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Phonetics and Throat Boogers

Patrick Blau relaxing on a village bench in front of the local bar in St. Antonin. (MP Photo/Patrick Blau)

By Patrick Blau

Learning a second language is not something that can be accomplished by stupid people. Anyone, and I do mean anyone, who can speak fluently in a second language has to have an above average intelligence. It’s just not easy to mentally grasp speaking in a manner that is not your native tongue. While I may not be stupid, I am finding it a big job to wrap my mind around the nuances and subtleties of the French language. I had taken French lessons from a young man who was located in St. Antonin, making it clear to him that I wasn’t really interested in writing French, not really in even reading it. My main purpose was to be able to speak it. With that thought firmly in mind he proceeded to try to teach me to speak the language of my newly adopted homeland over the course of three months, every Tuesday and Thursday.

Grasping the alphabet was easy, especially since I wrote down the French pronunciation phonetically next to each letter. The letter ‘a’ in english is pronounced ‘ay’, right? In French it is pronounced ‘ah’. ‘B’ in English sounds like ‘bee’; in French it sounds like ‘bay’. So phonetically it was easy for me to memorize the French alphabet, even when it came to completely off the wall things. Take, for example, the letter ‘i’. In French it is pronounced ‘ee’. Not entirely too strange, no; but a french person who wants to say the letter ‘y’ pronounces it ‘ee-grek’. How’s that for strange? Despite the occasional weirdness, I was able to memorize and master the French alphabet, and can recite it like I know what I’m talking about. For me, that’s an accomplishment. French numbers are different than our English ones, too, of course. If I wanted to say ‘1, 3, 4, 7’, phonetically in french I would pronounce them ‘ong, twah, kaht, set’. Pronouncing 10 in french sounds like ‘deese ‘, 20 would be ‘vahn’. During one lesson I discovered that there is some hidden math going on in the french numeric system, much to my tutors surprise. You see, in french there really are no numbers 70, 80, or 90. I’ll explain, so hang on tight; this is where it gets a little complicated. In France the number 60 is pronounced ‘swah-sohnt’. Then when you want to say 70 in French, you say ‘swah-sohnt deese’.

You see what they did there? Seventy in French is sixty and ten. Seventy doesn’t exist; it’s just math! 60 + 10 = 70. Moving on to the number 80, things get even weirder. Eighty in French is, roughly, ‘kaht vahn’, or mathematically, 4 x 20. So eighty doesn’t really exist, either. It’s just four twenties. For the number 90 the French linguists went just all sorts of crazy, making it ‘kaht vahn deese’, or 4 x 20 + 10. Why, you might ask? I asked my tutor the same question, and his answer was that after naming the number 60 the French language masters of prehistoric times got bored, so they decided to mix things up a bit and make it more interesting with math. I’m not sure I’m buying that one, but hey, whatever. Here are some relatively easy French expressions I use almost daily over here, for you to have a better idea of what the french language sort of sounds like. From the mouth of one transplanted American, anyway. Phonetically, remember. If you write them this way on some French exam, you will fail miserably. “Como sah vah?“ (How’s it going?) “Tah bee-en door-meer?“ (Did you sleep well?) “Jeh swee fahn. Jeh swee vray-mon tray fahn.“ (I am hungry. I am really very hungry.) “Lay bone tomp.“ (Good times.) “Sah mosh“, or “Sah mosh pah.“ (That works, or That doesn’t work.) “On vah allay oh Es-pahn-yah poor ahsh-ah-tay Mountain Dew.“ (We are going to Spain to buy some Mountain Dew.) “Sah sue-fee poor mwah. Jeh swee fin-ee poor awe-jwah-dwee.“ (That’s enough for me. I am done for today.) There’s also a whole other thing going on with the letter ‘r’ in French. First off, it’s pronounced ‘air’, by itself. Not bad. But when you use a word that contains the letter ‘r’ in French, you have to make a sound like you’re getting ready to spit from the back of your throat.

I’ve noticed that there are varying degrees of the ‘clearing your throat’ sound, depending on the person and the accent. For some it’s a subtle sort of thing, simply a soft little obligatory rasp from the back of the mouth. For others it sounds like they are hocking up their vocal chords. In English you say,“I am very, very, very tired.“ In French you would say,“Jeh swee tray, tray, tray fah-tee-gay“, while making the little throat-booger sound with every ‘r’ in each ‘tray’. It gets easier the more you say it, and I have found that I can spit further now than I ever could before. Bonus! All in all I enjoy this process of learning to speak another language. It gives me a great feeling of satisfaction when I can actually get across an idea of mine, in French, to my wife, Sarah. She likes it when I speak French, because then she doesn’t have to speak so much English with me. That’s easier on her, and it’s better for me to practice my fluency. I’ve even found that sometimes I have a hard time remembering the English word for some things, but after a few moments of thinking about it the right one usually pops into my head. I’m certainly not the sharpest tool in the shed, but over time and with plenty of practice, I can master this new language.

And I can master spitting on a fly from 10 feet away. That’s very, very cool. Or, in French,“Sah say tray (throat booger), tray (another throat booger, and one fly spit on) cool.“ Mare-see, French letter ‘r’. Patrick Blau was born and raised in northeast Ohio. Until late 2014, he lived in Geauga with daughter, McKenzie and his son, Kevin, when he moved to France and married. Patrick and his wife Sarah currently live in St. Paul de Neste, a Burton-like village in southwest France.


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