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Highway to the Liaison Zone

or, How to Survive the Danger of Liaisons

A reader wrote to us recently with a very good question:

“I would really like to understand when to use liaisons and when not to. When is it obligatory, when is it optional, and when is it forbidden?”

Though I am an incorrigible linguist, I am going to do my absolute best to not nerd out too hard in the following explanation.

This post will:

  1. Define la liaison and distinguish it from similar processes
  2. Bring up a few necessary background details
  3. Give three lists (not 100% comprehensive, but pretty close) of when la liaison is obligatory, optional, and forbidden (respectively)

1. What it is, and what it isn’t

The first thing to keep in mind is that French really, really doesn’t like two vowels to touch. They need some personal space, and that personal space is ideally made of consonants. To avoid awkward physical contact, there are a few major strategies you need to know and use:

la liaison (English: liaison) – Say we have two words next to each other in a sentence. The first one ends in a vowel, but is written with a silent consonant. The second begins with a vowel (although the written form may begin with a silent <h>, as in homme). Liaison takes the first word’s silent, written consonant and turns it into a spoken consonant, thus sparing the two vowels from the horror of having to be pronounced one directly after the other.

For example: The word les ends in a vowel, since the s at the end is silent. The word amis begins with a vowel. When they’re combined, we prevent disaster by taking the silent, written-only s and giving it a spoken sound (still spelled s, but it will sound like a z). This post will mark where liaison occurs using the symbol ‿ between words: les‿ amis.

Remember: liaison adds a sound between two words that wasn’t there when those words were on their own.

l’enchainement (English: linking) – This is very similar to la liaison, but the key difference is that the first of two spoken words in this case ends in a pronounced consonant, while the second begins with a vowel. The exact same number of sounds are pronounced when the two words are spoken together as when they were on their own. So what changes? The sounds are re-distributed within syllables. All the nerdy things I want to tell you about syllables will have to wait for another day.

For now, consider the rhythm of the following words when they appear on their own:

 il ‘he’… arrive ‘arrives’… à ‘at’ seize ‘sixteen’… heures ‘hours’

But when you combine them into a complete sentence, the sounds link up in ways that don’t care about the word boundaries you see written on a page. Instead, you’ll find that syllables want to start with a consonant, and will even steal the consonant from the end of the previous word if there’s one available. Try saying this sentence out loud by first reading the normal written form, and then looking at the line below it where I’ve typed an X under each syllable. Now look at the version below that where I’ve separated the spoken syllables using a <.>.

Il arrive à seize heures (‘He’ll get here at 4:00 PM’)
X X X     X   X       X

i .la.rri .va .sei.zheures
X X X     X   X       X

l’élision (English: elision) – While la liaison adds a sound that wasn’t there and l’enchainement keeps the same number of total sounds, l’élision deletes a sound in order to keep vowels from touching. That’s right: the vowels find the prospect of physical contact so mortifying that one of them decides to cease to exist. That’s intense.

Elision happens most often with the singular definite articles le and lale + homme = l’homme; la + amie = l’amie. You’ll also see it when si ‘if’ goes before il or ils (s’il, s’ils) but not before elle or really anything else.

2. Some extra details

2.1. Spoken versus written French

I have to remind you of the huge difference between spoken and written French and what it means for us here. French doesn’t want vowels to touch in the spoken language, so the written language’s silent letters don’t automatically help anyone. Because this distinction is so important, I’ll sometimes specify which I mean by using different types of brackets:

Written language in angle brackets, <comme ça>.

Spoken language pronunciations in square brackets and using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), [kɔm sa]. If you don’t know the IPA yet…you should change that as soon as possible. It’s so incredibly useful to learning and improving pronunciation in any language. I’ll probably end up writing a post on that next, in fact. For now, this page is a decent introduction.

2.2. Levels of formality

French is a living language, meaning real humans use it, meaning that there’s a spectrum from formal to informal language. This is directly related to the topic at hand, because the more formal the French, the more liaison you have to use, and the more people will make the mockery of you if you use it where it’s forbidden.

If you’re a non-native speaker, it’s usually best to avoid speaking in the most or the least formal ways. This post generally aims for the sort of level you might use in the workplace, but the kind where you’re speaking with co-workers, not with your scary boss who wears a top hat and a monocle.

2.3. Particularities of pronunciation in la liaison

When you take a silent letter and turn it into a pronounced sound for the purposes of liaison, that letter might not be pronounced the way it usually is in written French. Here are some of the main weirdnesses:

<s> and <x>  → [z]               as in    des‿ idées [de.z‿i.de]

                                                 or        six‿ heures [si.z‿œʁ]

<d>                 → [t]                as in    grand‿ arbre [gʁɑ̃.t‿aʁ.bʁə]

<g>                  → [k] (rare)   as in    sang‿ impur [sɑ̃.k‿ɛ̃pyʁ] (This is the only example I could find of it, and it’s falling out of use. Good riddance, racist/classist expressions)

<f>                  → [v]                as in   neuf ans [nœ.v‿ɑ̃]

Alright. Now, at long last, I will answer the actual question.

3. When you must, when you may, and when you mustn’t use liaison

Notation reminders:

The symbol shows where the liaison border occurs or can occur.

The symbol | shows where a liaison cannot occur.

3.1. When you must (la liaison obligatoire )

Between a determiner (a category including articles, possessive adjectives, and demonstratives) and its associated noun

e.g. un an, les amis, ton avis, vos idées, ces ennemis

When an adjective precedes the noun it describes

e.g. un grand homme

Between a subject pronoun and its associated verb

e.g. nous aimons

Also between the verb and its subject pronoun when they’re inverted

e.g. vont-‿ils à la fête?

When an imperative verb precedes y or en

e.g. vas-‿y!; prends-‿en!

In certain compound words and fixed expressions:

e.g. c’est à dire, de temps en temps

3.2. When you may, but don’t have to (la liaison facultative )

Often between conjugated forms of être or avoir and their complement (this can be a noun or pronoun object, or an adjective)

e.g. elle est intelligente; ils en ont assez

Also between conjugated être and avoir and the past participle of the main verb, when they act as auxiliary verb to it

e.g. ils sont allés

Between a preposition, especially a monosyllabic one, and its complement

e.g. sans espoir, dans une heure

When an adverb that modifies the word directly following it

e.g. bien amusé, très heureux

Note: with beaucoup, liaison sounds pretty snooty. For example, in Nous l’avons beaucoup(‿) aimé, you’re probably better off not pronouncing the final <p> unless you’re wearing a monocle at that very moment.

Sometimes between a verb (that isn’t être or avoir) and its complement (more common for direct objects than indirect ones)

e.g. il prend un café

Sometimes between a plural noun and its following associated adjective (but NOT a singular noun before an adjective; see below)

e.g. des soldats américains (but un soldat | américain)

3.3. When you mustn’t (la liaison interdite )

When a singular noun precedes the adjective that describes it

e.g. un soldat | américain

Between et and anything

e.g. elle est charmante et | intelligente

Between anything and a word beginning with an h aspiré (look in a dictionary to find out whether your <h> is silent or aspiré…unfortunately, that’s the only real way to tell)

e.g. ce ne sont pas des | haricots

Between anything and un (when it’s a number, not an article), huit (even though it doesn’t begin with h aspiré) or onze

e.g. ils en ont | huit

…except: the phrase les uns (et) les autres

Between anything and a word beginning with a glide ([w], [j], [ɥ])

e.g. mon | yaourt; des non et des | oui

…except: des yeux

In certain compound words and fixed expressions:

e.g. nez | à nez

Conclusion

Whew. That was a lot. I hope this article helps as you learn and improve in French pronunciation. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a long time to apply these rules; a lot of this is considered intermediate or advanced-level stuff. And if you have more questions about it, don’t hesitate to contact us.

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):

PHILAMINTE

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.

A guide to asking in French

Here’s a follow-up to last week’s wall of text. Hopefully it will be much easier to use.

guide to asking

Dress your paper in silk stockings

photo by Marc Olivier

photo by Marc Olivier

Real fluency takes a lot of time and hard work, but you’ve got a paper due in two weeks. What to do? This next installment in my series about how to write French papers that don’t suck has one easy tip: use million dollar transition words and phrases. You wouldn’t believe the difference they make on French people or on impressionable professors like myself. Even if you’re not a student and you don’t have to write papers, the same principle applies. Certain words elevate people’s perception of your fluency. Sure, the content may be crap, but at least it will be crap wrapped in a silk stocking (to paraphrase Napoleon).

Transitions suggest that there is coherent thought behind your words. Use them judiciously and you might even create the semblance of the “connected discourse” so beloved in ACTFL proficiency guidelines. I won’t attempt an exhaustive list or a treatise on logical connectives, so consider this a good starter kit.

Putting things in order 

Things that approximate “first”

D’abord

Premièrement

En premier lieu (this one’s the most formal of the three)

You might follow-up with “second”

Deuxièmement

En deuxième lieu

Or something like “next”

Puis

Ensuite

Maybe augment it with a “moreover” or an “in fact”

De plus

En fait

And wrap it up with a “finally” or “in conclusion” type transition

Pour conclure

Enfin

En dernier lieu

Illustrating a point or clarifying

To say things like “indeed” or “for example”

Par exemple

En effet

Or, “in other words”

C’est-à-dire

En d’autres termes

Autrement dit

Ou plus précisément

Showing that things aren’t as simple as they appear

You can introduce nuance with words that roughly fall into the “however” or “nevertheless” type function

Cependant

Néanmoins

Toutefois

Pourtant (this one pairs well with a paradox)

Or maybe introduce a counterpoint (similar to above, but slightly stronger)

Par contre

En revanche (fancier than “par contre” and more fun to say)

Bordering on wishy washy, in my opinion, are those two-part “one the one hand…on the other hand…” type expressions

D’une part…d’autre part…

D’un côté… which you could follow up with De l’autre côté …(assuming there are only two sides) or D’un autre côté…(if this is one more of many possible sides)

Referring to an issue

I’ve always liked the French equivalent of “As for x” (or “regarding…”) because you get to make that crisp “t” sound before the preposition “à”

Quant à …

“On this subject” type expressions

À ce sujet

À ce propos (fancier option)

Showing the implications of your brilliant logic

“And that’s why…” (sounds better in French) and “consequently”

C’est pourquoi

Par conséquent

The staples “thus” and “therefore”

Ainsi

Donc

 I could list dozens more, but those Netflix movies aren’t going to watch themselves. I’ve got some vegetating to do. So pour conclure, words like those above are like force fields against potential attacks on the flow of your writing. They also practically force you to organize your thoughts more clearly. Just think how much nicer your crappy paper will look dressed up in them.

Maybe we’ll work on content in a future post. As for grammar, What The French?! is your best friend. If you don’t own an iPad or a Mac, we promise, we’re still working on a version for you. Be patient.

Speak less badly: verbs and prepositions

When you’re studying another language, English is not your friend. You would do best to forget you know English (if you do) anytime you’re trying to speak or write French.

You might be saying, “But aren’t there tons of cognates?” (Yes, and here’s a list of some 1700 of them.) Or maybe your objection goes something like, “Don’t you realize that the grammar of French is remarkably close to that of English, especially compared to a language like Japanese or Swahili?” (And I’ll admit that it is. They’re relatively very close to each other.)

But listen. Your objections are wrong.

Why are they wrong? Because although English and French share a lot of similarities, that’s not always a good thing.

Why not? It often leads to learners assuming similarities that don’t actually exist. On a vocabulary level, that could be something like taking the English word “crash” and using it (with a spelling change) in French as the verb cracher…the problem being that this means “to spit”, not “to crash”. On a grammatical level, this happens when learners use the word order of English in a French sentence: “I sometimes eat puppies” is a fine English sentence, but Je parfois mange des chiots is not (hopefully you noticed that the placement of the adverb parfois is wrong).

This brings me to one of the most rage-inducing sets of mistakes learners make– and sometimes, continue to make for years, never quite figuring out that French is not English-with-different-words-and-a-silly-accent. That mistake comes from the way a lot of English verbs take prepositions.

Example: “to ask”. You can “ask a question” with no preposition, but as soon as you’re requesting a physical thing, it becomes “to ask for“. Of course, if you assume French is English with the words switched out, you’re going to say (and this hurts me to even type it) *demander pour (which kind of means “to ask on behalf of”, which doesn’t make sense in the way it usually gets used by learners). I have seen it and heard it over and over, read it used non-stop while grading papers and feeling like I needed to scrub myself with steel wool and harsh solvents to get it off of me. French does not associate pour with demander. This French verb meaning “to ask for” requires a direct object, with no preposition: Il a demandé un pain. Oh, and because of this, if you say demander une question, you’ve conveyed the meaning of “to ask for a question”, as an AP test-writer’s boss might do (“I want you to have twenty questions on my desk by Tuesday”). For what you usually mean, you want the verb poserPoser une question. OK?

The same applies to verbs like chercher (“to seek”, “to look for“), écouter (“to listen to“), and many others. Do yourself a favor, and don’t just look up single words in the dictionary. Find either a dictionary that gives context and example sentences, or use a site like linguee.com. That site allows you to enter a word or phrase and see how it’s been used in parallel (translated) texts. Here’s an example:

ask linguee

Pretty great, right? There are so many resources out there that no one really has much of an excuse anymore. Once it clicks for you that even two similar languages like French and English are very different, you’ll be on your way to really learning how to do it right. Good luck.

How to write French papers that don’t suck

Quick! Before it’s too late. Before the cynicism of late-winter sets in, make a resolution for 2014 to write French papers that don’t suck. It’s a lofty goal, I know. Unattainable, some might argue. But I say, dream big, because big dreams lead to big disappointments, and what could be more French than disappointment?

So let’s dive right in with the top five:

Four out of the five fall under the fautes de paresse (lazy mistakes) category.

1. Gender

A gender (genre) mistake such as “le femme” is like giving the finger to your French teacher. The laziness of gender errors is staggering to such a degree that it can only be regarded as contemptuous je-m’en-foutisme. Maybe that’s what you were going for? Maybe “le femme” is a critique of phallogocentrism. If you can sell that to your professor, you deserve an “A”. Otherwise, since you’re stuck with a gendered language, you are going to have to prove that you are capable of looking up the gender of a word. Be methodical. Look at every single noun in your paper and ask yourself if you are 100% sure of its gender. When in doubt, look it up.

2. Agreement

Same problem as above, but a little more complicated. Agreement (accord) means, for example, that a verb is conjugated to match its subject in number (Elles vont. NOT Elles va.) and gender (Elles sont allées), or that an adjective matches the thing it modifies in number and gender where necessary (La maison blanche—not blanc), and so on. Once again, you will have to move through your paper methodically. Start with the verbs— possibly with the help of a verb conjugator—and make sure that the conjugation lines up with the subject. Then identify the adjectives and what they modify.

3. Spelling

You can install spelling and grammar tools in Word, although in my experience, French spell check is not as good as English. Or you can use various online spell checkers such as Reverso or Bon Patron, but the best way to check spelling is with a good dictionary such as WordReference.

4. Vocabulary

I learned about WordReference from one of my students a couple of years ago and now I always recommend it. The best thing about it is that it gives sample sentences. For example, without context, you might look up “occupation” and get “métier,” which is correct in the sense of “job,” but incorrect if you are talking about the German occupation of Paris in WWII (l’occupation allemande). Without sample sentences, you may end up being an apparatus with rotating blades (Je suis un grand ventilateur de sport.) instead of a sports fan.

5. Syntax

Word order is tough. There are some good chapters to help you brush up on syntax and grammar in What The French?!   It’s too much to do here in one blog post, but let me give you an important tip: don’t translate from English. Especially not with an online translator—they are really, really, bad. One of these days, I’ll do a post to show you just how bad. Automated translation aside, the danger of translating from English is that you will likely write sentences that are too complex. Write directly in French and keep it simple.

Want more writing help? I’ll give you expert advice throughout the year, so bookmark us or follow us on Facebook.

p.s. Don’t write the paper at 2:14 a.m. as I am doing right now with this post. Who nose what mistakes you might make. (haha. groan. That’s just my disclaimer for all the lazy mistakes that you might find in this post)

Ask a linguist: Why does French have grammatical gender?

As a teacher of French, I’ve heard a lot of grievances about the French language, as though if enough people complained, I (of all people) would suddenly do something about it. One of the most fundamental of these gripes is about French’s grammatical masculine/feminine distinction; the argument goes something like this: “Giving nouns genders is arbitrary (OK, most whiners don’t use the word ‘arbitrary’, but that’s what they mean) and requires effort without serving any apparent purpose.” Actually, that usually just comes out as, “Waaah, learning genders is hard.” Just observing that isn’t particularly admirable, but then some students ask this question: “Why would that even exist in a language?”

It’s interesting enough to be worth a discussion, I think. Why does French make use of an arbitrary distinction between masculine and feminine nouns, when doing so appears to give no benefit to speakers and is cognitively costly for learners?

Before we can look at some possible explanations, let’s talk linguistic typology (please? this is my favorite stuff¹).

First: grammatical gender is different from natural gender. Natural gender describes actual gender distinctions in living beings, like humans or lizards or whatever. English makes some distinctions of natural gender (here are some examples on Wikipedia). Grammatical gender is part of a broader phenomenon of noun classes which exist in many of the world’s languages.

Noun classes divide up a language’s nouns into groups, often with different agreement patterns on related adjectives, pronouns, verbs, and even prepositions. (Example from French: the grammatically feminine Rose (as a name) takes a feminine agreement on its adjectives, so “Rose is mean” would be Rose[+feminine] est méchante[+feminine].) French is pretty tame about agreement; some Bantu languages have up to 16 noun classes and they have to agree their noun classes on pretty much everything else in the sentence (including prepositions). Are you still whining about French?

Sometimes noun classes are logically connected to some idea; for example, in Tshiluba (a Bantu language of the Congo) there’s a noun class that means the noun in question is small. Some nouns are always in this class (like peanuts) and other nouns can be taken from their normal class and made small by marking them with the ‘small’ class. But then again, others classes can be completely arbitrary, and nouns inside the classes might have nothing at all in common.

Alright, I can hear you saying (those of you who have indulged me this far), maybe I can see the logically-connected-to-meaning noun classes being useful to humans, what with our tendency to classify and analyze the world around us. But what about the systems with no apparent motivation (like French)?

Well, there’s one problem we face when trying to figure this out: lazy scientists still haven’t invented time travel.² You see, a lot of these noun class/gender distinctions go back to before the historical record began. Even the historically-reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language (the ancestor of languages as distantly-related as Hindi, Farsi, Greek, Lithuanian, French, and English, to name a few) is believed to have made a noun class distinction. According to some researchers (sources 1 [warning: PDF], 2, 3), this was probably a distinction between animate (usually this is a class including humans and other animals capable of movement) and inanimate nouns (plants and other things). Hey, look at that: it started out as a non-arbitrary, motivated distinction. So what happened? Later, a lot of Indo-European languages for which we have historical records can be seen to have three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter (many languages still have this, e.g. German). The neuter gender is close to what they think used to be the inanimate class, while the animate class split off into masculine and feminine by analogy to natural gender.

All that basically goes to say that, as time goes on, languages change and split off into multiple languages, and then those languages change, and so on. English used to have grammatical gender, but gave up on it sometime between the 12th and 15th century (good for us, right?). What probably began as a motivated distinction underwent changes that removed the original meaning of the distinction. By this view, grammatical gender in French and related languages is essentially like human vestigial parts such as the appendix: it used to serve a purpose, but no longer does; the organism (/language) keeps it because it gets passed on from parent to child. This may come as a surprise to you, but no one really cares about adult language learners; you just have to deal with all the irregularities and weirdness. Crying about it takes up valuable memorization time, unless you manage to look at your flash cards through the tears.

This brings me to a final point, going back to the idea of cognitive cost. One argument against keeping no-longer-functional noun classes is that it takes effort to learn and use these forms. But here’s the thing: child language learners don’t care. They seriously do not care. English has hundreds of irregular verbs, but by they time they hit puberty, cognitively normal native English speakers have no problem with them. Or how about the fact that something like 80% of Arabic nouns have an irregular plural form? No problem for a human child. They start to figure this stuff out while they’re still pooping in their pants. Given that capacity, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal for a kid to classify every noun in their language by two, three, or 16 different classes. It’s a relatively small task in the grand scheme of acquiring a human language.

Now stop complaining.

 

¹Seriously, if you are actually willing to engage me in a conversation about this stuff, I will love you forever. That can be platonic or romantic; just let me know.

²I’m kidding, scientists, you’re not all lazy. But you guys could probably pick up the pace a bit, don’t you think?

Learn French like it’s 1904

What was it like to learn French as a child in 1904? Strange. That’s what.

conversation

La conversation des enfants, published in 1904 by a Monsieur P. DuCroquet, normally serves as a decorative prop in my house. But nearly 110 years ago it was the desk copy at Finch School (wherever that is). The book contains a series of lessons meant to teach children French. The first page has an alphabet…

abc

…then after that, it’s down the rabbit hole of the absurd. Each lesson has a model conversation lumped together in one paragraph, and then questions based on the conversation. Imagine the following:

Did you bring your book? Yes, Ma’am, I brought my book. Did you bring your notebook? No, Ma’am, I forgot my notebook and my quill pen. Bring me your book. Here is my book. Now, bring me your paper and pencil. Give me some cake and milk. Take some cake and chocolate to your mother. Bring her your book. Did you give chocolate to Marie? Yes, I gave chocolate and milk to Marie. I forgot my lunch, but I brought some candy.

[Avez-vous apporté votre livre? Oui, Madame, j’ai apporté mon livre. Avez-vous apporté votre cahier? Non, Madame, j’ai oublié mon cahier et ma plume. Apportez-moi votre livre. Voici mon livre. Maintenant, apportez-moi votre crayon et du papier. Donnez-moi du gâteau et du lait. Portez du gâteau et du chocolat à votre maman. Portez-lui votre livre. Avez-vous donné du chocolat à Marie? Oui, j’ai donné du chocolat et du lait à Marie. J’ai oublié mon lunch, mais j’ai apporté du [sic] bonbon.]

What. The. French?! Seriously. What’s with the gluttonous schoolmarm? Give me milk and cake little child! bwahaha!

And here are the questions that follow (I won’t bother translating them into English):

Avez-vous apporté votre livre? Avez-vous apporté du papier? Avez-vous caché mon livre? Avez-vous caché mon crayon? Savez-vous votre leçon? Savez-vous compter? Voulez-vous compter? Voulez-vous donner du gâteau à Henri? Voulez-vous porter mon livre à Madame? Avez-vous oublié votre cahier?

This all reminds me of Eugène Ionesco‘s absurdist play Exercices de conversation et de diction française pour étudiants américains in which children have conversations related to various principles of grammar. Here’s what Ionesco said about the origins of that play:

A friend, a French professor in the USA, had asked me to write some dialogues or monologues to illustrate the conditional “if” (si), or the imperfect subjunctive. I remembered the Assimil method that had not succeeded in helping me learn English. Perhaps with these dialogues and monologues, neither will Americans learn to speak French.

[Un ami, professeur de français aux USA, m’avait commandé d’écrire des dialogues ou des monologues pour illustrer le “si” conditionnel, ou l’imparfait du subjonctif. Je me suis souvenu de la méthode Assimil qui n’avait pas réussi à m’apprendre l’anglais. Peut-être qu’avec ces dialogues et ces monologues, les américains n’apprendront-ils pas, eux non plus, le français.]

A brief excerpt from Ionesco’s Exercices will show you that not much adaptation is required to turn old grammar books into theater of the absurd:

Philippe: Bonjour, messieurs; bonjour, mesdemoiselles. Vous ne répondez pas? On ne répond pas. Pourquoi ne répondez-vous pas? Répondez donc. Oh, il est trop tôt, les élèves ne sont pas encore là. Tiens, j’entends leurs pas dans le couloir. Ils arrivent. Ils sont là. Ouvrez la porte. Entrez. Fermez la porte. Avancez. Asseyez-vous. Silence. Je fais l’appel: Jean Marie.

Jean-Marie: Présent.

Philippe: Dites-moi, Jean-Marie, comment vous appelez-vous?

Jean-Marie: Je m’appelle Jean-Marie.

Philippe: C’est juste. Vous me comprenez. Vous êtes un garçon intelligent. Marie-Jeanne.

Marie-Jeanne: Présente.

Philippe: Dites-moi, Marie-Jeanne, comment vous appelez-vous?

Marie-Jeanne: Je m’appelle Jean-Marie.

Philippe: Vous ne comprenez pas. C’est faux. Vous vous trompez. Attention, Marie-Jeanne: dites-moi comment vous appelez-vous?

Marie-Jeanne: Je m’appelle Marie-Jeanne.

Philippe: C’est mieux. Ne vous trompez plus. Cela suffit pour aujourd’hui. Levez-vous. Sortez. Allez manger.

(from vol. 5 of Gallimard’s Théâtre, Ionesco, 263-264; read loads of scholarly articles about Ionesco at Lingua Romana)

And now back to our book from 1904:

What time is it? It’s 12:30; it’s not yet time to go play. We must speak French; we must pay attention. Jeanne, are you paying attention? Yes, Ma’am, I have understood everything you said. Well, then, tell me, what did I say? You said we must pay attention. What day is it today? It’s Wednesday. Why didn’t your cousin come to school today? Because she’s sick. What’s wrong with her? She has a sore throat. How many days are there in a month? There are thirty or thirty-one days. In what month were you born? What day of the month is it?

[Quelle heure est-il? Il est midi et demi; il n’est pas encore l’heure d’aller jouer. Il faut parler français; il faut faire attention. Jeanne, faites-vous attention? Oui, Madame, j’ai compris tout ce que vous avez dit. Eh bien, dites-moi, qu’est-ce que j’ai dit? Vous avez dit qu’il faut faire attention. Quel jour est-ce aujourd’hui? C’est mercredi. Pourquoi votre cousine n’est-elle pas venue à l’école aujourd’hui? Parce qu’elle est malade. Qu’est-ce qu’elle a? Elle a mal à la gorge. Combien de jours y a-t-il dans un mois? Il y a trente ou trente et un jours. Dans quel mois êtes-vous née? Quel jour sommes-nous?]

That Jeanne better watch out. One slip-up and Madame will have her throat—speaking of which…why the obsession with Jeanne’s cousin? Is there more going on here? Is her “sore throat” a euphemism? Is there subtext to asking how many days are in a month right after the interrogation about the cousin’s mysterious absence? Has Madame noticed that the cousin is two weeks late? Is she mapping out her students’ menstrual cycles? I wouldn’t put it past her. She’s creepy that way.

French grammar 1904-style is twisted, but hey! in What The French?! we embrace the absurd. Consciously.

Let’s end our trip back in time with a pretty butterfly and nonsensical days-of-the-week poem:

lesjours

The rumors aren’t true: The French language

I believe it was Rousseau who wrote that the French language was logical and rational (but I can’t find the quote right now- anyone want to do that for me?) at a time when logic and rationality were very fashionable. Learners of French prepositions and personal pronouns (among many other concepts) would beg to differ. Common complaints list the irregularity of forms and spellings, the verbal system, and grammatical concepts that don’t exist in English. So which is it: is French the language of enlightenment and reason, or is it a chaotic mess of nonsense designed to ruin your life?

I’m going to spoil the anticipation and tell you that it’s neither. What you need to understand is that French is just another human language; it’s not particularly special or unique in any way, either in its features or its history. In fact, when compared with languages like Navajo or Arabic, French practically looks like “English with a silly accent”. Or vice-versa.

exceptional

Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss dude who wrote in French, influenced the field of modern linguistics a ton. One of his best-known and most thoroughly-debated ideas is l’arbitraire du signe (the arbitrariness of the sign). To put it simple, this idea states that, for example, there is nothing naturally dog-like about the word ‘dog’, or chien, or كلب or any word you like that means dog. It’s just sounds which, by the unspoken agreement of speakers of a language, symbolizes the real-world creature which we call ‘dog’ in English.

So there’s nothing logical about most words. How about stringing them together into grammatical sentences? I hate to break it to you, but this is another area in which things appear to be pretty arbitrary. Take the idea of basic sentence order: different languages use different orders for subjects (S), objects (O), and verbs (V). SOV / SVO / VSO / VOS / OSV / OVS— all of these are possible orders for the basic parts of a sentence. There’s nothing more or less logical about any of the possible orders.

OK, so if vocabulary and grammar are arbitrary, what does that say about logic vs. chaos? In relative terms, languages are more or less equal in their chaos. In absolute terms, yeah, they’re all crazy and weird, but in different ways. If languages weren’t adequate for their speakers, they (the speakers) would either change them or pick a different language.

That doesn’t mean that all languages are equally hard to learn. But the biggest factor that changes how hard they are is the language you’re coming from, and how similar or different it is to/from the language you’re trying to learn. English to French? Not so bad, because they have a lot of vocabulary, grammar, and history in common. English to Tshiluba? (That’s a real language, spoken in the Congo, by the way) They’re two unrelated languages with very little history in common. The grammar and vocabulary are very different, and so it’s going to be a bit tougher.

Now you know: everyone is wrong. French isn’t logical, and it isn’t a total mess. Like pretty much all human languages, it does what it needs to do for its speakers. It does OK.

Chartopia: 5 Nineteenth-Century French Grammar Charts

In What The French?!,  we have an appendix called “PTK’s Chartopia” (PTK=Pretentious Technicality Kid, a recurring character in our grammar review book)—a land full of nothing but charts, for people who are into that sort of thing. Charts probably put most readers to sleep (myself included), but they can also be useful, and sometimes even beautiful. Here are five examples excavated from the massive Gallica online collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France:

Titre : Paradigm or model on which all French regular verbs are conjugated, thereby reducing the numerous conjugations and exceptions, has hitherto given in every French-english grammar, to only one conjugation... by M. H. Chauvier,...1850

Titre : Paradigm or model on which all French regular verbs are conjugated, thereby reducing the numerous conjugations and exceptions, has hitherto given in every French-english grammar, to only one conjugation… by M. H. Chauvier,…1850

I don’t know who colored this verb chart, but I love it.

Abécédaire français, ou leçons tirées de l'histoire de France... Seconde édition...

Abécédaire français, ou leçons tirées de l’histoire de France… Seconde édition…

This book goes from individual letters, to the alphabet, to syllables, to words, and so on.

Jean-Baptiste Say. Papiers. III Grammaire et reliquat littéraire. 1701-1900

Jean-Baptiste Say. Papiers. III Grammaire et reliquat littéraire. 1701-1900

Individual manuscript pages from 1701-1900 are grouped into this book. I never knew that personal pronouns could look so elegant.

Tableaux synoptiques des deux parties de la grammaire française...

Tableaux synoptiques des deux parties de la grammaire française…

hmmm. could somebody please get out the watercolors?

How to learn the genders of fourteen thousand five hundred French nouns in ten minutes ! by professor Fairchild... Third edition, 1866

How to learn the genders of fourteen thousand five hundred French nouns in ten minutes ! by professor Fairchild… Third edition, 1866

From a short pamphlet that promises to teach you the gender of 14,500 French nouns in 10 minutes. All I have to say is “What the French?!”

 

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