Friday, August 29, 2008

Mr. Moran Would Toss Me Straight Out the Fenêtre

At 7:30 AM yesterday morning I was sitting in my college's cafeteria with a plate full of two things: fruit and bacon. Before each semester, the school rolls out a breakfast buffet to satiate us before we are herded into a large lecture room--complete with red upholstered seats circa 1976--where we will listen to six hours of presentations and speeches. This means that for six hours our poor brains will drown in oceans of terms like pedagogy! and curriculum! and competencies! And while members of our department might be able to sit next to each other and write snarky notes back and forth when that one crazy science girl goes off on a subject that has absolutely nothing to do with what's being discussed, this, or the breakfast, is no compensation.

Still, not all was torture. It was good to see everyone, and it was sort of cute to listen to one of the afternoon speakers--a native New Englander who, like so many other of the people I work with, had a pretty pronounced case of the I See That 'R' But I Am Not Going to Pronounce It accent. Every time she said forty it came out sounding like fawty. Whenever she said more it came out sounding like mah. I spent a lot of time thinking of a question I could pose that would have her respond with something like It'll take fawty mah yeeeahs just because it would've pleased me to no end to hear her go on like that. I even considered asking her if she'd do the recording for my voicemail.

I'm not good at replicating the accent yet, although I have gotten pretty good at saying That was wicked awesome! if only because the phrase falls out of my students' mouths every other minute. But other than that, I've gotten nowhere near mastering the accent. I'm not concerned, though. When I lived in Minnesota, it took me two good years to get their brand of accent to vibrate off of my vocal chords, so maybe if I am patient, the R-dropping accent will come to me by way of osmosis. And until then, I can still delight students who mock my "New York accent" ("But I'm not from New York City," I insist. "Close enough," they say.) by telling them to hush up and listen to an honest to goodness horrifying accent before opening my mouth and saying something like, "Ohhh yaaa! This hotdish is real good, ya? Oh fer cuuute!" And then they will all stare at me in horror, and I will say, "Exactly. IT COULD BE WORSE."

Of course, the New England accent isn't the only thing I have to work on. The Maine people have another bad habit when it comes to their pronunciation, and it has to do with the state's proximity to French-speaking parts of Canada and the number of families who have some of that French language in their background. A substantial number of students, staff, and faculty at my school have French last names, and this soothed me when I first moved here. After all, I was no longer surrounded by Gustafsons; now I was surrounded by Pelletiers or Laroches or Touissants. And it was nice to be using a little of my French again. I'd spent seven years my life in a French classroom, after all, and, during high school, was one point away from the only-perfect oral Regents score my French teacher had seen that year. (When he asked if I'd be available to babysit his children on Wednesday night, I was able to tell him I'd be glad to do it. When he asked how much I charged per hour for my babysitting services, I thought hard about a realistic answer--what were babysitters charging these days?--and somewhere in the translation my brain short-circuited and I said, Cinq dollars! Except that I said dollars with absolutely zero French accent, and, thinking I'd done it, thinking I'd gotten a perfect mark on my Regents exam, I smiled brightly at my French teacher, and he, desperate for me to realize my mistake and correct myself, widened his eyes and waited an uncomfortable few seconds before telling me of my mistake--dough-lars! dough-lars! I could've punched myself in the face.)

So, you might imagine how delighted I was to be around the French language again. I'd once had a knack for it, and it pleased me to think I'd get to throw a little around now and again. But the first time I, speaking to a colleague, pronounced the name of a lady in the business office--Boucher--the way it should've been pronounced (Booshay) she blinked and said, "Who?" When I repeated it again, she said, "I can't think of anyone here with that name."

So I spelled it. Very slowly I said, "B-O-U-C-H-E-R."

My colleague nodded. "Ohhhh," she said. "Yeah. Mainers pronounce that as Bushy."

Bushy. I wanted to stuff my fist in my mouth because it felt so dirty to see the word Boucher and pronounce it in a way that was clearly, clearly wrong.

That wasn't the last time. One day I leaned into the chair's office to ask her about someone in another of the departments--a guy with the last name of Desjardins. When I pronounced it, I did it the French way: Dayzharden. My chair just grinned and told me I was way off on that one, that the people of Maine pronounced that last name Dess-jard-inz. It was enough to make a girl want to cut her tongue out.

Over the summer I had very little occasion to run into those bizarre pronunciations, which is why I had such a bad, violent, physical reaction to them yesterday when, while having a meeting with one of our new adjunct teachers, I explained who she needed to see in the business office for some paperwork, some supplies. I made it through most of the sentence just fine, but when I got to the part where I needed to say the French name, my mind did a tug-of-war with itself. It wanted to say it right, it really did, but it knew that if I said it correctly, it would make very little sense to this woman sitting across from me, who was a Maine native. I was conflicted. I paused, took a deep breath, and said the name the correct way--the French way--before giving her the Maine pronunciation. I apologized, of course, and explained that I was still getting used to saying these words in a way that would've had my French teacher--a man who was known to throw yardsticks when he got very worked up at some of the simpletons in his classroom--burst into a fit of rage and beat me over the head.

"I'll get better at it," I told the adjunct, but even as I said it I knew that was a lie, and the new pronunciations, like the New England accent, was something I was going to have to work at for a long time before I got it just right.

1 comment:

Jason said...

If you really want to give your students the willies, use Greg's favorite Minnesota-ism:


I had never really thought about that until it bewildered him.