You might not guess it from my occasional hackneyed use of the language in this column, but I’ve actually taken two French classes. The most inspiring was a night-school course offered by the city of Paris at an elementary school on the Street of the Dry Tree, a block from the wet Seine. (How one might expect knowledge to flower on a dry tree is another story.) It was inspiring because not just as an adult going back to school, but going back to school at a seven-year-old’s desk — great potential for nightmares there — I needed extra motivation besides the desire that my French friends would stop twisting their faces in an exasperated ‘Quoi?” whenever I said anything besides “Ca va?” (Ca va? Comment ca va quand tu ne me comprendre pas du tout? Et — comme dit Gainsbourg — moi non plus?”) Patrick, my teacher at the Night School of the Dry Tree, provided this by basically adding a high entertainment quotient to the pedagogic content.
One of Patrick’s best motivational routines would be when, talking about the origins of a word, he would go into a mock aged-person’s slump and intone, “l’Academie Française.” Among other things, the wise ones of the Academie Française are the protectors of the French language. (Although it seems that television, or at least my nightly Marseille-based soap opera Plus Belle la Vie, is not subject to the Academie’s dictums, judging by the abundant infusion of American terms. I’m not talking about American terms whose usage might seem inevitable, faut d’alternatif français, but words like ‘job’; I mean come on, there are at least two French words for ‘job.’)
Where was I? Oh yes: It seems that now the Academie has come out against a proposed law that would officially recognize regional languages as being part of the country’s patrimonie or heritage. To me, living here in Occitan land — actually, a grand portion of the south of France, stretching all the way up to the Auvergne — this makes total sense, indeed, opposing it would seem to run counter to the preservation part of the Academie’s mission. Remember, here we’re not talking about new-fangled words like Web, Loft, or telecharge, but languages which go way back — which indeed, are part of the nation’s roots, regionalized as they may be. What I saw when I attended an Occitan evening here in Les Eyzies last winter was not a threat to the French language, but a people who appreciated their roots and *traditions*, pure and simple — and, above all — here’s something the Academie should appreciate — *language.* A book table was full of various books about the Occitan language. In Perigueux, the departmental seat, there’s even an Occitan language institute and at the Adult School, you can take a course in Occitan.
Well, I’d love to stay and chat — or as the French say, tchat (hey Academie — how did *that* slip by?), but, you guessed it, it’s almost time for Plus Belle la Vie. (Hey, it’s my boulot.) (Tr.: Hé, c’est mon job.)