Saturday, April 15, 2006

Je ne sais quoi

A truism about Yiddish is that it is what they call in German a Schmelzsprache - a fusion language. Hell, google "Schmelzsprache" and see what you get. Like many truism, this one ain't true. Or rather, the facts underlying it rather undermine than underlie. First of all, the borrowed, non-Germanic vocabulary is in fact rather limited, and only stands out prominently when Yiddish is compared to German. Secondly, as a former professor of mine pointed out, vocabulary from different "component" languages tends to follow different morphological patterns: there are distinctly Hebraic plurals reserved for nouns of Hebrew origin, and other plurals found only with Germanic nouns. There are furthermore verbal conjugations and adjectival declensions that are limited to Slavic vocabulary. The exceptions to these tendencies are striking precisely because they are exceptional. In short, Yiddish is actually like most languages, in that it has borrowed words from other languages. It is only due to a Germanicist bias that Yiddish seems to be uniquely 'mixed,' compared to 'pure' German.

English, on the other hand, is pretty darn mixed by any standard, particularly due to contact with French. Recently I had two thoughts about our Gallic linguistic heritage, both of which I will share with you now.

First, I was always taught that the Germanic vocabulary in English was everyday and plain, whereas the French words were fancy. I suppose abstracted to a certain level this is true, but there are so many basic words of French origin in English (use, uncle, beef, catch, fork, pocket, people, person, very, really, sure) that I think I'll stop repeating the assertion that French words in English are particularly elevated.

Secondly, I used to think of all the French vocabulary in English as one undifferentiated chunk, with one explanation: You know, the Normans, 1066, etc. But this isn't really the case. English has been borrowing from French steadily over the last few centuries. I would divide Gallic vocabulary into three parts (get it?): the oldest, Norman strata, the modern borrowings, and then the contemporary borrowings that retain enough Frenchness to sometimes (not always) require italicization. The last of these groups have a certain je ne sais quoi with just a soupçon of élan, vis à vis their bonhomie and I went too far, didn't I? But many of the words on the middle group are undergoing an interesting change. They already have an accepted English pronunciation, but for various reasons their respective pronunciation is being re-Frenchified. The word niche, which used to rhyme with nitch, is increasingly rhyming with fish or leash; clique used to rhyme with lick, but often now it rhymes with leak, and homage now rhymes (sorta) with collage. As a reverse snob I'm proudly sticking to the older, less French pronunciation, but ultimately I've got no quarrel problem complaint beef with people who want to say it the Frenchy way. In fact, it's the existence of choices like that that make this a rich language. Like all languages.


mzn said...

Hmm. I grew up in English Canada, where French is rarely spoken but universally taught in school, and the nitch-click pronunciations have always sounded vulgar to my ear. But I grew up hearing homage with the "h" pronounced and the "age" as in cottage; "omazh" sounds a bit pretentious to me, though I use it. In general, I would say that English Canadians are much better at pronouncing French than Americans, just as you would expect.

Queenie said...

but anymore (ha!) homage and clique are clearly not "french" (at least not in american english-- maybe canadians speak in italics?). it makes no sense to talk about people being better at pronouncing french when we're talking about pronouncing english.

ben: how do you feel about "guillotine"? i steadfastly pronounce the L and i once fought with a frenchman over this, which was of course a losing battle.

yay for reverse snobs. go white sox!

Ben said...


I've definitely noticed the tendency of Anglophone Canadians to pronounce certain English words of French origin à la français. I had an Anglophone history professor from Montreal whose pronounciation of "fin de siecle" struck me for having an honest to god nasal vowel in it.

Queenie -

I definitely have an /l/ in guillotine, and was shocked the first time I heard it sans /l/, but anymore (and don't think I wasn't tempted to do that forty times in the post itself) I find I have to fight my own instincts to keep the /l/ in there. That's a losing battle, for sure.

I want a t-shirt that says "Yay for reverse snobs! Go White Sox!" It's a succinct statement of my core beliefs.