The Hazards of Understanding the Past

“Comment allez-vous?” the archivist asked, extending his hand.

“Michaela,” I replied, happy to introduce myself after three weeks of asking this person for documents.

“Comment allez-vous?” he repeated, looking at me strangely.

“Michaela,” I repeated. It wasn’t that strange of a name, was it?

“How are you?’ translated the hipster archivist, who was listening to our conversation while tapping on his phone.

I graduated from college with a French major, lived and worked in Paris for two years after college, and all of the documents for my Ph.D. dissertation in History are in French, yet I had just misunderstood one of the most basic phrases in any language. He said “Comment allez-vous?”, but I heard “Comment vous appellez-vous?”. Not the most dignified way to end my research trip to the Archives nationales d’outre-mer in Aix-en-Provence.

My only defense of this rather horrid misstep is that the French I had been reading for the past three weeks bore little resemblance to the French the friendly archivist was now speaking. Indeed, in order to make sense of the hundreds of pages of scrawled documents that I had scrutinized, I had been forced to perform the kind of creative translating that served me so poorly in normal interactions, adding missing syllables and punctuation to hastily scrawled letters from far-flung outposts of the French empire in North America.

This change in language didn’t entirely take me by surprise. The same sort of thing happened in English, which is why high school students struggle so much with Shakespeare. French from three hundred years ago was obviously going to be a foreign language. Knowing this, I had tried to prepare for reading these documents by studying relevant French memoirs and pamphlets that had been published in the seventeenth century, now available online through the French site Gallica. Naively, I thought this was a struggle. “S”s appeared in words where accents usually were, long “s”s tricked my eyes into seeing an “f” instead of an “s,” and words were regularly creatively spelled. It was taking me twice as long as usual to read one page of French, which already took twice as long as it took me to read a page in English. This did not bode well for my dissertation, and I mentally prepared myself to spend the next decade in graduate school. Gradually, though, the reading got easier and the more I read, the more I understood. I got used to “c’├ętait” appearing as “c’eftoit” and seventeenth-century French slowly became intelligible. So when I stepped into the French archive this September, I thought my biggest struggle would be deciphering bad handwriting.

Bad handwriting was, indeed, a constant struggle (why, I wondered, didn’t Louis XIV force everyone to write to him in their best script? How had the absolutist king overlooked this crucial detail?), but it was further complicated by the fact that the writers rarely followed any spelling or grammar rules. I was never sure if I was mistranscribing someone’s letter, or if they genuinely had spelled a word that way. Often, people spelled phonetically, which sometimes helped me guess at their meaning. For a while, I was puzzled by the commander of Louisiana who complained to the minister of the Marine that all of the “jeans” in Canada hated him. I must be misreading his handwriting; Canadians were not wandering around Quebec in 1700 wearing jeans, and besides, jeans didn’t have feelings! Was this commander of a French colony complaining about his figure, that his jeans no longer fit him? No, it turns out, but it also turns out that I wasn’t misreading his handwriting. He was indeed complaining that the jeans in Canada hated him, but “jeans” pronounced in French sounds like “gens,” the French word for people. The people in Canada hated him.

One day, I decided to play a game with the documents: whichever document spelled “Mississippi” the most different ways would win. However, I quickly had to abandon the game when the first memoir I looked at that day spelled “Mississippi” all of the ways that I thought were possible without changing the meaning of the word: Misispy; Miscisipy; Micicipy; Misicipy; Misissipy; Micisipy; Misissipie…never, of course, Mississippi. I had to turn off autocorrect because all of the words I transcribed were underlined in angry red.

Just as I mastered one official’s handwriting and spelling quirks, he would be replaced by someone new. Towards the end of the years my dissertation covered, the new commandant of Louisiana regularly dropped syllables from words, probably in order to save time and space on the page. He was usually still intelligible, but I found my fingers automatically inserting the missing syllables as I typed up his letters, which means that I will have to go back and double-check whenever I am using sources that he wrote that I correctly misspelled his words.

Which of course brings me back to my final interaction with the archivists in Aix, when I subconsciously corrected the Frenchman’s French that never needed correcting. Now that I can understand French people from three hundred years ago, I can no longer communicate with their modern descendents.