Tuesday, March 24, 2009

On Sarkozy's Use of French

Here. Charles Bremner writes:

Defending an income tax ceiling last week, he told factory workers: "Si y en a que ça les démange d'augmenter les impôts..." A London equivalent might be be "If there's anyone 'ere that's itching to put up taxes..." [I'm sure people can suggest better versions]


Sarkozy's verbal failings are compared to George Bush's and characterized as a means of reaching the "common man." It's interesting that Bush's pratfalls used to drive me up the wall, but Sarko's don't. In part, of course, it's the difference between hearing one's mother tongue mangled and hearing colloquialisms in a learned language. But maybe it's deeper than that. A commenter yesterday likened the visceral dislike of Sarkozy that is so widespread in France with the Bush phobia that was until recently so rampant in the US, and suggested that one of the reasons Obama won was that he never ceded to the facility of Bush-bashing. I think there's something to this observation.

9 comments:

gregory brown said...
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gregory brown said...

I always thought what was so grating about Bush was not his syntax or grammar but his inflection -- his tendency to put emphasis on the non-controversial part of his statement, which always seemed to imply that no one could reasonably disagree. This of course matched his speech-writers' rhetorical tactic of trying to describe his programs in language that often implied the opposite of the likely impact.

Sarkozy seems to me to be a master of the latter but his speech patterns are, to my non-native ears, much more soothing. He often drops his voice when presenting the controversial part of his statement, as if acknowledging that he understands this is something one could reasonably disagree with.

Not based on systematic observations but a thought I've had for a while.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the interesting observation, Greg. I can't say I've thought systematically about either man's use of language, but I have been struck at times by Sarkozy's fluency without a teleprompter. Bush could never have survived if presidential debates in the French format were a part of American campaigning. He could occasionally read a speech well, but on his own he was helpless, and his face always revealed his panic. Sarkozy is never at a loss for words, and he doesn't always "parler peuple" when on his own. He is an actor, who knows how to control his effects and his voice. His body language needs work, as does his superego: his greatest vice, it seems to me, is his inability to conceal contempt without great effort. He likes to let people know how little he thinks of them.

As for recognizing that reasonable people may disagree with what he says, yes, but with one caveat: he has a (lawyerly) habit of reducing complex issues to a stark alternative: it's either X or Y, and Y is so clearly inferior that what would you have me do, if not X? I've remarked on this before, and on the often obvious R,S,T, U,V,W, and Z that might be discussed as alternatives. It's a lawyer's trick, but one that he uses well, unlike Bush, who occasionally tried it ("You're either with us or against us" comes to mind), but so crudely that the gambit was pointless.

As for the penchant for "parler peuple," times change. Roosevelt could become a secular saint even with his patrician accents, but I don't think any American politician with that accent could be elected today (think of how Bush Sr. was ridiculed whenever he showed patrician touches). Even Obama does it. Even I do it: I don't speak with the same grammar or diction to the UPS deliveryman or the carpenter as I do to my colleagues. It's instinctual, not calculated. And I am more likely to think of an American-born professor who affects an Oxbridge accent as a hypocrite than I am of a politician who modulates his tone to what he believes his audience expects. And as for literature, Richard Poirier thinks that the distinctive mark of one of our greatest literary stylists, Saul Bellow, was his unparalleled ability to veer from the high-flown to the demotic in mid-sentence. In a sense this pliability is the essence of the American language, and in this respect, perhaps, the epithet "the American" really does attach to Sarkozy. Destarching official French has its virtues.

Boz said...

Just caught the end of his economic speech tonight. Regardless of what one thinks of the content or his colloquialisms, you can't deny that he can give a pretty darn good speech. Perhaps not as inspirational or collected as Obama, but it still sweeps most of the domestic competition. Bush, verbal tics or not, could never really do that. His most famous lines as president (I can hear you..., axis of evil, etc.) were not exactly great oratory.

David in Setouchi said...

"It's interesting that Bush's pratfalls used to drive me up the wall, but Sarko's don't."

Maybe that's because you're not a native speaker Art...
Personally, hearing my president speaking like a bad six grader makes me cringe, and reveals how literate he is when he starts straying from the written text that Henri Guaino wrote.

Unknown said...

Well, David, you could be right, as I said myself in the post, but then again, some of you native speakers tend to hear only what you want to hear and to ignore the "virtuoso of language" that one of your compatriots noted:
Sarkozy, ancien avocat, est pourtant un tribun hors pair, virtuose du langage. Le plus souvent, c’est dans les usines qu’il se lâche. Chez les linguistes, on s’interroge : faut-il y voir de l’empathie avec son public ou une stratégie pour « faire peuple » ? « Il s’exprime comme un homme de la rue. C’est un langage de publicitaire, fait pour frapper », déplore Fanny Capel, du collectif Sauver les lettres. « Il est capable de jouer sur plusieurs registres de langue qui lui permettent de s’adresser à ses pairs comme au peuple. Il sait jouer du piano sur tous les arpèges. Quand il ne marque pas la négation, il établit une connivence. Fadela Amara me disait : Sarkozy parle comme une caillera (NDLR : racaille), c’est faux ! Il emprunte à l’autre le registre qu’il croit être le sien », analyse le linguiste Alain Bentolila.
http://www.leparisien.fr/politique/sarkozy-malmene-le-francais-22-03-2009-450547.php

David in Setouchi said...

I've wondered...
Thing is that as long as I can remember, I don't think I've ever heard the "virtuose du langage" when he expresses himself without the framework of a written speech.
At best his language is standard and every single time he starts losing patience or his cool (and that's quite often as we all know) he makes mistake after mistake.
But yeah, thinking about it, it may be more a psychological thing than an education thing (even if we all know his education could be better)

Anonymous said...

The use of the "y", as seen in Sarkozy's remark. Althought not sanctified by the Académie Française, this excessive use of "y" is widely used in certain regions (the Lyon area, for one).

This is just a side note, but "fallait bien que quelqu'un y dise."

Unknown said...

as I remember it from having lunch with him some years ago, S. is perfectly litterate and, yes, can construct complex sentences without losing his direction. It only shows his disdain for the peuple when he affects to talk like the peuple.