by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
March 13, 2002
REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS FRENCH
SEATTLE, Wash. -- It was the end of Time. The Earth and its moon, to say nothing of the Hubble telescope, had vanished into oblivion.
I'd been shuffling along toward the ultimate Black Hole for what seemed like, and was, a handful of centuries.
Imagine my astonishment when an angel pointed to me and indicated that I was to step out of the line. I did so. He motioned me to a bench. I sat down for the first time in 479 years. It took me a week to bend my knees. It took another week for me to believe I'd done it.
Months (or years?) later the angel who'd pulled me out of the line came and sat down beside me. I braced for the usual questions about my untruthfulness, my tendency to envy my neighbor's ox and ass, to say nothing of his wife, my seeming ignorance of the difference between meum and tuum, and so on.
But no. He said, "You speak French, right?" "Vous parlez..."
"Oui!" I lied, relieved at the idiocy of the question.
"Good," said he. "Bien ... It seems there was a slip-up. We processed absolutely everyone who could speak French without first taking a deposition. As you know, we're keeping a record of all so-called human culture - the Rosetta Stone, the recipe for Brunswick stew, the Nixon tapes, Tupperware, Post-Modernism, all of it - but someone hit Delete onthe French language. It's gone. You will record it for us."
"Je?" I asked.
"Exactly. Tu. The examiner will be here with his tablets in a second." Several hundred years later, during which I had sat on the bench trying to summon up what I could recall of Miss O'Leary's 9th-gradeFrench, a little ol' angel with a huge briefcase finally showed up.
"Okay," said he, or she, one never knows with angels, "Let's get going. We've got one hell of a language to take down here. First of all, how do you say French in French?"
"Francais," said I. "There should be a little wiggly thing underneath the c, but I'm not sure the paper has one ..."
"And how do you say 'the French language'?"
"La langue francaise."
"Hang on," said he. "You just said French was francais. Now it's francaise?" I was beginning to feel, I don't know why, a little more in control of things. Bless you, Brenda O'Leary!
"It changes form. You see the word langue is feminine, so the adjective also has to be feminine."
"Don't try to mess with my mind," said he. "What is this feminine?"
There suddenly yawned beneath my feet a perilous gap. How could I explain to this pure sexless creature the firm conviction of every Parisian that his language was somehow ... womanly? And that every adjective, every article in her vicinity had, on pain of solecism, to acknowledge this supremely self-evident fact?
"It's a simple question of history," I said. "French is the modern form of Latin, and Latin 'lingua' is feminine, so the same goes for French 'langue'."
"You know Latin?" he said, still writing furiously.
A horrible possibility suddenly loomed before me. Or was it so horrible? It would take me at least ten thousand years to tell him all the French I knew. Latin would take if anything twice that.
"A little, " I said. "I took Latin. But ... non sum ego qui fueram. I'm not the man I was..."
"Who is?" said he. But he was already dialing the Archangel on his cell phone: "Gabe!" he shouted, "We've hit the jackpot! He knows Latin, too!"
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.