Je me demande

Je me demande, French for “I wonder,” which is something I do a lot.

These days, if you want to be an English Lit major, then you are expected to know two foreign languages. The course outline goes on to explain why, “to prepare students to read literary and critical works in languages other than English.” The department faculty continues, “[We] believe that there is also an intrinsic value in linguistic study for anyone seriously interested in literature.” Seriously, not much meat on those bones for chewing on.

We study foreign languages for lots of reasons. To drop a phrase here or there marks you as a person of learning or as an English Lit major. It is a good conversation starter, a bank you can always go to when you are at a loss for words.

Personally, I have always been fascinated with foreign languages because I like to travel. I studied German in high school and college, and lived there for two years, while stationed in Kaiserslautern with US Army. It was the trips to France that always tripped me up. I honed up on Berlitz, but all this got me was to the train station, “Ou est la gare?” A couple of years ago, I went on a grand European tour with my son to France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, and England. While in Bourdeaux, I tried to order mussels and French fries off the menu. In my very best American French I asked for “Moulay.” If you are looking this up, the French spelling is “moules.” To impress my seventeen year old son, I used my best Alain Delon voice, “Moulay frites, s’il vous plait.” This confused the seventeen year old cute waitress, so she went to get an equally cute twenty-one year old waitress, who had some command of the English language. She explained that, in French, I was being very impolite. She was too polite to be specific, and I am still searching to find out what I said, when I meant to say mussels and fries.

Now I am studying French.

Unlike English, the French when making a noun plural, do not change the pronunciation. A single mussel, un moule, is pronounced just like an ocean full of mussels, des moules. The only way you know that you are speaking of more than one is in the indefinite article that precedes the noun. Here des, pronounced “day”. The moules, pronounced “moul” or something close to that, and not “moullay”.

I wonder how French got to be like this, or how English got to be the opposite. We add an “s” to a noun and so, it seems, that is simple. The French say, we pluralize the preceding article, and that is as simple. I wonder, who is right?

There are a lot of things about the French language that I wonder about, pronunciation mainly, since it is not what you say in French but how you say it that matters. One also wonders about grammar, correct verb tense, adjectives and adverbs and all that. Actually, I don’t wonder about grammar too much, I just lumber on like a moose through the forest, trying to find my way, and if a Frenchman or woman doesn’t understand me, I will get that look one gives when befuddled.

Je me demande.

The root verb is demander, pronounced “de-man-day.” It means to ask for, not demand, as one would expect. “It is a false cognate,” my French teacher explains. Then again, maybe it is we the English who incorrectly translated it from the French. History records that in 1066, Frenchman William the Conqueror came from Brittany and bested English King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. The new king spoke French  so the official language of the court was French. I picture a Saxon thane appearing before his French lord, trying to ask for something saying, in his best French, “Je demande équité!” Thankfully, the French lord heard him to say, “I ask for justice,” even if he meant, “I demand my lands back, you bastard.”

Mistranslations can get us in trouble and save us from ourselves.

I can’t leave without a comment on the reflexive, Je me demande. Literally, it is “I ask me.” I get it, but isn’t it better to say I wonder?


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