I have always been interested in languages. Since my first Spanish class in seventh grade, I have been taken by the puzzle of how people talk.
Of course my Spanish class was a disaster because I hated trying to spit things out that made my mouth feel unholy. My formal Spanish sounded like Polish swear words. (That may be because of a family connection to refined Polish dirty-do-wadda-do. The reporter goddesses just told me they don’t know what dirty-do-wadda-do is. Let’s keep it our secret, please).
Every time I tried to repeat what my Spanish teacher said I heard deep rumblings from the underworld. I decided failure was better than an eternity in hell for a seventh grader.
My next excursion into babble was German, which went better. After two or three years I could make out my German name, Georg the Dorkmaster, and one other word, which I have forgotten. I think it was a pastry, or maybe a dirty-do-wadda-do — one or the other — I’m pretty sure — maybe.
Once I found myself in college I decided French was the winning ticket. After the opening two minutes in the first class I was incomprehensibly and forever lost.
Who decided to cram all those letters at the end of French words that no one is supposed to say? The one person I remember speaking to at the U was from that class. He was all snooty about his French pronunciation because he wore a round hat with a twig sticking out of the top.
I thought if I bought a dippy hat and a little stick my French would improve. After a few moments of deep reflection I decided the better choice was to give up.
The point of this remorseful recall is I felt a tinge of vindication about a week ago. I was listening to a John Merriman lecture on YouTube. He is a history professor at Yale and I enjoy his lectures very much.
I was listening to his talk about Napoleon Bonaparte and he pointed out the emperor was from Corsica.
As a boy, Napoleon’s dad stuck him in military school where the other nasty little cadets with fine posture passed the time by making fun of his bad French. The Corsicans apparently didn’t speak the right French, pronouncing all the letters at the end of words and other global-warming mistakes.
Like any fine boy would do, Napoleon learned to hate the proper French speakers — and their hats and funny twigs.
Who knows what affect a bunch of goofy letters pronounced or not had on the future emperor, if any.
I do wonder if what starts with words, ends with sticks and stones and canon balls and bombs breaking bones.
How easy it is to place ourselves above another because of words, written or spoken, and how easy it is to learn hate.
I should end this piece with a pithy French or German saying, but I would likely mess it up and get a friendly email telling me how to spell knothead correctly in Polish.