Posted by Jay Livingston
“The French don't care what they do, as long as they pronounce it correctly.” The line is from “My Fair Lady,” by Lerner and Loewe, and I remembered it well on my first trip to France, when people kept pretending not to understand what I was saying. I’m sure I’ll never be able to get directions to Neuilly.
But it’s not just pronunciation that the French care about. Lerner should have added something about spelling and grammar.
In March, we have NCAA basketball. The French have the national dictée, a spelling challenge that millions of people take – and take seriously – but which only a handful do perfectly (because of all those damn accent marks probably).
We Americans have a friendly and accommodating view of language. When our highest elected official constantly contorts the English language, it’s a matter of amusement, not concern. If a French candidate blows the subjunctive, he may find his gaffe used as the entire text of an attack ad.
A friend lives in a Paris building that has one of those little cage elevators. If someone doesn’t close the door firmly, the elevator won’t move from that floor. A sign reminding tenants to be sure “que la porte est fermée” hadn’t been posted for more than a couple of hours before someone had corrected it: “que la porte
British author Anthony Burgess wrote of eating in a family restaurant in the countryside. When the waitress, the fourteen-year-old daughter, asked, “Et comme dessert?” Burgess answered, in French, “Fruits.”
“Des fruits,” she noted, correcting a man three times her age. In France, the customer is not always right, especially when he omits the partitive article.
Now there’s this.
(Update, April 2012. Unfortunately, the original video has been replaced with this version which has been edited to report on the response to the original.)
At first, it looks like a typical, moderately sexy music video. She strokes the naked fesses of a statue and sings, “Faisez-moi l’amour.” But wait. Even I know that faisez is wrong. It should be “faites-moi l’amour.”
It turns out the video is a bit of viral marketing for a company, Bescherelle, that sells grammar books and other language materials (including dictées). The video is full of grammatical errors, and French youth rose to the challenge to find them all. In the first week or so after its release, it had taken second place on MySpace TV, a record number of “don’t miss” designations, and 18,000 downloads.
You can find lots of grammatical errors in US music videos, but that’s not why kids watch them.
(Full story here; corrected grammar in the video here.)