Saturday, November 03, 2012

The French W: did you say "dooblah-vay?"

The other day my laptop keyboard was getting cranky, and inexplicably stopped producing the letter "W" unless I bore down with my ring finger's brute force.  This situation, while annoying (I prefer to ignore that left-hand finger) and a bit embarrassing at first (sending "no" when you mean "now," or "itty" when you mean "witty," can get you in some hot ater!), it also got me thinking about missing letters, and especially the letter "W."

It naturally conjured up the decades-old incident about the departing Clinton White House staff removing the letter "W" from keyboards in anticipation of Dubya and the gang moving in.  That anecdote got blown out of proportion, then of course had a full-fledged government commission report.  The initial response in the link above is my preferred kind of playful poisson-d'avril kind of fun.

But ultimately, all of my thought-roads lead to French. Bien sur!  So as I pondered my own missing "W," I mused, "Well, it wouldn't really matter if I were writing in French, because there are precious few French words that begin with the letter 'W'."


And of course in French the letter is double vé....double-V, not double-U.

And yes, in fact, so there are so few W-words in French that they can all be listed on one page.  Here they are. Check 'em out: there are some standards and some doozies!

Week-end, wharf, wagon, web 2.0., whisky. Some are the usual suspects, but none are very French-sounding, eh?  Except for wisigoth, and methinks even that is an alternate spelling.

And words that simply contain the letter "W" are few and far between.  Hmm: sandwich.  Can you think of others?

One thing I can vouch for: when playing French Scrabble, you definitely don't want to draw the "W" tile,  except that it's worth a gajillion points.

In order to confirm the status of the letter W in French, I plan to wander the streets of Nouveau York and ask random French people (apparently about 50% of the current NYC population, estimated from language overheard on street corners) their opinions of the lettre double vé and I'll report back.  I don't expect a huge response.  But you never know.


Thinking of absent letters,  I recently stopped by the library at the fabulous FIAF,  and to my thrifty delight, I found, in their used-book-for-a-buck sale cart, an uncracked edition of La Disparition by Georges Perec.

If you are not familiar with this work (or any of the oeuvre of Perec), it is a 305-page French novel written without using the letter "E."

I'm in havn.


Unknown said...

ENcore! ENcore!

François Roland said...

Hi Polly,

Maybe your readers could be interested to know more about G. Perec and similar authors in France, a country which has a long tradition of these kinds of games with language. So in 1960 a part of the guys belonging to the “Collège de pataphysique” (a pseudophilosophic group of facetious French writers) created the ‘Oulipo” which means “OUvroir de LIttérature POtentielle”. This group which Perec was an early member is particularly interested in all exercises of writing under constraint. And of course “La disparition” is a typical literary work related to that. The constraint being: not to use E in this case. And when you know the incredible frequence of E in French you understand at once that the full writing of a book without it is a stunning masterstroke! All what they do with language applying all sort of constraint may seem crazy, but it often leave place to very interesting works close of surrealism or pure poetry.
Now, talking about playing with words and for those of your readers who wouldn’t know it, I can’t resist to bring the famous case of George Sand and Alfred de Musset letters because those famous French writers lovers are the perfect case in hand of this mix of fine words and naughtiness that maybe you find in France like nowhere else.
So here is the thing. Sand and Musset where exchanging letters in appearance completely innocent, but in fact very naughty once you were applying the deciphering code that they had.
On this link the first letter is just nice when read straight along, but so naughty if you read only one line out of two. I let the French speakers enjoy the link and give a little translation of the beginning for the others.

Je suis très émue de vous dire que j'ai
bien compris l'autre soir que vous aviez
toujours une envie folle de me faire
danser. Je garde le souvenir de votre
baiser et je voudrais bien que ce soit
là une preuve que je puisse être aimée
par vous. Je suis prête à vous montrer mon
affection toute désintéressée et sans cal-
cul, et si vous voulez me voir aussi
vous dévoiler sans artifice mon âme
toute nue, venez me faire une visite.

Translation of one line out of two (the ones in strong):

I’m really moved to tell you that I
always have a crazy desire to be
fucked and I’d really want that it would be
by you. I’m ready to show you my
ass, and if you also want to see me
all naked, then come paying me a visit.
And so forth! ... lol
We already knew how to have fun back then! :)

The link :

auto devis said...

French is very complicated language but in the same time very beautiful and graceful

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Hi Unknown and Francois and Auto devis,
Three very interesting -- and very different -- comments.

Actually, I have a bachelor's and a master's in French literature,
so I was aware of Perec's literary history. But I thank you so much for the very complete background, Francois.

Thomas said...

W.C is "Doo-bla -vay say"- Don't ask for the Salle de bains-

Ronda M. said...

I think it is interesting that you wrote this article on the letter W and also found a book at FIAF's wonderful Haskell Library by Perec, who incidentally wrote W ou le Souvenir d'enfance. Quelle coïncidence !

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