Polyglottal stop

Seeing Patrick's "Book o' th'Week: War and Peace" in catchy Cyrillic reminded me of something trivial I noticed yesterday while driving. I buttoned my way to NPR, and Garrison Keillor was intoning, in customary slow motion, his syndicated Writer's Almanac. The topic at hand was l'Amant, by Marguerite Duras, and Keillor pronounced her last name with a silent 's'.

This is incorrect, but what I found interesting was not the fact that Keillor got it wrong — everyone make mistakes, n'est-ce pas? (Hersheys!) — but the fact that he probably got it wrong by trying against the odds to get it right.

That's a pretty strange phenomenon, when you think about it. Somewhere along the way, you pick up a bit of reliable trivia (the midnight ride of Paul Revere, or Columbus or Magellan proving the earth quasi-spherical) and when the opportune moment arrives, you whip out your obscure tidbit and it turns out to be wrong!

In this case, the general principle that Keillor was trying to follow is that "-as" at the end of a French word is pronounced "ahh" to reinforce the speaker's typically Gallic mien of self-satisfaction. The reason Keillor stepped in it is that this rule doesn't apply very well to proper names. Since family and place names are often tied to particular patches of land and ancient tranches of time, they're often linguistically conservative. Letters that were once voiced but have since gone silent sometimes remain voiced in those words.

Thus, we end up with Alexandre Dumas (with a silent 's') but with Marguerite Duras (with a voiced 's'). We learn that a new topcoat is très (with a silent 's') chic, and that it was designed after one worn by Jean Jaurès (with a voiced 's'). We learn that the panic induced by a cinematic special effect was fait exprès ("done on purpose" with a silent 's'), and that the wiley perpetrator was none other than Georges Méliès (with an audible 's').

(This isn't the same as when diacritical marks are tossed in just to make a word look French, as with "Breadeaúx Pizza". There, the mindless acute accent is wholly irksome.)

The moral of the story: don't try too hard, or you'll end up mispronouncing "Copenhagen".

Last 5 posts by David Byron


  1. says

    1. Writer's Almanac rocks.

    2. If the rules of language are odd, the rules for pronunciation thereof are flat-out ridiculous. Your observation reminds of Shaw's grumblings that "fish" could be spelled "ghoti."

    3. Between your post and Patrick's, we're certain to alienate our hard-core audience of gamers, Ron Paul Googlers, pirate-resignation-planners, penguin enthusiasts, and angry Objectivists. On the other hand, we'll probably get more readers, plus some ultimately disappointed folks who were looking for Councilman Duras. ;)

    4. Good to have you back on the front page. Thanks.

  2. Patrick says

    Kobp'n'hav'n. I think.

    I've always enjoyed the Unitedstatesian news media fetish for pronouncing place names and the like with what may or may not be a native pronunciation, but only when the place in question has a Spanish name (oddly this doesn't apply to places in Spain), but never for, for instance, even easier to mangle place names in French or German.