August 14, 2011

The problem with Q

I have a problem. I've been aware of this for some time now, ever since I first went on a French exchange to Bordeaux back at school. My problem is that I can't pronounce the word 'beaucoup' in French, thus rendering me unable to really quantify how much I like the food on offer, or how many rioters there were in Manchester the other week (really beaucoup). Instead, I'm reduced to the linguistic equivalent of clutching at straws, blagging my way through conversations using 'merci bien' or 'plein de' in lieu of the dreaded 'b' word. Last academic year, I gave a first-year grammar lecture, in which I was forced to admit that I could not pronounce that word. I think that was the first step in the right direction; I'm now completely open about what I see as a huge problem.

I remember that French trip quite vividly, largely because whenever I used the 'b' word, I was greeted with hysterical laughter from everyone in hearing distance. My so-called pen 'friend' at the time actually made me repeat the word over and over again in front of her friends one day at her lycée. Imagine a whole bunch of teenage girls in Seconde (the French equivalent of Year 11) laughing at you like hyenas. Of course that improved my confidence no end. Somehow, and I'm not sure quite how, I managed to get through a whole seven months in Tours without using the dreaded word. I suppose I'm lucky that the Bordelais use 'merci bien' quite frequently, thus providing me with a weapon to defend against 'beaucoup'.

As anyone who has every read Stephen Clarke's superb Year in the Merde novels will know, the problem with mis-pronouncing the 'b' word is that in French the 'coup' part of the word in queston can sound a bit like 'cul', meaning backside. Hence why I haven't been giving the very friendly people at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France too many thank yous–one dreads to think how that kind of comment would go down with archivists or librarians. Probably not too well. I did realise yesterday, journeying through the epic corridors of the BNF, that where there should be a 'Salle Q' next to the 'Salle P' in which I'm doing my research, there's no such reading room. Perhaps, and this is a tentative suggestion, the good staff of the BNF wanted to spare the blushes of countless foreign researchers, like myself, who struggle with the pronunciation of anything to do with the letter 'q' or 'coup' for that matter. Or it could be that it simply follows the architectural illogic that is the BNF. One of my favourite procedures is the transferring of your bag contents into a transparent satchel with the BNF logo. It's not that you can't take certain items into the Library, but that you have to walk around with identical accessories to everyone else, like in an artist's impression of what a Library could look like. Personally, the presence of a 'Salle Q' might have pushed me to confront my pronunciation conundrum, but then again I've taken a vow to avoid complimenting French people on their derrières for ever and ever. So perhaps it's best the Inathèque de France is located in the easy-to-pronounce 'Salle P'. That way I'm not being branded an English DSK. Having said that, I've always wanted to visit the town of Ars on the Ile de Ré...

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