France wants girls with short skirts

Feel free to listen to this blast from the past while you consider that France, too, has its fair share of idiotic racism. You may have read in The New York Times that a 15-year-old girl was sent home from school twice recently because the principal thought her skirt wasn’t short enough. That’s right, long skirts are offensive.

short skirt

The scandal of the long skirt is not because the principal is a creeper who must ogle all the legs (although, who knows?), it’s a religious thing. Or rather, an anti-religious thing. French phrase of the day: signe religieux ostentatoire. In English, “ostentatious sign of religion.”  Adjective of the day: laïque (secular).

This isn’t some post- 9/11 Islamophobia. Nope, it goes back to 1989 (or to the decolonization, or Medieval crusades, or…). Known as the “affaire du voile” (sometimes “affaire du foulard”), the French allergy to Muslim sartorial choices (or lack thereof) is, believe it or not, is meant as a sign of good will. Baring is caring.

Liberty's hemline

The rationale goes like this: France had to put up with a thousand years of Catholicism and monarchy, so when the Revolutionaries tried so famously to undo those things (my personal favorite attempt at secularization was their attempt to reset the calendar create metric-system 10-day weeks. Because, hey, the weekend just comes around too fast, doesn’t it?) they embraced (at least in theory) secularism (la laïcité) as a great emancipator. Think of it as freedom from religion. Not that you couldn’t be religious, but that’s your private business. The separation of Church and State didn’t become law until 1905 (just read the Wikipedia page if you want to know more about it, ’cause I’m about to finish this post), and the debates about the two are ongoing (just like they are in the USA).

There is a perverse logic to the French concept of laïcité (seriously, learn that word and throw it around like you write for The New Yorker): if public institutions act like nobody is religious, then nobody can be discriminated against. No, wait, that’s not it. If public institutions ban ostentatious religious displays then we won’t have to endure new iterations of 1980s Madonna “material girl” Jean-Paul Gaultier and ginormous crucifix fashion. No, wait. If we can make Muslim women look less Islamic then the world will have less terrorism. No, that’s not it. I know there are valid points somewhere to be made for 2004 law against headscarves (and other ostentatious religious symbols, whatever that means) Somewhere in there lies a brand of egalitarianism, it’s just really, really hard to find when you read stories like this.

Maybe there are some intelligent comments in the Obs French article about it. Peruse away. Reading comments sections of French posts is a win-win: French language practice + a daily dose of pessimism to make you just a tad more French.

A France that never was

I mostly get my news of France second-hand, from South Pacific sources (and in Polynesian languages instead of French), but as you may have heard, there was some sort of election over there, and the results have some people (mostly the ones who didn’t get as many votes) talking of “full-frontal shock” and an “earthquake”: Le Front National‘s far-right platform (some call it extremist) won an important victory, mostly with votes from the parts of France that aren’t Paris (which is a dichotomy some French people are very quick to point out, it seems).

Well, I’m not in a position to evaluate Le Front National‘s policies or goals, but when their detractors call them racist and fascist, it sends me on a pleasant mental side-track where I’m no longer bound by recent history or the current states of affairs: I think about alternate history, about a France that never was.

Alternate history, if you weren’t aware, frequently begins with an event on our timeline and asks, “What if this had happened differently?” It can be a huge event, like a natural disaster, or a tiny one, like Winston Churchill running too low on booze right before an important speech and just not quite nailing the flow of it. Sometimes, changes like these can ripple out very far in a hypothetical timeline.

So let’s take France, for instance. I’ll include a set of footnotes linking you to sites and forums where nerds are arguing about this stuff with a great deal more historical knowledge than I have, but I’ll provide only the sketchiest outlines of some of the hypothetical timelines I’ve read about:

OK, so imagine we’re in the late 1860s. The Second Empire is pretty awesome, people are psyched to have an emperor and stuff, and unlike in our original timeline (we’ll abbreviate that as OT), the Bonaparte family doesn’t irritate its more republic-minded citizens too badly, there’s much less moaning and groaning, and when Otto VanWhat’sHisStache in Prussia starts rattling pots and pans to freak everyone out, France doesn’t totally freak out, at least not right away. They wait to declare war until they’re good and ready, meanwhile temporarily losing a little territory in the north but then pulling a third-quarter comeback to kick Prussian troops back out and send them home to do whatever Prussians do at home. The Empire doesn’t fall, and there’s no third republic.

Well, what then? Some have called Bonapartist ideas “proto-fascist”, and I could maybe see a fascist France ending the nineteenth century with an even greater emphasis on military might, colonialism, and trains running on time than the OT third republic did. Education might involve a little more training on loyalty to the State, but you better believe it’ll be compulsory and compulsorily public. The artistic achievements of the OT France could still flourish, though again, perhaps with a little more patronage from the State and a reflected focus on state-approved messages.

As for what happens when the imperialist tensions, network of loyalties and pent-up aspirations explode in the Balkans in June of 1914, I’m not at all qualified to say. Does an Imperial France side with the central powers, form a triple entente, or try to sit this one out?

One of the challenges of alternate history is trying to predict beyond the immediate results of a historical timeline deviation, what with all the butterflies flapping their wings all over the place and changing everything up. Could a fascist France have arisen in a later branching off of the OT, for example after a hypothetical Austro-Hungarian-German-Ottoman victory in WWI? Or a Vichy regime that beats Charles de Gaulle and the Free French forces and continues to chill with a hypothetically victorious Third Reich next door?

At any rate, no matter how much some may be upset at recent elections, we probably won’t see a fascist France anytime soon.

If you could change French history at one point on our timeline, what would you change and why? Your reasons don’t have to be charitable; you could just want to poke at the anthill.

Some links:

250 ways to prepare eggs


250 manières pour apprêter les oeufs, suivies de quelques recettes inédites de cuisine, 1898

On ne fait pas d’omelette sans casses des oeufs.

You know the saying “You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs”? Well, it is supposedly French in origin and emerged as a saying somewhere during the mid-nineteenth century, which is no surprise given the unprecedented level of egg breaking that was no doubt happening in France.

The author, Monsieur Ferdinand Grandi, parrots famed epicurean Brillat-Savarin in support of his obsession:

La découverte d’un mets nouveau fait plus pour le bonheur du genre humain que la découverte d’une étoile.


(The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of the human race than the discovery of a star). That was his way of saying “Bite me, astronomers—chefs rule.”  So, I guess Monsieur Grandi was a sort of culinary Galileo when it came to making eggs. It’s not surprising, coming from a guy who wrote an entire book on the art of folding napkins. He also dabbled in food-themed poetry. In 1893, he wrote a book about 130 ways to prepare eggs, but clearly that wouldn’t do. Especially after another author wrote a book with 200 ways to prepare eggs. Now, Grandi could hold bragging rights to being top dog among the three authors of books dedicated solely to eggs.

Grandi’s  preface ends with the bold declaration that he would quit cooking if eggs were ever banned. um…ok.



A treatise that includes everything from his thoughts on Darwin to commentary on the arts is well worth a read. You could be the most pedantic guest at your next cocktail party.

Or, if you just want to stay at home, stopping first, perhaps, at Walmart or Costco to pick up a few dozen eggs, you could try your hand at
Rissoles à la Pygmalion, Oeufs à la Olga, or any of the 248 other recipes.



Need to do a “cultural activity” for your French class? Read through the book and pick out a recipe or two. You’ll be making meals that Grandi once made for the “King of the Truffle,” Prince Demidov.

Bon appétit!

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.

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.


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…


…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:


Crazy French Ideas: Creating an inland sea

The 1800s were kind of a big deal for France. The country burned through governments like a chain smoker through cigarettes. France was a colonial power to be reckoned with, and new means of transportation meant the colonies were much better connected to la patrie. To many of the thinkers and doers of the time, it seemed as though France could accomplish whatever it set its mind to.

Take Ferdinand de Lesseps.

Ferdinand de Lesseps.jpg

This is the guy who brought the world the Suez Canal, allowing ships to travel from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea (saving ships the trouble of going around all of Africa to get from Europe to Asia). This was a huge project; when first completed, the canal was “164 km (102 mi) long and 8 m (26 ft) deep” (Source), all done without the benefit of modern machinery (but with the benefit of forced labor, which France was totally into at the time).

“It’s like playing in a sandbox, but if you stop, they shoot you.”

With this impressive point on his résumé, de Lesseps felt more than up to the task of what is today the Panama Canal. Unfortunately for him, the climate there did not cooperate. Malaria and yellow fever were problematic for workers, and then there was the (not unheard of in French circles) problem of corruption. It wasn’t until the US bought the project that it was completed, partially thanks to Theodore “Skullcrusher” Roosevelt throwing a stern look in Panama’s direction.

T Roosevelt.jpg

“Try and stop me, Panama. I dare you. I double dare you.”

OK, but the real kicker is that the Panama Canal was not even close to the craziest project de Lesseps had his eye on. That distinction belongs to the idea, originally from Élie Roudaire (also French, if you hadn’t guessed) that part of the Sahara could become an inland sea, with a little help from France.

inlandsea1The idea was that Algeria and Tunisia had large areas that were well below sea level, and all it would really take to fill them up would be to build some short canals from the Mediterranean and then let the water do its thing. Not too hard, right? Well, not really. The problem was in convincing people that it should be done, not that it could. At the time, that meant asking the question, “What would that do for France?”

Some of the arguments for the project were that it would change the desert climate to something more hospitable (and, according to the thinking of the day, improve the chances of “civilizing” the natives) and make it easier for France to exercise control over the area. Probably the most appealing reason to people like Roudaire and de Lesseps, though, was that changing the world was just what French people did.

Ultimately, the expeditions sent to figure out the feasibility of the project ran into trouble, and the money to begin the project never came through.

Personally, though, I think that’s what the Sheikhs should do with all their oil money. Transform the Sahara into a mini-Mediterranean, and show the French just what they were missing out on.

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