Mangling Names in French

1376_af_paris_ile-de-france_1Proper names are never easy – you run the risk of mispronouncing without realizing it.

I quickly came to realize that my name would rarely if ever be pronounced properly in France. And would usually be misspelled too. It was part of my process of acclimation: becoming okay with hearing yourself called by a distant approximation of a name you’d grown up with.

I first encountered this when I registered at Alliance Française, the go-to language school in Paris (there are a couple of others, but this is the most famous), on the Boulevard Raspail. It’s a network of affiliated schools around the world, founded in 1883 and both old-fashioned and somewhat up-to-date (like a lot of things in France). It’s for those who want to immerse themselves in the intense study of the language over the course of months, as I did, or brush up on it for a week, as I saw some people do, or even try to master it in seven to 10 days, as attempted by one or two delusional tourists whom I met in my first class.

I’d arrived in Paris on a Wednesday, and on the Thursday sought the Alliance Française to register. First I had to meet with one of the admittance staff, who’d assess my French and assign me to a level, A1 to C2 or C3.

I’d had a couple of years of French in high school, but that had been 40 years earlier. Three months before I’d left New York, I’d started listening to Rosetta Stone courses in French, a virtual immersion (or so claimed), that might have done something but I certainly wouldn’t have been able to describe what it was despite the diligent hopeful hours I’d sat practicing before my computer. And I’d found a tutor on Craiglist who gave me 10 futile one-hour French lessons.

My French was terrible.

But the woman who met with me at Alliance Française was used to such desecration of her beautiful language. And I quickly became used to the French desecration of my family name.

For the French, my easily pronounced Irish name of Hughes (easy for me, at least) became Oog or sometimes Oogez. Something about the aspirate “h,” the silent “g” and “h” in the middle and the final “s” simply threw everyone off (except for a very few who’d spent some time in England or Ireland). Of course, the French, as I’d come to realize, generally abhor pronouncing the final letter of a word (as anyone who’s heard a French person speaking English knows). So I became used to hearing and answering to my name as Oog, and seeing it written as Hugues (close to a French first name). It was generally worthless to correct either the pronunciation or the spelling of my name. Even when I was able to speak the French alphabet better, no matter how carefully I uttered each letter, the middle “h” was always absent. And in speaking, the middle “g” was always uttered. No matter.

I, of course, was hopeless with French family names (as well as the names of French towns and villages). It took time to recognize family names in passing, rather than having to study them. And I still need to hear some names pronounced by a French person in order to get them right (family names don’t follow pronunciation rules).

The teachers called me either M. Oog or M. Robert, which I went with. I’d figured that at least Robert was a name somewhat known in France – the major dictionary is Le Robert, after all – so I began to introduce myself as Robert rather than Bob. But I rarely gave my family name to new acquaintances – I’d rather spare Parisians the pain of trying to pronounce the unpronounceable.

The woman who assessed my language skills looked at my application slip and referred to me as M. Oog. And after what passed for conversation with us – she was practiced enough to listen with a straight face to my incomprehensible answers – she consigned me to the beginner’s conversation class.

I had no idea what a beginner’s French conversation class would entail. I had little idea of anything, actually, related to what I would learn. But I bought the book she’d told me I needed, and primed myself for lessons the following Monday morning.

And M. Robert Oog prepared himself for la langue française.

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