Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Speaking French

French is a great language. Compare it with Dutch, say, or German. It sounds beautiful. Even compared with other languages around the Med, it lilts more, is more musical. It’s soft. But it’s hard to learn and to speak well. Speaking French gives you wrinkles all round your lips if you pronounce it clearly enough and speak it long enough. The grammar is complex. Enunciating subtle French sounds can be virtually impossible for the non-native speaker. And, for the anglo and the saxon, there are individual and structural oddities everywhere you look.

Possessive pronouns, for example, are a seriously missed trick in French. Surely every well-planned language understands the value and use of possessive pronouns? They indicate not just what belongs but to whom. So English has, for example, a nice rational system with his, her, their, my, your and so on ‘Tom was there with his wife and her mother’, you say. Clear enough. The wife was his. The mother was hers. You get into French and all of a sudden he was there with sa femme and sa mere. The wife must be Tom’s you think. But the mother is in question. She could belong to either one. And if you said he was there with sa mere et sa femme it’s possible that his mother has had a civil ceremony and Tom’s mother and stepmother are lesbians. You can’t be sure. You can’t just add ‘No not his mother, her mother’ to clear things up. That would only tell your listener ‘Non, pas sa mere, sa mere.’ Hopeless.It doesn’t work. To avoid confusion, you would need to say sa mere and add, in French, at her - ie. the mother at the wife not the mother at Tom. It would clearly make a lot more sense for the possessive pronoun to agree with the person possessing rather than the thing possessed but I’ve never met anyone French who agrees or even sees there is room for confusion.

Yet people go round all day saying things like: ‘This couple want the house in son name.’ and the reponse has to be ‘His? Or hers? Which?’

Adjectives are a bit less frustrating but like pronouns they suffer from the on-off switch of gender, again agreeing with the sex of the thing they describe. Its hard really to know where to start when talking about French and its assignment of gender to things. You’d think that the linguistic concepts of male and female would bear some relationship to the common concepts of, well, male and female.You might think for example that a female breast would be, well, female. Ditto a vagina. But they’re not of course, they’re both masculine. A penis, on the other hand (to use an inapproriate anatomical idiom) is, just as one would expect, masculine. So is a testicle. But so is a Tampax. There is no real logic to be found anywhere in the sexing of things in French. Your mobile phone is male. So is your laptop. But the bill for your calls is female and so is the toner for your printer. Glass fibres are female though glasses are male. Unless they’re reading glasses – then they’re female. And so it goes. It’s true there are rules about the endings of words and their ‘sex’ but frankly that’s illogical too. Convention has it that ‘ette’ endings are feminine. So what exactly? Can you see why an assiette (plate), a barquette (defined in my dictionary as a small boat-shaped tart) or a lavette (dishcloth &/or wimp) should be seen as exclusively feminine? They all seem pretty neutral and lacking in sexual characteristics of any sort. And why should crevettes – prawns and shrimps – all be female? Doesn’t it depend on the individual prawn or shrimp? I suppose that scientists studying them occasionally have to ask the lab assistant for a male as opposed to a female. What do they say? “Passe-moi une crevette masculine, s’il-te plait Antoine”? A bit like referring to a male princess or a male bitch. And notice too, just back there, that there is, inevitably, a female version of the word masculin (just as there is a male version of the word feminine.) Just add an e for those difficult female words that represent male things.

How do they teach children these things?

“The word crevette is feminine, Monsieur?”
“But the actual prawn is male?”
“So we can say it’s masculin?”
“But we add an e to make it feminine?”
“Even though it’s masculine?”

It’s difficult to picture the scene or imagine the conversations when the Académie française – the national language politbureau of France - meet to determine gender for new words. They’ve been meeting since 1635, with occasional turnover of members obviously, to produce dictionaries and award literary prizes, invent French words for new things like credit crunch (le credite crunch no doubt) and assign gender. There are 40 of them and what they find to do all day long when other languages manage themselves perfectly well without presiding officers is anyone’s guess. But when it comes to language gender, since masculine and feminine have almost nothing to do with conveying anything any of us would understand as masculine or feminine there doesn’t seem to be any real criteria for assigning either. I imagine the attendees must be becoming increasingly embarrassed as the years pass. ‘OK, on the agenda today we have new words credit crunch, iphone, blog and turkey twizzler. Who wants to start?’

Why exactly should a boui-boui (greasy spoon) or freluquet (whippersnapper) be designated as male?

You’d think it would have been, and still would be, a cause for celebration whenever they got an obvious choice – the worthy and grave-faced academicians could breathe a sigh of relief and say “Well, breast-pump – obviously…” and pass on to the next word on the list or go out for lunch. But no. Looking, for example, childbirth straight in the face (accouchement) they didn’t hesitate to make it male.

Aside from whole classes of word like pronouns and adjectives, and the interwoven theme of gender, which can all be frustrating, there are also hordes of individual words which trouble the new user.

Toujours is one that could do with changing. You probably know toujours. Toujours means still. Unless it means always. So if you want to say Martha is still in the toilet, you are also in effect saying Martha is always in the toilet. In my experience, conveying whether your meaning is that she is temporarily still in there and will soon be coming out or whether she is in fact permanently in the toilet is a matter of trying out various emphases, twirling your hands around a bit and making a facial expression that indicates, you know, just still, not always. It’s true that you can use encore for still but encore is compromised several ways frankly because it also means ‘let’s have some more of this’ or ‘let’s do that again’, which is not the same as still, and it also has a role to play at the end of concerts.

Someone should write t0 the Académie française and say: Can I suggest as a concerned user of the language that you (finally) come up with a way to distinguish between still and always? You don’t really want to be saying “Last night’s soup will always be good” when you mean “Last night’s soup is still good” (today). You could have toujours for ‘always’ and decree, or whatever it is you do up there at the Académie, that it always means ‘always’.

Hard to see how anyone would lose out.

Moving back to gender for a moment, lui could also be reviewed. I'd bet a weak pound to a strong euro that lui has direct common roots with Italian lui and Luigi and the French name Louis. Masculine, everyone would agree? And lui does indeed mean ‘he’, ‘him’ or ‘to him’. Unless it means ‘she’, ‘her’ or ‘to her’. There is a perfectly good word for ‘she’ and ‘her’ – elle – but as it is too difficult to say in amongst other words in contexts where you need to say ‘she’, ‘her’ or ‘to her’ it has to be dropped and replaced by ‘him’ or ‘to him’ and your listener has to figure out that him, in this case, means her. Can you think of a single word in English - leaving aside words used in deliberately annoying combinations to make tongue-twisters of the celeste-thinks-thistles-will-sell-at-sisley variety – that has to be dropped in favour of a less functional word simply because it’s too difficult to pronounce it in the sequence required? I can't.

And the subject of pronunciation leads to dessus and dessous. Even thinking about these two words makes most learners frustrated. The function of words is to convey fairly precise meaning and differentiate one concept or object from another. If you say to young Peter ‘Catch the ball’ and he is up to speed with his English comprehension you can be pretty sure he’ll have a surprised look on his face if you throw a brick at him. Equally, if you serve your guests turnip at dinner and say ‘Isn’t the Beluga caviar delicious?’ you may as well expect sulky faces or at the least puzzled ones. The point is, humans invent words to convey meaning and convey it accurately. Dessus and dessous, as you may know, mean ‘on top of’ and ‘underneath’. However, conveniently, although having exactly opposite meanings, they both look and sound almost identical. I’ve used both many times and have never – never - succeeded in conveying my meaning without either resorting to stooping close to the ground, making a sweeping-underneath sort of motion with my hand or straining to stand up a bit taller than usual, lifting my arm above my head and pointing, you know, up there, on top. It’s frustrating. And the French clearly have a little bit of sensitivity about these two non-words because they often latch au in front of them (yep, both of them) in an effort to clarify what they’re talking about. It doesn’t help of course because if you use, say, ‘ont’ for above and ‘ontt’ for underneath then it doesn’t help much to add ‘oop’ in front of them both. It doesn’t solve the essential ont(t)-ness of the problem to say ‘oop ont’ or ‘oop ontt’. The listener is still going to say pretty much: ‘Did you say ont? Or ontt?’

I wonder if anyone has ever done a study of French history to see how many significant events have turned on misunderstandings created by dess(o)us. (“No, I just blew up the bridge. You meant I should blow up the boat? I thought you said: Put the bomb on top of the bridge. You said under?”)

I’ve been told by a Parisian friend that the difference in meaning is clear “if you send the word dessus up your nose”. I love French very much, but to my way of thinking, spoken language should be composed pretty much entirely of words that issue from the mouth. Otherwise they are not, technically, spoken. Words that come out of your nose are snorted. Or sneezed.

Plus is sneakier than dess(o)us. With plus, instead of two words that look almost the same but mean opposite things you have a single word with two diametrically opposed meanings. Which in my book makes plus that li-ttle bit more sophisticated than dess(o)us (but not as annoying). Some time around seven hunded years ago, give or take a hundred years I guess, the word ‘plus’ worked its way into English. We all know what it means. Two plus two equals four. Teenager plus credit card equals unmanageable debt. And so on. English assigned it a meaning and stuck with it. No equivocation, no room for confusion. In French it works differently. The French allow it individual expression, elasticity. Contradiction in fact. Plus can mean more or, with equal and shameless ease, it can mean no more. So if you speak of bread, as the French do often, and you say Plus de pain it means simply, as you would expect, ‘more bread’. But, if you ask whether there is more bread and get the answer Plus de pain it means, naturally to the French, ‘no, there’s no more bread’. Often you will simply get the answer ‘Plus’, (accompanied by a look of tremendous sympathy and helplessness.) And there it is – the word ‘more’ meaning exactly its opposite: no more. At which early elementary point I would guess many learners with native languages other than French are likely to give up and learn Chinese instead.

1 comment:

  1. :)) i love this article, is hilariously true!