For five decades I’ve existed with a small guideook to assist me in the French language. It’s entitled “TM 30-302 French” and contains a stirring message on the frontispiece from the gentlemen who commissioned the work. He sighed off simply: “G.C. Marshall, Chief of Staff.”
My bible for spoken French was published by the U.S. War Department at the suggestion (read that: “order”) of General Marshall in 1943 to assist soldiers fighting in the Second World War. It has served me ably through many combat situations, all of them well after France was liberated.
Take for example the time I was overcharged by a factor of 50 percent—and this is only a wild guess—in the checkout line of a French supermarket. My tongue would not and could not form the proper words to explain that the bill was grossly in error. And a French serving line hates to be halted, paticularly by someone murdering the idiom. The madame in line behind me poked at my arm with her baguette. Some shoppers waved lamb chops in the manner of war clubs. A British diplomat, upper lip stiff, less-than-diplomatically advised me to pay up and move on.
Out came my trusty TM 30-302.
“Juh swee blay-SAY,” I cried, using the phonetic words provided by the general for the French expression “Je suis blesse.” With the assistance of my tutor I had yelled, “I am wounded!” Actually, my wallet was wounded, but there is little time for nuance when you are being attacked by a baguette. Action froze throughout the store. Encouraged, I continued:
“Oo sawng lay sawl-daz Ah-may-ree-kang? Ah-lay shayr-shay dew suh-kor!” Those of you fluent in French will realize that I had added:
“Where are the American soldiers? Bring help!”
The playwright George Bernard Shaw was intuitive in his reasoning that the French don’t care what you do as long as you pronounce it correctly. And I must say that General Marshall wrote a heckuva language guide before he turned his attention to winning World Was II and the Marshall Plan. I had the rapt attention of every shopper.
The angry lady lowered her baguette. The miscalculation of my check was rapidly spotted. Apologies all around. (The baguette-wielding lady never actually apologized, but nodded curtly. She understood my French! Compliment enough.) Thumbing the pages more leisurely, I located the final phrase to extricate myself: “Mayr-see. O-ruh-vwar.”
Since then I have mastered many more phrases in Franch, all of them useful. One of the more troublesome dilemmas for Americans is to put French waiters in their place. Here’s a handy sentence well worth the memory bank: “See voo con-tin-ooo-ay ah voo con-dweer cum sah, shuh shoor duh nwah-yaymohn soo-flay don dooo ket-SHUP!”
In English: “If you continue to take that attitude, I swear I’ll smother my souffle in ketchup.” The trickiest part of all this is the “ooo” as in “con-tin-ooo-ay.” If you mangle it, the waiter will know you are not fluent, and your threat is lost. It is perfectly permissible for people who mispronounce French words to use ketchup or exercise other culinary excesses. Some experts advise you to practice the “ooo” by holding your lips in an “O” shape and sounding “eee” while at the same time imitating the vacant stare seen on faces of chimpanzees.
In his monumental 1943 textbook, General Marshall advised that the differences in French “u” sounds are unimportant. But you must remember that at that time he commanded 150 U.S. combat divisions to back up his words.