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24.10.09

À mon chevet: Satori in Paris

book cover
À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.
But the quiet soup gentleman moves on to a broiled fish and we actually start chatting across the restaurant and turns out he's the art dealer who sells Arps and Ernsts around the corner, knows André Breton, and wants me to visit his shop tomorrow. A marvelous man, and Jewish, and we have our conversation in French, and I even tell him that I roll my "r's" on my tongue and not in my throat because I come from Medieval French Quebec-via-Brittany stock, and he agrees, admitting that modern Parisian French, the dandy, has really been changed by the influx of Germans, Jews and Arabs for all these two centuries and not to mention the influence of the fops in the court of Louis Fourteenth which really started it all, and I also remind him that François Villon's real name was pronounced "Ville On" and not "Viyon" (which is a corruption) and that in those days you said not "toi" or "moi" but like "twé" or "mwé" (as we still do in Quebec and in two days I heard it in Brittany) but I finally warned him, concluding my charming lecture across the restaurant as people listened half amused and half attentive, François's name was pronounced François and not Françwé for the simple reason that he spelled it Françoy, like the King is spelled Roy, and this has nothing to do with "oi" and if the King had ever heard it pronounced rouwé (rwé) he would not have invited you to the Versailles dance but given you a roué with a hood over his head to deal with your impertinent cou, or coup, and couped it right off and recouped you nothing but loss.

Things like that--

Maybe that's when my Satori took place. Or how. The amazing long sincere conversations in French with hundreds of people everywhere, was what I really liked, and did, and it was an accomplishment because they couldnt have replied in detail to my detailed points if they hadnt understood every word I said. Finally I began being so cocky I didn't even bother with Parisian French and let those blasts and pataraffes of chalivarie French that had them in stitches because they still understood, so there, Professor Sheffer and Professor Cannon (my old French "teachers" in college and prep school who used to laugh at my "accent" but gave me A's).

-- Jack Kerouac, Satori in Paris, pp. 45-46
This is the latest book from the Paris Reading Project to make it onto my nightstand, and it was a quick and extremely enjoyable read. It is one of Kerouac's later novels, an autobiographical piece about his trip to Paris and Brittany in 1964, in an attempt to research his family's roots in Brittany. As he explains in the opening page, Kerouac saw the trip as the beginning of a new stage in his life, the result of a satori, the Japanese word for "sudden illumination," "sudden awakening," or as he puts it, a "kick in the eye."

The book is full of passages like this, where Kerouac explores literary or linguistic or musical alleyways throughout France. Of course, one should always keep in mind the warning of the writer of Languagehat, that non-linguists should not speculate on linguistic matters, which seems to apply in this passage to Kerouac's conversation about pronunciation history. One of the problems with his analysis is that "moi" and "toi" were both found spelled "moy" and "toy" just like "roy" and "Françoy." This is a minor point in a passage with all kinds of wonderful cross-language jeux de mots.

3 comments:

marie-lucie said...

Charles Downey, vous avez absolument raison. Kerouac was wrong about the pronunciation of oy - he must have studied some French language history but without absorbing all the details. The reason why the king spelled his name with final -oy instead of -ois is that the final -s was no longer pronounced in his time, and there was a common spelling convention at the time that words did not end in a small letter i but a letter y which was more noticeable.

Language said...

Nice post, and of course you're right about Kerouac's mistake. I don't think, though, I've ever said that non-linguists should not speculate on linguistic matters, just that they should be aware they aren't experts on them just because they speak the language, and hopefully pay attention to those who are experts (to wit, linguists). Speculation is a good thing.

Charles T. Downey said...

Point taken, Hat! Anyway, errors or not, Kerouac's riffing on language throughout the book was highly entertaining.