fter reading last week’s post, a friend sent me this advice:
In spite of it all, we have to have a laugh.
One thing that’s funny is the French word, “merci.” Now you might be saying to yourself, “Even I know that word means thank you?” your voice rising at the end as if to ask a question, because you really don’t get the joke.
Okay, funny, not as in ha ha, but funny as in it means, “thank you” and it also means, “no thank you.”
Here’s the situation: Someone offers you cake. “Du gateau?”
And you say, “Merci,” with a slight lilt at the end, especially if you have thrown away your scale (see above).
However, if you don’t want any cake, you say, “Merci,” in a more toneless way. Which brings me to my next point.
FRENCH IS A TONAL LANGUAGE
Most people think of Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese as tonal languages. This is also true of native American languages, such as Navajo. But French?
I would like to prove my point by talking about the similarity of a grape and of being right. Your eyes may be widening because perhaps you have been on the Internet too long today and you can’t believe that a grape is being paired with being right. What could the two possibly have to do with one another?
To wit: A grape is called un raisin in French. This is pronounced “ray-zin.” Really, it’s more like “ray-zeh.” Now this is a bit odd, because what is a raisin called? Why a dried grape, of course. Un raisin-sec. Sometimes English words are borrowed and given a French accent, such as the word, “parking,” which in French is le parking. If we tried to say the word “grape” with a French accent, we’d come up with une grappe, which is a word already taken. Une grappe means a cluster. In franglais we could have une grappe de grapes.
Now, on to the idea of being right. If somebody is right, you say, in French, Tu as raison. (You’re right.) This is pronounced “ray-zon.” More exactly, “ray-zoh.” In franglais we would say, “You have reason,” since that is the literal translation.
I have been known to say to somebody, “You’re right.” Unfortunately, I said, Tu as raisin. This means, “You are grape.” Instead of “ray-zoh” I said “ray-zeh.” And hence we have the Chinese tonal problem in French. And in franglais, of course, I said, “You have grape.”
No wonder being an expat brings one up close and personal to the absurd. Now, Samuel Beckett used this idea of “merci,” being yes and being no, to his advantage. He did not blanche in the face of these two meanings.
We have works like that too. “To cleave,” for example, means to split in two or to cling; “to strike,” means to hit or to miss. “To sanction,” means to permit or to punish. We “raze” a building, which sounds like the opposite of what we are doing. These are called Janus words, named after the two faces of the Roman god Janus, who presides over beginnings and endings: hence, January is named for him. Other terms for this phenomenon, where words contain their contradiction, are called: antilogy, contronym, contranym, autantonym, auto-antonym, and contradictanyma. (Interesting, if not nerdy.)
So how did Beckett play on the French notion of merci?
Well! Beckett received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1969. The wording of what they call the “Prize motivation” is a little garbled: “for his writing, which – in new forms for the novel and drama – in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation.” In any case, destitution and elevation are in the same experience. I think that is still the key to his work, and the key to making it through the day, frankly.
Apparently, Beckett gave all the prize money away (In 2021 it was over $1,000,000) to various institutions and to the first French director of Waiting for Godot, Roger Blin. In his note with the money, Beckett said that Blin was not allowed to refuse the gift or to thank him for it. In short, Blin could not say, “merci,” in either of its meanings.
One interesting thing is the debate around giving Beckett the prize. A couple of years ago, the archives of the Committee’s deliberation were opened and boy, did some of them misread Beckett. The chair had this to say: it “remains an artistically staged ghost poetry, characterised by a bottomless contempt for the human condition”. Whereas his supporter, who gave him the award, said that Beckett’s work goes “to the depths” because “it is only there that pessimistic thought and poetry can work their miracles. What does one get when a negative is printed? A positive, a clarification, with black proving to be the light of day, the parts in deepest shade those which reflect the light source.” Fortunately, this man saw the possibilities in this play that contains its own contradictions, a Janus play.
Here’s a link to the controversy.
Don’t forget the play is funny! It is witty, and plus has elements of vaudeville and music hall entertainment. We’d better get out and see it. We’re waiting for Waiting for Godot, as it were.
PS. What is ghost poetry?