Saturday, September 24, 2011

Le Subjonctif

I am sitting in a stretch limo on a rain pelted highway, the only American among the passengers. Everyone is quietly consulting their electronic umbilical cords to home or the office while the raindrops and rubber tires produce an isolating hum. Three times a year, I look forward to a certain Email from France, communicating hotel and air reservations, and the invitation to join the little band of Frenchmen on their Midwestern excursion from one subsidiary to another, as dictated by some articles of incorporation and the need to look in on investments. Two of my French employers do not speak English, and so I am called to perform what I love best – the schizophrenic metamorphosis of biculturalism. I get to be French and American in alternate doses. American comes naturally; French comes from an act of the heart.

My employer is a French entrepreneurial legend. At a very spry seventy-five years of age, he wears his Lacoste and needs his cigarette at regular intervals. A French client once lamented to me, out on the sidewalk at Michigan and Wacker, where he had gone to grab his dose of nicotine: “Society imposed these damn things on us and now society is taking them away...!”

I am accustomed to working with French businessmen of a “certain” age. Non-English speaking – the only line they remember from English lessons is the classic “My tailor is rich”. They follow a fixed set of manners: the handshake, the use of Monsieur and Madame instead of a first name, a certain wariness. The French are observant. They have radar. As a linguist, I’m fascinated with reflections of the parent culture in its language. It is impossible to speak a foreign language well without knowing something of how the brain and heart of the foreign speaker work. Correctly conjugating the verbs will only get you so far. Phrasing and intonation help to make someone “fluent” just as they turn someone who sings in the shower into a “vocalist”. The French language is more musical than English, whose consonants overpower the vowels. French, on the other hand, sings with pure vowels, undiluted by diphthongs. Getting the vowels wrong marks an American every bit as much as wearing a Stars and Stripes lapel pin.

In addition to the lyrical beauty of spoken French, I love its special attention to the subjunctive tense. The subjunctive feels natural to me, since doubt and emotion are ever present in a profession where you toggle back and forth between two idioms and two cultures. The act of leaving one’s native language and assuming the language of another country is an emotional uncertainty, a step into an exotic world, which flips some electric switches in the brain, firing up synapses. Interpreters are fountains of adrenaline. The trick is to be someone you are not. The second language is the costume and the stage and the voyage of the mind we perform in order to convince the listener that we belong to that other culture.

When I have taught French, I found it very difficult to work with American students who didn’t learn parts of speech in “grammar school”. “Grammar” went away when the place became “elementary” school. Both the name of the institution and its objective seem somehow diminished. I went to “grammar school” as a child, a world of diagramming sentences and knowing the difference between “you and I” and “you and me”. I wince when I hear television news broadcasters misusing object and subject pronouns and I have long ago given up the battle of the dangling preposition.

My approach to teaching French grammar to a generation raised on Whole Language is to venture away from the strict mechanics of language, and the scaffold structures I learned as a child, with sentence diagrams stretching the length of the chalk board. Instead, I go for the thought processes behind French grammar. If you want to speak French, you have to play at being French. The actor in you must get into the character.

I lectured once on the Cartesian quality of the French language. I was shocked to find college French students who didn’t recognize the name of René Descartes, the Father of Modern Philosophy. I feel his cogito ergo sum in the subtleties of the French language. I think, therefore I am. The Frenchman’s awareness of himself permeates his speech, so structured as to give the impression that he is observing himself while speaking. For example, a conversation in French will not go two minutes without use of a pronominal – or reflexive – verb. Their use is like looking in a mirror. Je me lève. I get (myself) up. Je me demande. I wonder (I ask myself). Je m’amuse. I’m having a good time (I amuse myself). Even at the moment of death, the Frenchman’s thoughts reflect objectively on his dying body. Je me meurs.

At the same time, the French use of the subjunctive places the French speaker at a cautious distance from what he sees around him, ever critically observant. The subjunctive is the mood of uncertainty and emotion, with its discreet backing away from the unknown, its recognition of an emotional impact, its attenuation following a wish, a command, and even distancing the speaker from a superlative, because you never know if something really is la meilleure chose qu’on puisse dire. The subjunctive curls back up and around the French speaker, after “whomever”, “whatever” or “wherever”, like a shield protecting him from a possible misconception. No one really knows the future or the outcome or what will follow, and the French language swims in the softer sibilance of those doubts. Qu’il fasse, qu’il plaise, qu’il puisse, qu’il soit….

While I’m changing from one language to the other in my work, I’m striving to plant the seed of doubt in the mind of my listener as to my origin. Singing my vowels and reflexing my verbs, I live for the moment when I am asked: “Are you French?”

Ah, I wish that I were (subjunctive tense).

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