From Round to Square (and back)

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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Just Do It Over (4)—Oui, oui, Mademoiselle, er, jeune femme

[a] That would be madame RF
Attention textbook publishers: it looks like a reprint might well be in order for chapter one of Conversational French. At least on official forms, Mademoiselle is going the way of Fräulein and Miss, not to mention Señorita (with "apologies" to a certain Monsieur Timberlake). It's a language do-over, and the part that I find especially interesting is the way that these things work out in France. You see, language is ever-changing. That is a big reason why Germans have tired of Fräulein and very few Americans use the term "Miss" anymore. In France, the same cultural changes have been in the works for some time, although it is possible—just possible—that a certain political figure with the initials DSK might have accelerated the process...just a little. Many women and not a few men have found that they DiSliKe the gender politics and language of their era.

[b] Mademoiselle Antoinette RF
So, if you were hoping for either cheers or condemnation, well, you must be new to Round and Square. I am not interested in diatribes against political correctness or cheering social progress. Still, just so that I don't give the impression that I sit on fences, I will say that I like the change. If you want to paint me with a broad political brush, go ahead. That is the political era in which we live, I guess.

It misses the larger point, though. The "fact" is that I am much more interested in language and culture than in politics. Moreover, I am very interested in the administrative forces that pontificate about language and culture.

France is quite particular about language...and culture. Here in the United States (and most of the rest of the world) language ebbs, flows, and sputters. "Hopefully" is entering the mainstream (and has been for decades); split infinitives are beginning to powerfully take-off (just a little grammar joke there). On the other hand, "groovy" just won't stick, no matter how hard Ron Paul's ad-makers try ("dude" is holding steady, though). "Miss" is pretty much gone these days, except as a tender verb and an old abbreviation for an American gulf state.

[c] Lex-icon(ic) PD
This is true in other places where I have a little bit of language familiarity. I created quite a scene many years ago in Taiwan when I referred to potatoes as 土豆, earth beans. I had looked it up in an old dictionary (and have since heard several strong defenses of "earth bean" and its rich, regional place in the language). The tables were turned a few moments later when a young woman at the table referred to the Irish Spud Famine. I didn't know where to begin—with the fact that "spud" was a word grandpa used at dinner or with cautionary counsel against using a nickname term for a terrible disaster. In either case, the word had gone out of use.

Funny how language works that way. 

Yes, Virginia, even in France. Terms sputter, gasp, and fade. Others muscle into the speech patterns of everyday people looking for hard drives, software, or even (mon dieu!) hamburgers. The difference between France and China or the United States is that some people in France take these matters très sérieusement. Well, some people in the United States and China (and Germany and Poland and the Lesser Antilles—sovereign and non-sovereign territories alike) take these things pretty darned seriously, don't they?...I hear you cry. They write grammar books and hand out style guides in class, for Pierre's sake. Right? Right?
[d] Mademoiselle de Fitz-James RF

That would be correct.

The difference is that William Strunk, William Safire and Kate Turabian are not members of a governmental organization that "decides" these matters. They and other lovers of languages other than French are not members of anything like the Académie Française. They may aspire to deathless prose, but they are not immortels. Although the Académie cannot create policy, it shapes both language and lexicon in ways that most other countries (and speakers of various languages) find baffling.

So that's it? The Académie crushed the word mademoiselle? Nope. Gouvernement did. If you have thought about language (and culture) at all, you must know by now that it is not possible for even a glorious institution of learning to change the way people talk (and pass le pizza, please). If that worked, college professors would read exquisitely crafted papers every day during their working lives. I am not sure whether to greet this idea with the word "chimera," "utopia," or "delusion." As David Foster Wallace once wrote in a learned and hilarious review of a grammar book, the problem with grammar books (I paraphrase) is that only the people who already grammar books.

Oh, but you can create a language do-over another way. While you can't make people stop, you can give them nowhere to turn (a phrase) on official documents. Non, cannot check the little box that says "mademoiselle" on your family documentation. There is no longer a box to check marked "mademoiselle"; your daughter will no longer (on official papers at least) be called "ma" (my) "demoiselle" (little lady). And, non, madame. It is just vous and your cherubic little enfant(s). The patriarchal and possessive form—with a questionable connotation of Neolithic kinship structure—has been taken off the page. Literally.

It is, quite literally...well, figuratively...a do-over.

Read a little bit about it on Twitter and in a few major newspapers. In a few weeks, I will look at language do-overs in a different way—considering names that, once outdated, have made comebacks (or are trying to). Is anyone betting on a resurgence for Millard...or Beulah? For now, though, consider language, change, and administrative do-overs with honorifics en Français.

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