Language Lessons On Clams' Complexities

Let us hope not too many eager students have been waiting out of patience for this language lesson in how to say clam in French. Not much besides confusion has accrued.

It's like this: For many years, Gerald Russell was the boss clerk in the Apex Hardware Store. This was in a Maine town that may be considered typical because about half the people were French-speaking of Canadian origin. Times have changed until the English prevails, but a generation ago stores in such towns had somebody handy who could wait on customers lacking English.

And one morning a woman came into the hardware store and, as best as she was able, indicated to Gerald that she would like to speak to a clerk who could talk French, which Gerald could not do. So Gerald stepped to the stockroom door and called to Dominique Coulombe, the stock boy, saying, ''Minique! Front and center!'' Dominique knew what that meant, so he pulled off his dirty work gloves and came into the store to approach the woman and say, ''Bonjour, Madame, qu'est-ce que vous voulez?''

Whereupon Gerald heard the lady customer say, ''Avez-vous des ping pong ball?''

Since communication is the fruit of discourse, it's hard to fault this effort, and we folks in Maine who are sometimes bilingual often don't know it. One time I asked Joe Martel to bring his heavy work horses and twitch out some red oak saw logs I wanted to take to mill. My little farm tractor wouldn't budge the things. But I was called away the day Joe was home, and as I left in a hurry I asked my wife to telephone Joe and tell him not to come. Joe handled English well. But when my wife rang the Martel number she got Mrs. Martel instead of Joe. Mrs. Martel spoke no English, and my wife knew no French.

But there was no problem. My wife said, ''No school!'' and Mrs. Martel said, ''Aha, no school?'' Mr. Martel did not come to twitch saw logs, and my wife learned for the first time that she could parlez vous French.

Our present concern about clams has bogged down, I suspect, because we heard from the language experts rather than the marine biologists. I'm sure a marine biologist, had one volunteered, would have asked, ''Now, just what kind of a clam do you mean?''

Madame Marie-Paule Bergeron Gauthier of Sherbrooke, Quebec, assured me the word palourde is used for clam on Canadian menus, and Larousse says palourde will be understood in most parts of France. But here is a scholarly letter from lovely Colette, my neighbor in the next clam-digging harbor but one, who says she is of a French-Canadian background. I quote her English: ''My 1986 Larousse shows, 'Clam, an edible marine mollusk.' So I guess we don't need to call a clam anything except a clam, and that's all we ever called them in Canada.''

Coquille is the French word for a shell, including the rind of an orange, a walnut, and a clam. Coquille St. Jacques is a scallop, but when I take some sea scallops into Quebec for our friends, I tell the customs officer that I have some petoncles. The officer always smacks his lips and tells me he likes them better than lobsters. So do our friends.

Norman Gallant joined this forum. Norm did a French-language broadcast weekly for an Augusta, Maine, radio station and is also of Canadian background, but Acadian rather than habitant. His roots are on the maritime garden province of Prince Edward Island. Norm's folks moved from Nova Scotia in ''the great displacement'' of 1755 that gave us the Evangeline story.

But you don't need to go to Louisiana to find Acadians. Starting from coquille, the shell, the French people of ''Thee Yighland'' call our clam a coq, as for a rooster, and they also proudly fly the tricolor of France with a star on one stripe - the star of Acadia. Norm also tells me a clam is a peigne, the same word as for a comb, to comb the hair. There are some other words for clam, too, such as praire, clovisse, and clemme. I neglected to ask if these are masculine or feminine, but in French everything is anyway.

In a frontier town in Quebec, right on the Maine boundary, there is a business sign across the front of a building. This is a delightful little village with Normandy-style eaves on the houses. The sign I mention tells, in a way, what has happened in some 300 years of France in America. The sign says: Sean O'Cassidy et fils. The business is a French bakery. The town is named Ste. Rose. Mr. Cassidy, who bakes a delicious pain chez nous, speaks French that is reminiscent of Montesquieu. I think he is a separatist.

I'm not going to attempt it, but more study of the clam would be useful. We have a ''fresh-water clam,'' found in our Maine lakes, and while it resembles our clam of commerce it is unpalatable and perhaps inedible. Muskrats eat them, and I believe Thoreau mentions the fresh-water clam in connection with ''musquash'' in his book about the Maine woods. The Indians ate the musquash but not the clams.

Now, if a person, but more likely a dog, chances to get stuck with porcupine quills, the hinged shell of a fresh-water clam, as manipulated between the fingers, will make a blessed pair of tweezers for removing the quills. When used in the wilderness thus, the French word most favored is pinchers, construed in the plural, and feminine.

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