07 January 2008

Things to love (and love to hate) about the French language

It is very empowering to be able to speak and understand another language, especially one that has been fervently arguing itself “the most beautiful language in the world” since at least the sixteenth century (see “Defense and Illustration of the French Language,” DuBellay, 1549). Sure, in some areas, French falls desperately short of English: just look at any bilingual dictionary and you’ll see that the English-to-French section is thicker thanks to English’ broader vocabulary (half of which was borrowed from French during the three-hundred-year Norman [northern French] rule in England). In French, you can’t “storm out,” “speed away,” or “tiptoe around,” only “leave like a storm,” “move away quickly,” and “walk on tiptoes.” Nevertheless, I like French: not in a self-justifying way because I’ve put so many years into studying it, and not in a rose-colored way because I’m speaking a “romance” language (a silly English mix-up of the adjectives that describe love stories and also things stemming from a Roman or Latin base). In fact, I don’t just like French; I revel in it, in all its exactness and absurdity. Here are a few cases of both:

Pronominal reprise

French is maddeningly and wonderfully repetitive. Grammarians try to give the impression that every upstanding French Academy-trained citizen over the age of six moves onto the most succinct and efficient forms of linguistic exchange; after all, French is the world’s most beautiful language. But I am just as likely to find “baby talk” like Elle est où, la mer? “It is where, the sea?” coming from the mouth of a six-year old, a fellow university student, and my host mother. But let’s not be prescriptivists here, judging good grammar from bad and rapping knuckles for improperly-conjugated verbs. Asking a question in English can be unbelievably cumbersome, and it’s a wonder any of us can correctly use the word “do”: Do you have a pen? When do you think I could borrow it? A miracle of linguistic acrobatics, and quite unnecessary when a rising inflection (when speaking) or a question mark (when writing) confer the same meaning to a declarative sentence (a statement). Thus, the statement You have a pen becomes the question You have a pen? without messing around with “do” or inversion (placing the verb before the subject, as in Have you a pen?). In French, not only is it perfectly acceptable to change your statement into a question simply by changing your tone at the end of the sentence, it is also possible to just repeat yourself.

Il est où, mon stylo? It is where, my pen?

Ton stylo, ça je l’ai vu là-bas. Your pen, that I saw it over there.

Tu es sûr que c’étais mon stylo à moi ? You’re sure that it was my pen of mine?

And yes, when you respond, you even have the opportunity to refer to the same thing three times. The first time, you identify it by calling it what it actually is ton stylo. Then you insert randomly (you really have to have an ear for it) the pronoun ça, which means “this/that” but is used mostly as a filler word. Then you confirm what you’re referring to by using the pronoun le (l’ before a vowel) as a direct object: “I saw the pen,” “I saw it.” Whenever you use this structure, you are being about as inefficient with your words as possible and managing to avoid any sticky linguistic rules. Bravo! Then, just to be sure we’re referring to the same pen, the pen that belongs to me, I reemphasize my ownership of it. I saw this used quite a bit during the student rallies in “Our university of ours!” I don’t know when this ingenious technique came about in the French language, or what the prescriptivist linguists thought of it, but I guess if you can’t beat it, name it: and thus was born the reprise pronominale.

Impersonal expressions: Il faut and universal law

Although language students will never cease to complain about and probably will never completely conquer the subjunctive tense, it is inexplicably useful when preceded by the expression “Il faut.” The subjunctive is just a different way of conjugating every single verb to convey a notion of doubt, obligation, and other things too complicated for my purposes here. We don’t use it very often in English, except to say things like “If I were a butterfly…” when normally we would say “In a former life, I was a butterfly.” Regardless, the expression “Il faut…” in French means someone like “one must,” but implicating a God-given way something “must be done” without outright implicating the person who must do it this way. So if I say Boire, conduire; il faut choisir “Drink, drive; one must choose,” I sort of imply that if the choice is not made, the world stops turning. One cannot proceed without choosing. And yet I say it without specifying that I am the one that must choose, nor am I the one imposing the choice. I’m just describing a fundamental law of the universe, something French-speakers do without so much as shrugging their shoulders. If I do decide to specify that I am, at a particular moment, the object of concentration of a universal law, and say something like Il faut que je parte (and here comes into play the subjunctive tense) “One must that I leave/I must leave,” I manage to convey the absolute necessity of my depart while sloughing off the responsibility for leaving. Who am I to argue with universal law? It’s a convenient way to avoid stating how one actually feels about leaving, regretful or otherwise.

Reflexivizing any verb I darn well please

Okay, so “to reflexivize” is a word I just made up, which is ridiculously easy to do in English. It refers to the group of verbs called “reflexive” in French that one automatically uses for expressions that involve oneself, including body parts. For example, “to brush my teeth” or “to wonder” are actually me laver les dents and me demander, “to brush myself the teeth” and “to ask myself.” I haven’t quite gotten the logic of not being able to call the hair on my head “my hair” and reflexivizing a normal verb screws up everything you thought you knew about it’s past tense form…but it has its upsides. On top of this “Il faut” ability to express judgment without in any way implicating oneself, but by referring to a God-given way it “must be done,” French also allows the speaker to impart rules of propriety without involving oneself or reverting to passive constructions (example: “The cat eats the mouse” is direct, forceful, and does not use the verb “to be,” an overused verb and thus weak in meaning, like in the sentence, “The mouse is eaten by the cat.” This passive construction degenerates even further when the acting agent is unknown, which is most of the time, resulting in “The mouse is eaten.” Doesn’t “degenerates even further” sound much better than “is made even worse”?). In English, we have no choice but to say either, “One eats chocolate croissants at breakfast,” or, “Chocolate croissants are eaten at breakfast.” Even worse, the impersonal “one” is falling out of use and sounds quite “hoity-toity” in today’s English, which leaves us with the statement, “You eat chocolate croissants at breakfast.” In French, I can just take the verb “to eat,” make it reflexive (like “to ask oneself” or “to shower oneself”), and voilà! the pat expression Les pains au chocolat se mangent pour le petit déjeuner “Chocolate croissants eat themselves for breakfast.” You can do similar magic with the verbs dire “to say, That says itself often,” faire “to do/make, That does not do itself like that,” and acheter “to buy, These often buy themselves around Christmastime.” Once you accept that you don’t really mean what you are actually saying, you start to realize the creative process of reflexivizing verbs and telling people (again) the God-given way things “are often done.”

What do all these words have in common?

suis es est sommes êtes sont

été étant

étais était étions étiez étaient

fus fut fumes fûtes furent

serai seras sera serons serez seront

sois soit soyons soyez soient

serais serait serions seriez seraient

The miracle of French: all these words are just different forms of the verb être, “to be.”

Copied from a page of the Bescherelle verb conjugation pocketbook, a priceless commodity for any French student or student of French. Note: several forms, for reasons too complicated to explain, have been left out.

English’ saving grace: ambiguity

Not that I feel any need to defend my native tongue, but these days it feels almost positively secretive to speak English. If can say “a friend” without specifying gender; use any adjective I please without making it agree in gender and number with the noun it modifies; start a sentence with a verb like “wish you could come” without giving away exactly who wishes it, since verb conjugation doesn’t change between I, we, and they. Plenty of grammatical nuances make English more complicated (in French Il pleut means both “It rains” and “It is raining”), but at times it can be blissfully ambiguous.

Why can’t I say “to can”?

A linguistic riddle for you to ponder:

I can, you can, he/she can, we can, they can but

I will be able… and to be able…

Hmm. Tell me if you find a linguistic study on that one.

Cheerio (an outdated British farewell as well as a type of cereal...oh language!)

1 comment:

Nico said...

I prefer Spanish.