Dispatches

Saint Joseph, Patron Saint of Bad Pronunciation

Deborah Ostrovsky

Every second Thursday I walk to Outremont to see my orthophoniste. I like to think of my orthophoniste, a speech therapist, as a therapist in the psychological sense of the word. This is because I don’t really have any diagnosable disorder of speech. What I have is an accent. My desire to change it seems to indicate another type of pathology—the desire to fit in—rather than a clinical need to correct difficulties with syntax or a motor speech disorder. (“She is bilingual,” states my official evaluation from the orthophoniste. “She wishes to reduce her anglophone accent to feel more at ease…”).

Initially I tried to see an orthophoniste on Rue Saint-Joseph, a four-lane boulevard near my apartment on the Plateau. Saint-Joseph is lined with the offices of real estate agents, psychologists, naturopaths, osteopaths, hypnotists, doctors and orthophonistes. It’s not far from our local public school, where I first spoke with the soft-spoken staff orthophoniste I met while volunteering at the library. We all have accents, she reassured me. Besides, sounding like a native francophone speaker is relative to your geographical position at a given moment in time, like being a Belgian in Dakar, or a Québécois in Toulouse, she explained. She was born in France, so she had an accent different than the one you’d hear in Rimouski. Be easy on yourself, she said.

Still, I started searching along Saint-Joseph. I’d be in good hands if I could improve my accent, I told myself, on a street named after the earthly father of Christ, a patron saint of a dizzying array of things, including families, Canada, the Universal Church, travellers, craftsmen, expectant mothers, engineers, immigrants and working people. I am a working person, married to an engineer, and the daughter of immigrants to Canada. I’m not Catholic, but it felt like the right street on which to do some healing.

Not a single orthophoniste on Saint-Joseph was available. I ended up a 4-minute walk away, in Outremont, at the office of a young orthophoniste with kind eyes, reciting five-syllable words, texts about the odour of apples, and “La Cigale et la Fourmi” from Les fables de la fontaine.

If I could witness what goes on during my appointments watching from above, perched on the ceiling looking down as I practice exercises in la phonétique corrective, sounding out vowels and shaping my mouth into an “o,” or the “u” in lutin, discussing the accent tonique, I might feel compassion for myself. Just as I would watching anyone whose hair is getting gray, thinning around the crown, trying to change something that may never change, reading things like “De leur montrer avant sa mort/Que le travail est un trésor” out loud with the speed and deliberation of a seven-year-old.

Looking down from the ceiling, I might recall that years ago, I took an out-of-town friend to Saint Joseph’s Oratory on Mount Royal. We spent an entire afternoon in the Votive Chapel, circulating with the crowds in front of all the offerings of wooden canes, crutches and leg braces suspended between the columns and rows of candles, left by pilgrims who’d been healed. After visiting the chapel, we went to a busy restaurant near Métro Beaubien and were seated next to a long table, a delegation of artisan food purveyors from the Basque Country. The delegation suddenly burst into song, entreating us to come dance with them, shouting at us in French to sing our own folk songs. My friend and I looked at each other in stunned silence until my friend commenced a meek rendition of “Barrett’s Privateers.”

And what are your folk songs? a Basque woman in a red scarf and white blouse turned and looked at me, her voice competing with the ruckus and the clatter of cutlery.

I wanted to explain that my father had died a few months ago. We were estranged for over a decade. He never met my daughter. At his funeral, I discovered that my mother wasn’t sure what his mother tongue had been. I thought it was Russian, I told a relative. Da, the relative said. Russian was my father’s dominant language. But things had been chaotic during his childhood. My father’s younger siblings spoke Hebrew, the older ones Russian, which meant they spoke two different languages at home, if not more. Later, another relative explained that my father’s maternal grandmother had fled Russia in the 192s. On a boat to Constantinople, now Istanbul, she ripped up all her identity papers and changed her name, cutting ties to Russia and Ukraine. My father, born in Jerusalem amidst the violent clashes of the British Mandate of Palestine, emigrated to Canada and eventually changed his name to sound English (“It was the Cold War. You kids don’t understand what it was like,” yet another relative said when I told him, at the next family funeral, how I insisted on using our Russian family name). My father’s accent was British English, as I remember it, but he never quite mastered the silent “l” in salmon or almond. Meanwhile my maternal grandparents had sent my mother to elocution lessons in post-war Britain to banish her working-class accent, erasing their past in the name of BBC English.

Decades after my family changed names and accents, and cut ties with countries, languages, and often with one another, I spend my Thursdays scraping every last bit of English out of my throat with a determination bordering on obsession, to sound French, more Québécois, something I’ll never be—a foregone conclusion determined by the current political climate here, the type of nationalism we’re starting to see, but also because as you try to become someone else you become aware of who you are not: a person who can belt out folk songs at restaurants.

One evening, I described my dinner with the Basque artisan food purveyors to a neighbour from Bucharest, and she started singing a folk melody about a bride, a groom, and a dowry. Her voice wavered. The flood of memories was too strong. She stopped. She couldn’t sing and cry at the same time.

But there I was in a noisy restaurant at dusk, and none of these events—the Romanian dowry song, my sessions with the orthophoniste and reciting Les fables de la fontaine—had happened yet. Confronted by the woman in the red scarf while eating my appetizer, I shrugged my shoulders. I got up to dance. We all danced, my out-of-town friend and I, the Basque delegation, the waiters and the chef. By midnight we spilled out onto the street, joined by the sound and lighting crew of a Belgian theatre troupe and an accordion player.

Soon after I started seeing an orthophoniste, a small tree outside our apartment lost all its leaves and died. My husband pulled up the tree. Its roots were withered. My daughter swirled the loosened earth with a shovel, creating piles of dirt in the hole where the tree had been. Something shimmered, a silvery object in the earth. My daughter picked at it with the shovel until its visible surface grew bigger. A shiny, metal figurine appeared, glinting silver in the sunlight, peeking out of one of the piles. It was a lead statuette, Jesus perhaps, about the length of an adult hand. We brought it to a local historical society where a volunteer took it, promising to consult with some elderly neighbours about its history when she could. It’s good luck, the volunteer explained on the phone a few weeks later. It was Saint Joseph, who is also the patron saint of house sellers and buyers. People bury little Saint Josephs outside their homes when they want to sell them, she said. The statuette was probably a hundred years old. The society wanted to keep it for their archives. Would we consider donating it?

Of course, I told the volunteer. We’re not moving.

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Deborah Ostrovsky

Deborah Ostrovsky is an editor and freelance writer who has written for the Globe and Mail, Maisonneuve, Lilith, the Montréal Gazette and montrealmagazine.ca, along with satire for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and Points in Case. She is currently writing about the Magdalen Islands and lives in Montréal with her family.  


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