In many people’s eyes, French is the language of love. Yet how can this be, when most of the French terms of endearment are based on such unlovely and certainly unromantic objects? I regularly hear French mothers calling their children ‘Ma puce’ (my flea) in the fondest tones possible. And then there’s choux or cabbage, which apparently means cute. And what about ma crotte (my dropping)?? Very romantic, I must say. The website which told me that little gem went on hastily to explain that ‘crotte’ can also mean a small round goat’s cheese. Oh well, that’s so much more romantic then.
It’s a humiliating fact that my four-year-old daughter speaks much, much better French than me. Not surprising really, as she’s lived here most her life and goes to a French nursery. But humiliating nonetheless, especially as she pulls no punches in commenting on my poor French, especially my pronunciation. Though things have improved a little – until quite recently whenever I attempted to speak French to one of her little friends she would wrinkle up her nose in distaste and say ‘No, Mummy, please don’t speak French’. Now she at least allows me to converse with her friends, but she mercilessly criticises my accent and I am ashamed to say I simply can’t get the words out the way she does, however much I try to copy her exactly. I have to face it – I am too old to ever be able to get the accent right. More worrying is that soon she will be doing complicated homework in French and I’m going to have to help her! Already she is using words that send me scrabbling for my dictionary – by the time she’s a teenager she’ll be using the French teenage slang* that no dictionary will be able to help me with. Time to seriously catch up!
*Subject of a future post – but more research needed!
This is something that has been bothering me for sometime and maybe someone out there can shed more light on it for me.
All nouns in French are either feminine or masculine. There seems little rhyme or reason to which are feminine and which are masculine, so the hapless French student (comme moi), must learn the gender along with the new word, or else they are sunk. Research on the web threw up some interesting, but not at all helpful, findings, such as that intimate parts of the female anatomy are male in gender, while a beard is feminine (the mind is starting to boggle a little at this point). But what I want to know is who decides what gender to assign a new word? I visualised some strictly gender-balanced committee meeting annually in a dusty garret in an alley off Montmartre to decide that Ipod should be female, but DVD male and so on.
Further research suggests a less satisfactory answer – it seems that it’s likely to be L’Académie française that decides the gender of new words. Disappointingly, the academy is not as gender-balanced as I had imagined – according to Wikipedia, in its entire history (stretching back to 1637 or thereabouts), it has had 710 members, only four of whom have been women. Humph. (Please use your imagination to supply my Gallic shrug at this point).
Sometimes when speaking (or trying to speak) French I find myself lulled into a false sense of security by the familiarity of many of the words. Surely, I think naively to myself, if I just say the English word in my most outrageous French accent, they’ll understand what I mean? Sadly, it doesn’t always work like that, and this is because of the very many tricky little words (known as false friends) that are spelt almost exactly like those in English, but which have either subtly, or sometimes devastatingly, different meanings. Some of the most unnerving include les baskets – trainers (shoes); eventuellement, which means possible, not eventually, and could get you into all sorts of problems at work; plein, which can mean full, but can also mean pregnant – look out in restaurants; and deranger, which is actually my favourite little false friend, because I do love phoning people up and starting the conversation by hoping that I am not deranging them (ie. disturbing them), which surely I will be by the end of the conversation with me in French! But the one which for me, takes le biscuit* in the confusion prize, is terrible, which can mean both terrific, and terrible. How do you know which? Search me.
*Biscuits, gateaux, crackers etc open another whole can of worms in the false friend department (‘scuse mixed metaphor) which I will attempt to decipher at a later date.
The subjunctive? Nah, you don’t really need that….do you?
Well, I had been ticking along quite nicely for a few weeks on the communication front. No problems ordering my baguette in the boulangerie, my address simply tripping off my tongue, only causing my daughter’s teacher to wince twice in our little after school chat, that kind of encouraging stuff, when wham! My French teacher arrives chez moi one evening with a dangerous glint in her eye and announces that there is this tricky little thing called the subjunctive, and it’s very very complicated and you need to use it nearly every time you say something. Which means you need to memorise all the correct verbs endings and, of course, 99% of them are horribly, deformedly, abnormally, irregular. Why is it necessary? Can’t we just pretend we don’t need it and carry on as before? Surely, like gender-specific articles, we can just mutter something unintelligible and move swiftly on? Please? It’s enough to make you drop French and take up Swahili instead. I’m nearly positive Tanzanians don’t care a jot about the subjunctive* and are much, much happier as a result.
*OK so someone is probably going to prove me wrong – the gauntlet is down…
So, this much I know. One of them means housework. And the other one means a merry-go-round. But which is which, I can never remember. Let’s see – housework or merry-go-round, merry-go-round or housework? I’ll take the merry-go-round please, you can have the housework.