E lapin isch e haâsClaude Vigée (of whom I just wrote) describes in great detail the difficulties present in learning French in Alsace in the decades of the réunions (reintegration after annexation by Germany). Vigée lived in a naturally multilingual environment in which he spoke both Allemanisch (the dialect of Alsace, hereafter Alsatian) and Judeo-Alsatian. Forced to learn French, Vigée was sent into a linguistic and semiotic crisis in his childhood in which he became uncertain of words and language.
The northern Alsatian town of Bischwiller was fairly isolated, even for Alsace. The natural language was Alsatian dialect. People spoke French in fragments. They colored their conversations in Alsatian with elements of French:
after three world of ‘welsh’ [what Alsatians called Frenchmen who came from the interior and their language] we returned to dialect, which constituted our natural linguistic foundations.For the most part, dialect was uniquely useful: words were tailored to the realities of the Alsatian world, they described that world with precision and specificity.
His earliest school memories were filled with fragments of French. Most of the instructors addressed students in dialect. What Vigée learned were songs, stories and other types of ritual recitations. He and his fellow children could sing these without ever knowing, or feeling, the meaning of the French words. The meaning of these texts were known because they were so often repeated, perhaps in the same manner that the meaning of Latin prayers are popularly known. None of the French that he learned by rote became active in daily speech. Throughout his youth Vigée expressed himself in dialect, “far from the domain of words.”
At age six Vigée’s teachers were determined to teach French to the students.
After some laborious efforts Mademoiselle Zimmermann announced to us, in dialect, that we were now going to learn French. We opened an illustrated book that showed a pretty rabbit running, and she said to us: ‘E lapin isch e haâs.’The teacher’s attempt to equate a new word to an animal that Vigée already knew caused a crisis:
Bischwiller was situated practically inside a rabbit warren. Behind the Christian cemetery extended a lovely pine forest where we went to play every Thursday afternoon. A group of rabbits ran around the town. This is what they taught us to be the true name of the ‘haâs’–‘lapin’. But for us the secret name of the rabbit remained ‘haâs’.The crisis went beyond the simple relationship between the word ‘rabbit’ and the animal. Everything became a problem for the young students. They had to cope with relearning a world that was already familiar to them, but in a language that was more abstract that Alsatian:
What is a ‘true name’? Is there such thing as a ‘true name’? Brutally confronted with this difficulty of the metaphysical order, rebuked by the problem of the relationship between the cosmos and the word, we had been placed in an earlier stage of psychological development. We always knew the name of this animal that we saw running through the fields. Lo and behold it had two names ... a doubt arose over the names of people and things.Vigée described this crisis of language as “forced aphasia.”
Without knowing it or wanting it, we were close to obsession, caused precisely by the general doubt on the value and reality of words.
High school presented new problems and conflicts. Vigée had teachers who had been embittered by their own linguistic conundrums. His teachers were mostly in their forties–they had their own education in German during the period that Alsace was part of the empire. They knew only rudimentary elements of French. Because of their weak French they were forced to teach in rural schools by order of the ministry of education. One teacher had been a professor at the University of Strasbourg.
In their frustration, these teachers enlisted the unknowing students in their battles over language. They made certain that the students spoke French with distinctly German inflections (saying ‘Sche’ instead of ‘Je’ (I), ‘fous’ instead of ‘vous’ (you).) Nevertheless, the students made progress:
Young, premature 'fuckheads', fighting valiantly against our native frontier transformation, prohibited from words by the caprices of our own history, we slowly learned the basics of the French language.Vigée notes that one teacher, a Breton who married an Alsatian woman, learned the local dialect with great enthusiasm: not only was it a courtesy to locals, he saw it as an expression of fraternity between two peripheral regions.
These experiences in early life gave Vigée an unique view of language. He quickly realized that Alsatian was a dead end: it would not be useful outside of Alsace, and Frenchmen would not respect him for it. Learning French meant survival. But even decades after leaving Alsace, Vigée finds that he expresses himself best in dialect. Because he had to learn French in this manner, Vigée came to realize that the world was full of languages, all of which being “mysterious domains, kingdoms apart, but also abysses that I could slide over.”