The name of the game

When we arrived in France, our eldest was plunged into a class called CP, which is where, aged 6-7, French children learn to read from scratch in a single year. Fancying ourselves as we did, Eadred and I thought steering a small child around le chat s’est assis sur le tapis would be a cinch. All such illusions were shattered a mere week later when the Reader came home with a syllabic dictée of “e” sounds to learn: be, bé, bè… We took turns in testing her, reading out a sound and asking her to write it down. “It doesn’t sound like it does when the maîtresse tests us,” she managed, politely.

The same phenomenon arose in the “ou” week. Vou, vu, vue, we attempted for all of five seconds until the withering look on the Reader’s face stopped us in our tracks. Other crowds were tougher than our daughter. We lived on the route de Saint Romain, you see, and no matter what I did with my mouth, this was always noted down as the rue de Saint Romain, or once, when I had managed to get my voice to drop the requisite number of pitches to form the ou correctly, the croute de Saint Romain.

The arrival of our younger daughter, the Curly One, in CP this year marked something of a watershed for us. Whereas with the Reader all our “e” sounds had converged in the middle, this time round our be comes with sufficient pout, and our with sufficient insouciance, to differentiate them. Similarly our vou is sufficiently deep and our vu sufficiently reedy to suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, the syllables we are uttering belong to the French language.

We may feel smug for having finally disentangled our French vowel sounds, but (nearly) correct pronunciation brings its own dilemmas. These begin even upon being introduced. The vowel sounds in my name, you see, do not appear anywhere in the lexicon of syllables all French people have learnt in CP. Believe me, I have tried to find my place, but with an E (be) I become Uhrmily; with an É () it is Aehmily; and with an È (bè), Airmily. That is before you have even thought about the “i” in the middle, which becomes something like an ihhy, or the “y” on the end, which frankly does not even exist.

I tried, for a while, to translate myself entirely, and become Émilie, but this jarred. My name is Emily, not Aehmihhyleeh (pronounced with a whistle of breath through the teeth). Similarly I find myself unable to call Eadred “Polle”, or to introduce my mum as “Susanne”. A very good friend called Nicola persists in the completely unreasonable use of her Christian name despite being told almost daily that this makes her a man and thus, presumably, that she should call herself something different.

Aliens in a foreign land

All of this is, of course, my problem. I cannot expect the entire French language to shift its foundations just because a family of disgruntled English-speakers has decided to set up shop in Lyon. I am, however, surprised by the complete lack of lip-service paid by the French to the pronunciation of proper nouns in other languages, and indeed by the tacit assumption that all non-French pronunciations are somehow incorrect and to be disregarded.

In the UK, Eadred and I were frequently amused by the BBC’s very earnest approach to the correct pronunciation of foreign words. “Afghunisthun” Ritula Shah would say. Other presenters would break off from their stream of undulating English to produce a perfectly pouting “Ollonde”, and Angela Merkel would always have her hard “g” instead of the soft “j” of her English equivalent. I am sure the BBC frequently gets it wrong, or just not quite right, but, well, at least its journalists are trying in their own small way to overturn centuries of imperial complacency.

No time is wasted learning how to pronounce foreign names correctly in the corridors of French broadcasters, however. The British PM is Thérès-a Mai, and the German Chancellor’s “g” loses its guttural edge. Reports come in from Londres and Douvres, and across the Atlantic Donalde Trhhoomp is busy passing executive orders.

Perhaps yet more flagrant is the French tendency to re-spell names for their own convenience. One of my orchestras is playing a piece of music by hitherto unheard of composer Aaron Copelan and I am daily amused by the fact that, in France, the Russian President is styled as Vladimir Poutine, which makes him sound rather cute. Mind you, if they kept to the correct spelling of the latter, he would be known as Vladimir Fuck, which one might imagine could be construed as undiplomatic.

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21 thoughts on “The name of the game

  1. Haha, loved your post 🙂 We only arrived last October so goodness knows what we are saying when we try to speak in French!!! We have also had our names changed by the French, my fiancé’s surname is Lambert so it now has a silent T and is pronounced more like Lombear. I bought something recently and my name went on the invoice and from Bev it became Beauve, not sure how that happened 🙂

  2. The thing is, they really learn to read well in CP. And the strictness about pronunciation carries into correct spelling.
    I once played charades with a group of French friends. I acted out my bit–I forget what it was–and when they finally got it, I was told that it wasn’t a good one because I had mixed up “u” and “ou” sounds. Even though charades accounts for this, with the ear-tug “sounds like” motion,maybe “u” and “ou” sound alike only to anglophones, the way “l” and “r” sound alike to Japanese speakers.

    1. They do learn to read well, but that it because their language is phonetically consistent. Which is why when I am told that English is easy, I think they’re missing a trick…

  3. I really enjoyed this. I’ve always thought that, whether by good luck or good management, your names all translated really well into French (indeed sometimes already being French) but I’d perhaps forgotten about pronunciation. I remember when I was an au pair (aeons ago) being asked when I met the family if the pronunciation of my name was vayRAH. I was so pleased to understand what they were asking me I just said yes, so I never did find out if they could have got their tongues round Vera.

  4. The phrase “Avez-vous vu la voûte ?” still gives me pause for thought… I suppose it’s like a French person trying to say “thistle thwacking”.

  5. With my English accent, Ialways feel really awkward about saying V Patines name in front of French people. Just goes to show that you should avoid talking about politics😉

  6. I was teaching in Dubai and struggled to pronounce the kids names correctly, but i also fought them how to pronounce my name correctly and asked the parents to say and spell my name the English way, as I was English and that was name and how i wanted it said and spelt #pocolo

  7. I can totally relate to your experience! I am Italian and I am simply not able to convince the French that my name is “Federico” and not “Frederico”. Showing business cards or even documents and pointing repeatedly at the lack of an “r” between “F” and “e” did not do the trick. Even my girlfriend (French) spelled it multiple times: they just write it “Frederico”. At the beginning I thought was some sort of joke, but it is just that they simply cannot accept my name to be different from what they expect.

    1. I am sorry to hear this Federico! You are right, though, that there is a complete lack of acceptance that names might be different elsewhere. I don’t mind translating concepts and objects into French, but I resent being translated myself. A proper name is a proper name. Did you know that the one reason that you are allowed to change your name by deed poll in France is that you suffer from discrimination because your name is not French enough. Under those circumstances you are allowed to change your name to its French equivalent. So I could be Émilie, and you could be Frédérique, and my friend Nicola could be, well, perhaps Marie-Nicolas…

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