because I’d never really thought of a southern accent as an asset, had tried to shed mine even, and did, to some extent, as I taught English as a foreign language.  But, like the circonflexe, it was always vaguely hovering over me, reminding me of a past from which I felt a little detached but that was still a part of me. 

My boyfriend has once teased me when we were living in France.  When you talk to your mom on the phone, you sound so southern.  When he said “southern” he sounded so French.  He said it the intuitive way.  Not “suthern” but “south-ern.”

The other English teachers in the department marveled at the funny exoticism of my American accent, instructing the students to listen for the differences.  They had all studied in England and sounded like Julie Andrews, to me.  Not that I blamed them for preferring the British accent: it was a preference shared by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I’d read that when he was living in Paris, he’d hired a British governess for his daughter, Scottie, in the hopes that she’d sound nothing like her parents.

Back to the circonflexe.  In the early nineties, a group of language reformers proposed a series of changes that would normalize the spelling of certain words, minimizing inconsistencies in spelling and grammar.  One of the suggested alterations was the elimination of a certain accent inutile.  Afterall, didn’t it just confuse people?  Wasn’t it just a leftover legacy from Latin, detached from the present just as it was detached from the letter over which it hovered? 

Eyebrows arched en circonflexe as its defenders grew combative.  As it turned out, no one really wanted to see the cironflexe effaced.  Some people would say it’s about elitism, about taking a certain pride in being the kind of person who always remembers the circonflexe, while others forget it, the way some English speakers take pride, for example, in knowing the distinction between “less” and “fewer,” in never making an apostrophe error.

As I speak to my students and they repeat after me, I can hear how they echo back the imperfections in my own accent, how with good faith, they imitate every note, even when it’s off-key, even when I sound more American than French.  I think they know, but they don’t mind.  I don’t mind either.  Like the circonflexe, I have come to accept my accent, even like it.

Why?  For the same reason I don’t think the argument was ever about elitism.  I think it’s about knowing where you’re from, remembering where you’ve been, and keeping the souvenir.


  1. Ah, and what's sad to me is that - speaking of elitism - I can't help but notice all the MISSING accents on those signs. Argh.

  2. The facultative accents on capital letters is something I've never really understood . . . as a student/teacher of French, I think it just creates confusion.

  3. A lovely and well-written article. I, too, am from the South but peak French fluently. I, too, have a "little" accent that most people mistake for being Belgian or Swiss. A really fun read, thanks.

    1. Much belatedly, thank you for your comment. It's encouraging to know that it struck a chord with you. My blog writing has gone by the wayside as I've been writing my dissertation but now that it's nearing the end, I'd like to revive it.