Recent events have put me in the familiar position of explaining and translating French words for family and friends — and now, for readers, too.
As the reprehensible attacks in Paris begin to be analyzed, I’m left with a need for an explanation myself:
Why “je suis” — I am — Charlie?
One of the very first things I learned in French was how to introduce myself. Back in fourth grade, it was hard to grasp, but I was taught never to say “je suis Margaret” the way I would say “I am Margaret” in English. In French, even as a child, I was taught that the correct introduction was “je m’appelle Margaret” — literally, “I call myself Margaret.”
(Appeller, the verb “to call,” is the same as for calling on the telephone, and the m’ is the reflexive pronoun me before a vowel, fellow language lovers.)
So amid those first few awful days, my inner ecrivain (writer) was playing editor as I read those great signs at the rallies. Why not “Je m’appelle Charlie” on even one sign?
I thought it must have been a foreigner’s faulty memory — not mine, I mean. I’ve certainly spoken to enough people over the years who’ve said “I had French classes in school,” but then heard me speak French and demanded a translation. Over the years, I’ve learned not to reply to such demands with “But you said you spoke French!” They said they had classes. They said nothing about results.
But when I saw a photo in the Chicago Tribune of L’Arc du Triomphe decorated with a sign, “Paris est Charlie,” I thought I’ve missed something. Surely it wasn’t just that “Paris s’appelle Charlie” would not fit as well on the arch.
I remember various teachers of French cautioning me that “to be” is stronger than “to call” when introducing oneself. Is that it?
Sometimes, as I’ve thought this over, a song has skipped through my mind, just long enough to identify it as the Beatles singing “Rocky Raccoon” —
“Her name was McGill,
and she called herself Lill,
but everyone knew her as Nancy.”
There’s a difference in name-calling for you!
I don’t have clear answers here, so I’m writing this partly in search of them. If you see anything on the origin of “je suis Charlie,” please let me know! Merci beaucoup!
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