Maman's maman tongue

By Rhea Côté Robbins

the crassities
and at what point does 
some old coot
from someplace
tell me 
St. John Valley
No. Maine French
my mother's mother tongue
maman's language
to say it short
"isn't a real language--it isn't even taught in schools"
snake whines, twisting and turning
its head to the captured 
convincing the innocents 
in the room
with a viperous, venom petty pursed lips
sneering smugly about its 
learned, [artificial] tongue
the one which they
teach in schools
the unreal 
the acquired--

And the tiger waits.

quiet and calm
to address the snake with assurance
with some of my own
hard-won assurance
over the course of the years
because I feel I need to evoke the spirits 
on this one
to say
St. John Valley
No. Maine French
my maman's mother tongue
is as real a language
as the one spoken down
on the coast
and we never say
that they don't speak
not taught in schools.
to the coastal folks.
I remember Pinker's book
on language*
also, my rules from debate,
citing authority:
"The 'home French' language is as real, as consistent, as measured, as standard in its construct
as the language taught in school,"
I shorthand * her

We stare each other down.
I see the snake scrambling in her brain
for an answer to that
bit of common sense.

And another asks:
Is it a real French?

And I repeat myself
that is it only a matter of
regional accents
not all Northern Maine people are Acadian
some are Québécois,
but they speak a perfectly 
works for me in the streets of Paris
type of language...
with real words 
like they use down 
south in
a regional accent
and we never tell them down 
in Texas
that they speak a language 
not even taught in schools.

They nod and
The room has gone silent. 

Snake sneers, slits for eyes
head too tiny for the body
she insists
on the language
focused work be erased
based on the lack
instead of Acadian French.
It is from her learned authority
by institutions
that she speaks.

The experts, I've been thinking lately
don't mean 
to me

The Native American woman from the island
in her quiet tones
supporting the language shift 
in her Native
Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot
not all the same, but
she can understand
the other speakers
from the vantage point of 
her language.
I tell a story of
treatment issues
at the hospital 
I work at
where, I believe in saying so
I am not betraying confidentiality
but when I speak French to someone
in their upset
the reaction is Amazing.
They stop, and they focus on my face
hearing their own tongue
they center
respond to me in their 
own language
act on behalf of themselves
and they calm down.
They change, I tell them, right before your eyes
because they've heard their home language.
Like someone turned on a switch.

Those in the room nod yes.

"Because they are not even literate in their own language,"
snake accuses
my head turns back to her
after having said what I've said
and she will act 
on the process to 
cut the work out
BECAUSE of the language's authenticity
and of what she accuses it
from her ignorance
and then our
words came into
kinds of Spanish, too.
That there was material already created 
in the language
so why bother to go to all that trouble
in creating new? snake asks

And the tiger said:
there are many kinds of Spanish, too.
because people don't speak the 
Standard Spanish.
and the snake replied, still sneering
yeah, like in the U.S. there is
Mexican Spanish
Puerto Rican Spanish
Dominican Republic Spanish
Harlem Spanish.
Thinking that was reason enough to use what was available in Standard.
I'm thinking:  You forgot Central America, Guatemalan, Honduran

And the tiger said
you're right,
using snake's words against her
maybe the migrants will need one of those 
types of translations...

The snake cannot believe her ears
The sneer is deep inside her
and I'm thinking, while looking at her face
I don't see any embarrassment
she's not even the least bit embarrassed
for what she just said
my face must register 
some kind of curiosity
set in steel
to see what her next ploy
plug at
will be
because we will stay here all day
if need be
because I'm not moving
from my stance...

...and then
another besides 
Tiger, one inside
saying she would hate to lose the only one we had
with languages.

And the work stayed.

Rhea Côté Robbins, author of Wednesday's Child

*Actually, the people whose linguistic abilities are most badly underestimated are right here in our society.  Linguists repeatedly run up against the myth that working-class people and the less educated members of the middle class speak a simpler or coarser language.  This is a pernicious illusion arising from the effortlessness of conversations....Despite decades of effort, no artificially engineered language system comes close to duplicating the person in the street...It is even a bit misleading to call Standard English [Standard French] a 'language' and these variations 'dialects,' as if there were some meaningful difference between them (Pinker 28). 

Pinker, Steven.   The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: Wm. Morrow & Co., Inc., 1994.


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Message From:  Doris 
To:  Rhea Cote Thursday, October 9, 2003 9:43:34 AM  

 Yes, your poem about your Mom's French. You have a very unique Franco style - it touches the heart. Did your reference to the French spoken down the coast refer to York County? [n.d.l.r.:  English, not French.] 
 When I  was a couple of weeks into my first Freshman semester at UMO in Sept '52, I was sitting in the lecture hall trying desperately to keep up with Dr. Speicher's Zoology lecture when he was interrupted in midstream by a message that I was to report to Ms Avila in Stevens Hall after class. That really shook me up - I had no idea who 
she was, NOR how she knew my name.  She had read the answers to a routine language questionaire that I had been required to fill out during Freshman week, and was curious about this Franco student who had studied French during all of elementary school and one year in high school. (There were very few Franco students on campus at the time - even fewer female Francos). She wanted to hear me speak to her in French. I hesitated because she had a doctorate. She assured me that French is French regardless of the regional patois. She proved to be right. 
 One year of living among the French of Poitiers France was a joy. Then my participation in the CIEF convocation in Portland in 2001 clinched it for me. Francophones from different sections of France, and from Belgium, Asia, Africa, the Middle-East, the Caribbean, and various parts of the U.S. did have regional patois with occasionally different expressions and words, but they easily communicated with each other. Now most of these were Francophone educators, but many among them were poets and writers writing in their own patois. 
 Jane Smith interviewed us this summer. She agreed with me that Canadian French and its step-child Franco-American French retain words and expressions that go back to 16th- and 17th- century France and have long ago disappeared from the continental language. Quebecois French was a merging of different French provincial dialects of that period. It merely became standardized differently and earlier than did continental French. Acadian French has its own history of development, I suspect that it originated from a different combination of French provincial patois.  Doris 

Go ahead and publish it on the ezine if you like, Rhea.
You might also add that: 

" I realized while I was in France that regional dialects still exist in that country, especially along the German and Spanish borders, and the Pyrenees. A French friend of ours back in '57 introduced us to his mother who was a native of the province of Brittany; she had a beautiful but strong Celtic accent. We often listened to friends and acquaintances argue as to what city or region spoke the "purest" French. People from Poitiers always claimed that they had it all over the Parisians because they had  a less cosmopolitan population." 

Have a good day!