Friday, April 6, 2012

Paris Journal IV: Why is French so French?

Photograph by Hallie Cohen
Je suis desole is what the guy who makes those great jambon et fromages right down the street from the Odeon stop of the Metro reports when he’s run out of baguettes. Can you imagine you’re at the counter person of the old Cake Masters on 86th and Broadway saying “Je suis desole” when they run out of challah? No they’d say, “we are all out of challah, but we still have raisin breads, bagels and bialys. Evidement, now that’s a French word which reflects the obvious as said with the shrug of the speaker’s shoulders. Evidement brooks no ambivalence. Evidently is the closest thing in English, but it doesn’t conduce to the bodily movement, any more than mais non or mais oui conveys our “yes”or  “no.” And then there is old tellement. English uses “so” which takes less time but doesn’t tell the story and ends up obliterating a quintessential moment. But attends, attends. If you ride the famous Paris Metro with the colorful station names like Denfert-Rochereau and Sevres-Babylone which end in exotic places like the Porte D’Orleans instead of Battery Park, you'll hear more than one animated conversation sprinkled with this exclamation. A person can be speaking or listening, but it means literally wait a second there is something urgent forthcoming. You have to be there to get the feeling of imminence that “wait” fails to conjure.  You say A bientot and a tout a l’heure when you are going to see someone in some indefinite future, but they both could be the title of a book like say Bonjour Tristesse, the novel by Francoise Sagan. They tell a story that has more double entendres than the more prosaic “see you in a while.”  Which all goes to show that the innuendos of a sonorous language like French are untranslatable. While a poulet and a chicken are still la meme chose, as a "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose," syntax is a form of thought.

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