Speaking In Twang
Having spent ten years or so studying British English (a.k.a. Real English, or quite simply English, according to my rosbif mates) at school in France, my husband was in for a treat upon his arrival in the United States.
Armed with phrases like How do you do? or Would you care to partake of…, he learned pretty quickly that, well, in the states we just...don't talk like that.
Indeed, to How do you do?, he soon added the equally nonsensical What's up? ('What is up? Well, it's the opposite of down!') to his growing repertoire of greetings. He got along quite well in those first days, I must admit. I was impressed by his progress, and he seemed to enjoy the expansion of horizons that comes along with the mastering of 'American' by a native French-speaker.
But after only a month of immersion in our university atmosphere (where the accents, although American, tended to be more generic than anything else), this newly arrived Frenchman was put to the ultimate test of linguistic curiosities: my family.
My brother was to be married and an engagement party had been planned; the future Mr. FdC, terrified, was nevertheless pressured into accompanying his new girlfriend to Atlanta for the event. Not long after the party came the wedding itself, involving yet another trip to Atlanta and the Frenchie's first encounter with the remaining Louisiana relatives.
Mash the button!
Now, you might think that having been exposed to me for the previous semester he would have been somewhat broken-in by my own accent. Not so. Skilled at code-switching after the near-constant relocations that make up the life of an Army Brat, I can – and do – rapidly flip-flop between sounding like the local news broadcaster and those bonafide swamp-dwellers that I call kin. It all depends on to whom I am speaking.
But lacking any opportunity to speak with fellow Loos-i-anins on campus in Florida, I had therefore presented my new beau with nothing other than my university voice up to that point (although, looking back, I could have and should have prepared him better, such was the shock he was about to receive).
Wedding day arrived, and my confused date witnessed the complete metamorphosis of not only his girlfriend (as it's not only our accents that differ from the mainstream, but our vocabulary as well), but also that of her parents and brother. In exchanges with relations from back home, for example, an annoying habit is less likely to be met with Leave me alone! than with Stop pestering me!
Lunch becomes dinner, and dinner becomes supper. Sunday brunch is Sundee bru-unch, and anyway, What's that young'un hollerin' 'bout?
Grandma was feeling puny that day, and thus looked like something the cat drug in; she was worried that her dress didn't look right and could the Frenchman please tell her if her skirt was hanging all wompy-jawed? Meanwhile, uncle J.T. was hootin' and hollerin' at Lord knows what.
Sensing by his wild-eyed look that he was about to lose it at one point, I rescued my guest just as he was being yelled at from one direction, Honey, you tote the blue suitcase and I'll tote the other one! (with no context as to what 'tote' might actually mean), and Mash it! Mash it! Mash the button! (in reference to the departing elevator) from the other.
Mash?? Just what was his future grandmother-in-law telling him to do to that button, anyway? Not being able to comprehend the verb, of course, meant the loss of the entire sentence.
It's not that he arrived in the United States expecting no regional differences in speech. My husband, like many foreigners, seemed to have an inkling that we 'talk funny' south of the Mason Dixon even before he went to study there. It just took him a little time to get used to it, that's all.
The good side of the Pyrénées
In retrospect, I was the one who was blind-sided by language diversity when I first changed countries, not Mr. FdC. He, like me, is a born Southerner; his roots are in a small village deep in the Pyrénées – so deep, in fact, that to annoy him, calling him a Spaniard will work as well as anything (with a foot stomp for emphasis and a Mais, non! I was born on ZEES side of zee Pyrénées! Zee GOOD side!)
And although everyone knows that a person from, say, Alabama would be recognized immediately among New Yorkers as being from 'someplace down south', it honestly never occurred to me that a person born in Foix and brought up in Toulouse would turn heads at restaurants in Paris when opening his mouth to order. In a country not much bigger in size than Colorado, whoda thunk it?
Not me. My initiation in this respect took place in a Paris bakery where (after having lived with my Toulousian for 2 1⁄2 years in Florida), I confidently asked for a chocolatine when, as everyone knows, it's a pain au chocolat in the north. My confusion was compounded by the fact that it's une chocolatine (f.) and un pain au chocolat (m.). But life with my French redneck meant that, to me, they were chocolatines, and to this day I have to force myself to say pain au chocolat when outside the southwest.
A sac en plastique is not that at all to a southerner (nor, by proxy, to me), but a poche; the trunk of a car is not a coffre, but a malle. And if the slightly off-beat vocabulary doesn't give you away, the twangy accent definitely will. Toulouse is not Toulouse for a Toulousian, but Toulouse-uh, merde is not merde, but merde-uh, and what is vin, pain, or maman to a Parisian comes out sounding more like vaing, paing, and mamaing if you hail from my husband's neck of the woods.
In spite of all this, however, my only periods of complete destabilization came upon confrontation with the French grandparents. Though they trill their 'r's' like Italians and speak with accents that are almost lyrically sing-song, I still thought I would be able to understand at least some of what they were saying.
But despite a serious effort on my part during each visit, I manage — even today — to comprehend less than half of every conversation, completely undermining any confidence I may have in my French-speaking abilities.
Two years after our first meeting, I learned why. I had always thought it strange that his maternal grandmother, although very sweet to my face, always referred to me as a maniac (maniac, in French, and the meaning is the same) when referring to me to someone else.
Until, one day, I was told that she wasn't calling me a maniac at all, but manyaque ('cute'). Oh, good. Occitan.
I don't stand a chance, do I?
Française de Coeur / Expatica
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