February, 2014

Gender Confusion

Two nouns enter the ring: one masculine, the other feminine. A lone adjective awaits its fate. The victor will assign its gender. Who will it be? Let’s ask Claude Favre de Vaugelas, the reigning grammar god of the original Académie française (founded in 1635) whose mandate was to “perfect” and standardize the French language. Vaugelas was such a big deal in the 17th century that he even got mentioned by name in a Molière play, Les femmes savantesIn that play, a woman is so obsessed with grammar that she fires her maid for having offended her ears with improper grammar. When questioned about her overreaction, she explains that in spite of 30 grammar lessons, the maid has spoken French in way that Vaugelas has condemned in no uncertain terms. Therefore, she must be fired. (Sounds like some French teachers I know):


Elle a, d’une insolence à nulle autre pareille,

Après trente leçons, insulté mon oreille

Par l’impropriété d’un mot sauvage et bas,

Qu’en termes décisifs condamne Vaugelas.

 Grammar, says Philaminte, is so powerful that even kings must obey it:

La grammaire, qui sait régenter jusqu’aux rois,

 Et les fait la main haute obéir à ses lois ?

But let’s get back to Vaugelas and the gender problem.

Remarques sur la langue française, Vaugelas.

The sentence in question is “Ce peuple a le coeur & la bouche ouverte à vos louanges.” So, you’ve got two nouns, “coeur” (masculine) and “bouche” (feminine) and then an adjective (ouvert) that modifies both of them. Ideally, you avoid the issue and rephrase your sentence, says Vaugelas. Otherwise, you’re up against a problem: usage vs. what is correct.

And here is where it gets interesting. Usage, in the 17th century, held that you would agree with whichever noun was closest to the adjective. That’s how all the royals do it, he says. But, here’s where the king and friends are wrong, according to Vaugelas. The correct way to agree is to let the most noble of the two nouns win, which, naturally, is the masculine one:

le genre masculin, étant le plus noble, doit prédominer toutes les fois que le masculin et le féminin se trouvent ensemble (the masculine genre, being the most noble one, must get the upper hand every time that the masculine and the feminine are found together).


In other words, the man must always win. So, while usage had already shifted to a more gender-equal formula, Vaugelas helped solidify gender bias (masculine=more noble). Without Vaugelas, things might have gone differently.

Today, with new debates in France surrounding what kids learn at school about gender equality tied to a new governmental plan to teach the “ABCD of equality,” some people are questioning the typical phrasing of grammar instruction. Typically, a teacher in France would say “le masculin l’emporte” (the masculine wins it), thereby reinforcing the gender bias through grammar. It seems that nobody is considering a return to what the royal crowd was doing back in the 17th century. Instead, they suggest saying “it agrees with the masculine” which is a pretty weak solution, if you ask me.

Language evolves and changes with usage. Language shapes how we see the world. If the French really want to consider teaching gender equality, even at the level of grammar, they might want to consider the direction things could have gone if Vaugelas and the Académie française hadn’t codified the game.

Pardon Their French, part deux

French usage in anglophone media can range from “pretty respectable” to “was that supposed to be French?” Last week, part 1 took a look at how French was used in Sherlock Holmes(film, 2009). Today’s follow-up takes a look at a more recent example, this time from the TV show Community‘s fifth season (2014).

In this clip, a wistful French woman’s voice sings the thoughts of Greendale Community College’s Dean, Craig Pelton, variously described as a “pansexual imp” and “innocent pervert”. His crush on one of the main characters leads him to awkwardly attempt to engineer situations to get him closer to the object of his affections, including, in this scene, a failed attempt to get Jeff to learn Excel with him.

So how’s the French? Well…it’s about what we’d expect from an institution with Greendale’s reputation.

The most prominent mistake comes at the very end, when the Dean realizes, in song, that his thoughts are in French (with a question mark of surprise). The singing voice audibly says, Mes pensées sont français. See the problem? The word pensée is feminine, so there are two possible corrections to make: either “mes pensées sont en français” or “mes pensées sont françaises”. The latter, though, seems that it would have the meaning of culturally or nationally French…which also doesn’t seem to make sense.

The other big mistake comes towards the middle of the song: comme les marins qui fument cigarettes sur le canal”. If Dan Harmon and the script writers had read What The French?!, they’d know that needy nouns like cigarettes need articles: des cigarettes would have worked.

The verdict: The style of the singing and the music and the bizarre way it fits the scene are great. The actual French grammar leaves a bit to be desired.

This woman wants to spoil your trip to Paris

mean old hag

No, not her. Although she is a mean lady. (trust me. I’ll spare you the story, but this woman is full of bile and venom.)


No, not her. She’s just a friendly zombie.


That one on the left. She’ll come up to you and say “Do you speak English?” And then her friend will pick your pocket. But that’s not who I’m talking about.


Yep. There she is. Not the security guard. That creepy woman under the glass. Lisa. Lisa Gherardini (most likely). You know her as Mona. The French call her la Joconde (the jocund one, which is just a lame pun based on her married name Giocondo). If you go to Paris, do yourself a favor and snub this woman. Just skip it. I dare you.

Here. Let me make it easier for you. This is what you’ll see:


Stunning, isn’t it?

Most likely, you will have this view:


You will be stuck behind a 16 year-old man child who bought himself a beret—ya know, to look like genuine Frenchman—which hopefully, upon his return to the US, for his own sake and for the love of taste, he will never wear again.

Or maybe you’ll get this view:


That fleshy blur of a woman in front has a more intriguing smile, if you ask me. Why? I ask you, why do you want to see what is arguable the most disappointing anticlimactic museum experience in the history of the world? To prove you were in Paris? I say, prove it by gaining 10 pounds. Prove it by showing your friends the dog-poop encrusted soles of your shoes. Prove it by wearing scarves and adopting a an attitude of slightly bemused ennui. But don’t let Mona waste your time. Instead, go here:


The Musée de l’Orangerie is a stone’s throw (if you’re really good at throwing stones) away from the Louvre, right in the Jardin des Tuileries down at the end by the Place de la Concorde. It’s open every day except Tuesdays from 9-5:30 (well, until 6, but they won’t let you in after 5:30). And I guarantee you, unlike the Mona Lisa, it will exceed your expectations. Here’s what you will see:


(via Time travel)

orangerie 2

(via New York Times: read the article)

Monet’s gargantuan water lilies span an entire room. It’s even more stunning in person, and you can walk right up close to them and inspect the brush work at your leisure. There are other treasures in the Orangerie as well, but this is the most stunning. And the number of tourists who leave Paris without ever setting foot in Paris is staggering. 10 million a year! Ok. I made that up. I don’t know how many miss it, but if the relative size of the lines is any indication, it’s a lot. Too many.

So, I dare you. If you are lucky enough to go to Paris, skip Mona and visit Monet instead.


Pardon their French

French usage in anglophone media can range from “pretty respectable” to “was that supposed to be French?” I hope to look at that full range in this mini-series of posts.

Let’s start on a relatively high note:

Sherlock Holmes (2009) casts Robert Downey Jr. as the titular character alongside Jude Law as Dr. Watson. I hope it doesn’t spoil this five year-old movie for you when I say there is fighting involved (albeit often in clever ways), and one of the bad guys is a francophone giant called Dredger. Holmes hears him speak French, and is apparently never one to back down from an excuse to practice his conversation, as you can see a little of in this clip:

Now, the giant, played by real-life huge person Robert Maillet, is a native Canadian French speaker, so his French is fine (the deep voice and the fighting might make it sound slightly different, but it’s authentic). What’s impressive is RDJ’s passable accent and delivery (there’s more than what you see in the above clip) is pretty good, especially considering how difficult it is to act in a foreign language. Plus, there’s always the excuse of British arrogance to excuse any slight accent he might retain; sure, Sherlock would be able to master French, but why bother pandering to their elitist pronunciations?

One semi-goof: the script was written in English, and only later did the director find out that their giant actor was a native French speaker. One piece of dialogue is an unfortunate victim of translation: the giant is supposed to say, “Did you miss me?” with “miss” carrying the double meanings of sentimentality and attack. The problem is, French has the weirdest possible way to express sentimentally missing someone; when the giant says, “Tu m’as manqué?” this carries only the meaning of “Did (your attack) miss me?” and would mean ‘Did I miss you?’ when used with the sentimental meaning. Did the writers/actor choose the right one for the line? Does it really matter? You be the judge.

Be My Valentine, Fanny Ardant


Just listen to Fanny Ardant talk in this interview and tell me it’s not a good thing to do on Valentine’s Day. Her voice is completely mesmerizing. What can I say? I’ve had a crush on Fanny Ardant since I was 16 and saw her in Truffaut’s homage to Hitchcock, Vivement Dimanche. Years later, I sat in the front row as she played Maria Callas in a French stage production of Master Class. “Wow!” I thought, “Fanny Ardant’s spit just fell on me!” Creepy and stalkerish, you say? Ha! That’s nothing. Check out Vincent Delerm’s rather awkward performance of “Fanny Ardant et Moi” complete with annoyingly cheesy clapping by audience members, all in the presence of Fanny Ardant herself:

Joyeuse Saint-Valentin!

“Manger ses mots”: a French idiom

manger tes mots

Manger ses mots means to mumble. Another, non-idiomatic way to say it is with the verb marmonner.

French women (and men, and children) do get fat

You’ve all heard it: French women don’t get fat. It’s the famous “French paradox” that gives us just another reason to hate and envy the French. Here’s a brief report on it from 60 minutes:

So, if we drink wine and eat cheese, but don’t drink milk we’ll be skinny like French people? Not likely.

Well, what then? What are the French hiding from us, and how can we turn it into a pill that we can swallow when drinking our next Double Big Gulp?

According to the smug and somewhat condescendingly titled post “10 Eating Rules French Children Know (But Most Americans Don’t)“, French kids eat real food, don’t snack (except for a traditional 4 o’clock after school snack), don’t guzzle soda, sit down for real meals, and appreciate their food. Their school lunch menus read like the daily special at a whole foods café: first course: lentil salad, followed by roasted chicken and haricots verts, then a cheese course, and finally some fresh fruit for dessert.

I don’t know why we do this, but we “Anglo-Saxons” love to beat ourselves up with tales of French superiority. What we’re forgetting is that Americans didn’t used to be so fat either. We just radically altered our food system with sugar-laden highly processed foods compounded by stupid nutritional misinformation such as the low-fat craze that helped to inject even more sugar (because, hey!, sugar is fat-free!) into our diets. The “eating rules” of the French were once common sense in America. The French aren’t ahead of us in a secret race to the ultimate diet plan, they are a couple of decades behind us in a race to become the humans of Wall-E.


But they’re catching up.

Sure, the French love to attack McDonald’s (or “Mac-Do” if you want to say it the French way), but not as much as they love eating there. The “McDonaldization” of France is helping teach French kids the secrets that every American child knows: food should not resemble any living plant or animal; it should be deep-fried and accompanied by soda and a toy. And for breakfast? Bowls of sugar!!!


Among the most popular cereals in France are sugary gobs of a Nutella-like substance wrapped in a sugary crunchy shell. The French are slowly losing their bragging rights for paradoxical thinness, but they might make up for it in most sugar-laden cereal.

An article in Le Monde in 2012 tries to maintain the French sense of superiority by saying that although obesity is a problem in France, the French are “resisting” better than the Brits and the Germans.



via OECD

According to data from the OECD’s website, France is doing better than most, but the projections don’t look pretty. The BBC recently did a story on “The perils of being fat, female, and French,” which suggests that French women might simply have more pressure to be skinny. The “tyranny of the silhouette.” French women have the lowest BMI in Europe, but they are also second highest in anorexia, according to a 2012 study.

The recent Sundance documentary, “Fed Up” which claims to “blow the lid off everything we thought we knew about food and weight loss,” while interesting enough, basically boils it down to something that should be painfully obvious: eat too much sugar and you’ll gain weight. Duh. The problem for people buying processed foods is that added sugar seems to be inescapable. Look at the shelves of your local supermarket, read the box labels, and you will see sugar in nearly everything.

Part of the secret of paradoxically thin French women is the textbook cliché of going chez le…[insert speciality food shop of your choice]. But who’s got time for that when a massive supermarket with a lot of frozen foods is just down the street?

So to conclude, French people do indeed get fat. So start looking for other ways to mystify and envy the French, because unlike that box of choco-treasures cereal, this French paradox thing is going to have a short shelf life.

112 Gripes (Our friends, the French), part 1

At the end of the second world war, United States forces stationed in France experienced what might be diplomatically called “tensions” with their hosts. It’s not really hard to see why; even in the best of circumstances, different cultural values are going to make life complicated. And then throw in the minor detail of France’s general weariness at having been invaded and occupied, American soldiers’ general post-war fatigue and likely under-reported PTSD, and you have a recipe for a lot of gripes.

But the US military couldn’t let tensions boil over, so they took 112 of these gripes and made a pamphlet, the most effective morale-corrector known to man. The document was circulated in France among enlisted Americans starting in 1945, and you’re in luck: this priceless document has been scanned and is available to read right here.


Here are a couple highlights, in case you were on the fence about clicking on that link (which is a lot of effort, to be fair). I’ll be making editor’s notes in [square brackets], too.

Gripe #20: “The French aren’t friendly.”

Uncle Sam’s rebuttal: “Some Frenchman are; other Frenchmen are not.

     The French as a whole are not as “hail fellow well met” as we Americans are. [‘Cause that’s totally how I greet friends and strangers. Hailing them, and the like.] Neither are the British, the Swedes, the Greeks, the Mexicans.

     Frenchmen don’t get personal or confidential quickly.

     They don’t “open up” as quickly as we do in the States.

     The French are very polite; they are also more formal than we are about personal relationships. (So are the Chinese.) The French respect another person’s privacy, and they like to have their own privacy respected too.

     It is natural for anyone to think the people of another nation are not as friendly as his own people. It’s hard to be friendly in a foreign language. It’s hard to be friendly when you’re hungry, cold, and have gone through six years of war – as the French have. Yet the Americans who came into Normandy, or who came into Paris right after the liberation, still talk about the astonishing outburst of gratitude, generosity and friendliness which the French displayed toward us.

     Back in the States, many of our troops complained that the people in the towns near the training camps were not friendly. People from our South often complain that the people in the North are not friendly. A Texan in Vermont finds New Englanders “cold” and “snobbish”. [As they should be!] Do we then say that all Americans are unfriendly?

     Friendship, said a wise man, lies in this: “To desire the same things and to reject the same things.” [What wise man was that? I’d sure hate to spend time with most of the people that statement describes.] On this basis, the United States has never had a better friend than France.

Gripe #45: “The French don’t bathe.”

     “The French don’t bathe often enough. They can’t. They don’t have real soap. They they had no soap worthy of the name since 1940. The Germans took the soap, for four years. [WWII will forever be remembered as Europe’s war for soap.] That’s a long time.

     The ration for Frenchman today, four months after the war is over, is two cakes of poor ersatz soap per month – 20 grams every two months. Most real soap can only he obtained on the black market, where it costs around 125 francs for 310 grams. [This explanation doesn’t do anything for us in 2014, unfortunately.]

Gripe #53: “The French are primitive. French farmers still wear wooden shoes.” [First of all, how is that a gripe? “I just refuse to occupy the same landmass as people who wear wooden shoes,” said no one ever.]

     “The French farmer is more sensible than you think. The French farmer wears wooden shoes because they insulate his feet against mud and damp much better than leather can. [You know what, as much as I don’t care about wooden shoes, I’m finding the prospect of defending them even less intellectually appealing. And I still don’t see how that makes them primitive.]

     France does not have the very hot summer days and nights we get in the Middle West. The landscape of France is not deforested because for centuries the French have been careful to re-plant the trees they’ve cut down. [Buncha hippies. I knew there was a reason we didn’t like ’em.] And so the rivers of France run deep all year round, and the French soil is cool and moist, and wooden shoes come in mighty handy. The French farmer finds them more practical than leather shoes.”

As fun as it is to see what annoyed Americans about the French in 1945, this pamphlet is also a pretty interesting look at an important time period in the relationship between two countries with a really complicated past. What kind of gripes would you put in a 2014 edition? And what kind would they put in a version about Americans? I’d read that in a heartbeat.

How to go through customs like a civilized gentleman

You’ve built your time machine and set it to 1876. You’ve packed your trunk and carpet bag for a trip to France, but are you prepared to go through customs? Professor Auguste Beljame is here to help with his Handy Guide to French Conversation and Correspondence for Students and Travellers, already in its third edition by 1876:

Professor Beljame

Have you anything subject to duty, Sir?

Monsieur, avez-vous quelque chose à déclarer?

—Absolutely nothing at all.

Rien du tout absolument.

Do you know what are the articles subject to duty?

Savez-vous quels sont les articles soumis aux droits?

—Yes, perfectly.

Oui, parfaitement.

Where is your luggage, if you please?

Où est votre bagage, je vous prie.

—Here in this corner.

Le voici dans ce coin.

Very well, Sir, it will be examined presently.

Très-bien, Monsieur, on l’examinera tout-à-l’heure.

—Why not immediately?

Pourquoi pas tout de suite?

Because there are other passengers before you.

C’est qu’il y a d’autres voyageurs avant vous.

—Will you keep me waiting long?

Me ferez-vous attendre longtemps?

I will attend to you in a few minutes.

Je serai à vous dans quelques minutes.

—That is right, I am going to open my trunk in the meantime.

Fort bien, je vais ouvrir ma malle en vous attendant.

What have you in your trunk, Sir?

Qu’avez-vous dans votre malle, Monsieur?

—Clothing, a few books, and some small articles of no importance.

Des vêtements, quelques livres, et quelques menus articles sans importance.

And what is there in that carpet bag, Sir?

Et dans ce sac de nuit, Monsieur, qu’y a-t-il?

—Linen, shoes, etc.

Du linge, des chaussures, etc.

Very well, be kind enough to open it.

Très-bien, veuillez l’ouvrir.

I see that you have some cigars.

Je vois que vous avez des cigares.

—Yes, but only five or six.

Oui, mais seulement cinq ou six.

Not more?

Pas davantage?

—No, and you see I took care to put them on the top.

Non, et vous voyez j’ai eu soin de les mettre en-dessus.

That is right, Sir. Now you can shut your trunk and your carpet bag, and have them carried away.

Voilà qui est bien, Monsieur. Maintenant, vous pouvez fermer votre malle et votre sac de nuit, et les faire emporter.

—Who will undertake that?

Qui se chargera de cela?

One of the porters that you see here.

Un des commissionnaires que vous voyez ici.

—How much shall I have to give him, if you please?

Combien aurai-je à lui donner, s’il vous plaît?

Fifty centimes ought to satisfy him fully, I think.

Cinquante centimes devront le satisfaire amplement, je pense.

—Thanks for the information. Now I suppose that I may go.

Merci de ce renseignement. Maintenant je suppose que je puis partir.

Yes, without a doubt; I have just marked your luggage to show that is has been examined. If you had had any duty to pay you would have been detained a few minutes.

Oui, sans doute; je viens de marquer votre bagage pour faire voir qu’il a été visité. Si vous aviez eu des droits à payer, vous auriez été retenu quelques minutes.

—I cannot shut my trunk. Would you help me, if you please?

Je ne peux pas ferma ma malle. Voudriez-vous m’aider, s’il vous plaît?

Certainly, Sir, very willingly.

Certainement, Monsieur, très-volontiers.

—I see a disengaged carriage, that is what I want.

J’aperçois une voiture libre, voici mon affaire.


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