THE DIRTY FRENCH OBSESSION WITH THE WORD NO
In learning any new language, the word “no” is used often enough, universally enough, fundamentally enough — as in you’re using it all the time, as in who doesn’t have stuff to say no to, as in “No, I actually don’t eat beagle-meat” — that you end up fully learning the word very early in your overall curve. What’s helpful is that in most Western languages, No starts with an N-sound. The Russians say Nyet. The Spaniards say No. The Italians say No. Portuguese say Não. The Germans say Nein. And the French express the concept of negation as a combination of two words — “ne” followed by “pah,” which presents us with an interesting additional word — the “pah” — that, as a rule, needs to occur later the sentence, which means that all the nice things I just said about languages as a whole gets fucked in half.
You see, if you’re like me, your American brain tends to favor the “ne” part of a “ne”-“pah” combination, so when you’re in the midst of brilliantly-constructing your brilliant French thought, once you say the “ne,” your brain gets so excited by the fact that you successfully negated something that it forgets the rest of the crucial combination. You forget the “pah.” You forget therefore what is then the only important thing for French people to hear.
That’s right. To make your American sense of self more miserable, the French population decided that the word “pah” is the one essential part of saying No, so if a French person doesn’t hear you say “pah,” they won’t understand that you just negated something. “Oh, you do eat beagle-meat.” They listen for the pah. They focus on the pah. They worship the pah. Sometimes they only say pah.
C’mon, that can’t be legal.
In fact, there are French phrases that actually drop the “ne” altogether and force you to “pah” it raw. Take, for example, the basic unit of French culture, the phrase “I don’t know.” The way they write “I don’t know” is “Je ne sais pas.” In regular usage, people here in Paris don’t say the “ne” of “Je ne sais pas.” What they instead say sounds like “Je pas.” On top of that, the Je is pronounced “Shhh,” like an actual Shhhh, like a librarian scolding you in the National Geographic section in the corner Shhh. So the sentence for “I don’t know” actually sounds like SHAY-PAH.
It’s a weird clump of logic that you have to figure out pretty quickly in your learning process because French people love to sprinkle all their conversations with a bunch of negations so it’s Pah… pah pah… Pah… … … pah… pah… … … pah pah pah pah pah pah. Like a popcorn contest. It’ll seem excessive to you at first but once you figure out that this is a nation of people who love telling each other what isn’t possible or isn’t smart or isn’t good or isn’t open at noon or isn’t a good governmental decision, you’ll fit right the fuck in.