January 13, 2011

Why can't Sarkozy learn how to speak?


You remember how in Pygmalion Professor Henry Higgins was tortured by the question of why the English wouldn’t learn how to speak properly? Well, it seems Nicolas Sarkozy has come to exasperate many French intellectuals in a similar way.

A video compiling Sarkozy’s grammatical and syntactical problems (see below) is getting a great deal of attention in France, so much so that it prompted the newspaper Liberation to run an interview with the linguist Jean Veronis in which she details his many linguistic weaknesses shown in the clip.

Why does the French President mispronounce our (beautiful) language in such extreme ways? Do you think I’m overreacting? Judge for yourself by the following quotes:

« Et qu’est-ce c’est que j’m’aperçois ? » / “What’s that I realize?”

« La tranquillité pour moi, ça aurait été de pas m’occuper de ça. »/ ”The tranquility for me that’d have been not to take care of that.”

« L’Ecologie, c’est pas pour faire plus de jardins et moins d’emploi pour vous et vos enfants. »/ ”Ecology is not to make more gardens and less jobs for you & your children.”

« On se demande c’est à quoi ça leur a servi! » / “You wonder how’s that t’was useful to them!”

No doubt our president has spent more time in the company of the French singer Johnny Halliday –another famous mangler of the languagethan reading The Princess of Clèves (the classic novel he judged not worthy of being taught in high school, as per an earlier MobyLives report). But as a consequence of his poor public speaking performances, journalists have taken to correcting him when reporting his declarations.That’s a first  in French history. Say what you will about our presidents, until now their expression skills have shown if not a literary elegance then at least the distinction of correctness.

Then there’s Sarkozy’s use of obscene language in public. On the website Rue89, there’s a story about the unfortunate side effect of Sarkozy vulgarity: a French teacher reports that when she punished a pupil for employing an insult he retorted, “If the president says it, why can’t I?” The student was referring to the occasion when Sarkozy — while inaugurating a fair in 2009 — publicly insulted a man for refusing to shake his hand, saying, “Casse-toi pauv’con!” (“Get the hell out of my way, you dickhead!”)

Sarkozy’s recurrent lapses intrigue sociologists and linguists. Some argue they are an instrumental part of a demagogic, populist strategy to seduce the “lowest France,” as Sarkozy himself calls our working class. But others point out that since the beginning of his political career, Sarkozy has always expressed himself very poorly.

So, what can we possibly do? According to one report, a socialist deputy has suggested that the Minister of Education gave our president evening French classes. That would be charitable.

Meanwhile, in the back of my head I keep recalling a short man waving a flag and telling people to leave France if they don’t like it … followed by a little voice whispering in my ear: “The French language — love it or leave it!”