Saturday, May 16, 2009

From Paris to Provence - Lingual Shifts

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

I went to school in Paris, and lived there for two years. Six months into my studies, I went to Arles for a summer internship, met Erick, and from that point on, though I worked in Paris, I spent my weekends 'dans le Sud.'

I arrived in Arles on the 22nd of June, the morning after the Fête de la Musique. I was a bit dazed by the warmth of the air, the good southern smells, and the light. When I'd spoken with the young man at the photo festival office about finding a place to stay here, I'd assumed from his accent that he was Italian. I was surprised to discover he was actually Marseillais.

My French was pretty good at this point. I'd been following a French graduate level program in Arts Management in Paris. I had followed courses about the structure of the Ministry of Culture, arts as an economic force, accounting for non-profits, psychology for future directors and producers, the history and structure of Radio France, where to find funds, etc., I was justifiably proud of my communication and comprehension abilities. But, as I was soon to learn, it had its limits and a time of humbling was just around the corner.

One day, not more than two weeks after my arrival, Erick invited some friends to join us for lunch. And, I got maybe half of what they were saying? What the.... How is it I can't follow these people? OK, at this point in my language development I still found it hard to be in large groups in a bar where everyone is talking at the same time and the ambient noise makes distinguishing what people say pretty near impossible. And, as I've noticed, I can lip read in English pretty well, but not in French (nor in Japanese). So noisy bars are places I simply give up on communicating beyond smiles, grimaces and sign language.

However, this was a quiet lunch with three friends. The kind of situation I was pretty good at. One spoke simply and I could follow him (he was from St. Rémy de Provence, just around the corner). I found Erick's accent lovely and very easy to understand. Yes, there were some 'gs' at the end of "juin" and "faim," there were some extra syllables in my name (in Paris, my name is pronounced ma dlen, in Provence, ma de lay ne), and Marseille was said in three (Mar say yuh). But the artist friend Pierre just barreled along and I swear, no more than 50% registered (a Marseillais pure souche as they say here, meaning approximatively with deep roots). And then that friend from the Pyrenees. Goodness, what language was he speaking?

Well, such a setback is simply a challenge to be accepted, n'est-ce pas? And so I set about learning the local dialect. Erick took me to the local library and selected a number of Marcel Pagnol movies for me. One by one I worked my way through them: La fille du Puisatier, La Femme du Boulanger, Manon de la Source, César, Fanny, Marius and a few others featuring Fernandel one of his fetish actors.

The first time I watched La fille du Puisatier, my comprehension stumbled completely when the father (played by Raimu) comes to fetch his daughter and is greeted by the woman who has taken her in -- a grand old biddy, heavy-set and ferociously acting the role of protective watch dog over a young woman wronged and her new baby. They went at it verbally (as the French will do, and even more so in the South), words flying, insults, anger, volleys of words filling the air space. I'm told that Raimu did a lot of improvising in these movies (if you don't know this actor, he is a cross between a classically trained actor of the great tragedies and Jackie Gleason). The local accent, the speed of speech, the sheer intensity of it all... I had to stop and start the VCR again and again to get simply the gist. It took over a year to actually understand the argument.

But I did, and what a proud moment it was. Slowly but surely the local accent and the speed of speech has become normal to me. Erick's accent is quite gentle, almost lulling, but Leo and Jonas' neighborhood nannies were quite "du pays" as are some of the market vendors, my baker and his father, and other friends who proudly hale from Marseille. I have to confess that when Leo once said to me "j'ai fang" I nearly bit my tongue. I corrected him to say "faim". But hearing Jonas' nannie say his name with three long syllables was no longer a surprise. There are even times when I'm on the phone to Paris, and the Parisian on the other end of the line thinks I'm from the South!

When you live here, you start pronouncing the 'es.' All last syllables get their due. Comme ça is said as 'co me sa.' Whereas in Paris it will be 'com sa.' And when saying the city name Arles, be sure to emphasize the A, the Re an the Le.

Over these past fifteen years this singing language has come to feel right to me, and the clipped tones of the Parisians, interspersed with "euh" sounds if not pretentious, then other. My own speech has taken on the lilt of extra syllables, fully pronounced "s's," but I draw the line at adding a "g" to my month of juin, or Leo's second name Augustin. Now, if I were to add the phrases "ma foi" or "peu cher" (this latter pronounced 'peu sher re' of course, then I would truly become a local.


Anonymous said...

Welcome to the club! Here on this side of the Atlantic, try the texan accent, or even anything out of Miami really.For me even after 18 years spent here, when I get out of Miami it's an other world where nobody understands me and where I also have difficulties!!!!!Weird huh? I guess here everybody here is used to accents. I don't know one true Floridian. They're all kinda latinos, my favorites are the Cubans 2nd generations who mix english and spanish without thinking about it!

Madeleine Vedel said...

hm growing up in NY I became used to Hispanic English, French English, Russian English, Bronx English, Chinese English, Japanese English... Sooouuuthan English... accents are glorious but they can certainly throw you off. Take care

airelle said...

hi just discovered your lovely blog!
once (long ago) I applied for visa at the french embassy and the lady there asked me: so where are you studying? and when I told her that I studied in Aix she said something like that explains the accent. I learned french in the Midi and I suppose my accent tells it.
My current male friend is from north and for the first year I had hard time getting used to his accent pointu, northern accent. and he certainly doesn't speak to me in cht'i! But since I have lived almost all my adult life in southern France it's accent is the one I know and love.

Madeleine Vedel said...

Hello Airelle, Yes, it is definitely noticed when we have a southern lilt! I've a Japanese friend whose French is very Arlesien. Her Parisian boyfriend is forever correcting her! ah well, but her heart is very much in the south!

take care!