Good Moaning - trying to make sense of the French language


The struggles and frustrations of an Englishman, living in FranceGood Moaning… The struggles and frustrations of an Englishman, living in France, trying to make sense of the French language and at least getting things off his chest, if nothing else…

"I suppose that having never had any formal education in French at school puts me at an immediate disadvantage. When I first came to live in France some years ago I was optimistic. I'd progressed well in my night classes in England embarking on the course at (hey!) level 2. Someone had said that if one has a musical ear (which I do), that can be an asset when learning another language.
I had sailed through the Michel Thomas CD set (very helpful initially) and was full of confidence that I would be fluent in, what, a year or so? I think it is referred to, in language schools, as "total immersion" or perhaps, earning by osmosis… As it turned out I didn't.

So, what went wrong?

The French and some fluent English tell me that French is so beautiful, descriptive and poetic when compared to English. Oh really? Well here are some points that I'd like to take issue with on that score:

What can you say about a lingo that doesn't differentiate or distinguish between "to make" and "to do" Faire? Make do, I suppose-(Ha!) Or the word: De…(both "from…" and "of..."). To most English, this is just so indefinable.
How about the word Gagner which means both "to win" and "to earn" (money). Surely winning is down to pure luck whereas earning involves a little effort, no?
Here's something that I always find a little tricky; toujours and encore. The second word every concert goer must be familiar with; it's what the audience shouts when showing their appreciation of the performance but it not only means "more" or "again" or even "repeat!" It can also mean "still" as in "Are you still with me?" (I sincerely hope so). Toujours can also at times mean "still" but (and this is confusing) it can mean "always" If this isn't baffling, I don't know what is.

Conversely, another example of this ambiguity is the word Que (as, than, that, what etc.), depending on the context. As a result my French girlfriend will come out with a sentence in English like: "I will be there as the same time than you." And even more, it can also be used as 'only', e.g. 'que toi' for 'only you'. Bizarre.

Here's another: Personne or "someone", can also mean "no one"…sometimes… don't even go there!

Spitting the infinitive: (no, that's not a typo). I refer to the French infinitive verb.
We lucky English have just one way to express our infinitives. To … (as in: to cry, to sleep, to shout, to split or to spit and so on). But those cunning French academics arrived at not two but three ways of saying the "doing" word. And the differentials come after the verb making the approach to the sentence construction as wobbly as a game of Jenga during an earthquake. Not only that but, you've guessed it, these three little buggers are affected by whether you're being familiar or polite (more of that later) and the spelling changes depending on the subject i.e. you, I, they, we… it really is enough to make you spit.

Another very difficult thing to get one's head around for example are the French words for two complete opposites. I refer to "underneath" and "on top" (dessous and dessus) the difference in pronunciation being so subtle as to be practically non-existent. The former is said like: "…soo" and the latter like "…seeooh" I believe. Surely this could be open to some misinterpretation amongst the hard-of-hearing, no?
Time to mention the French bizarre numbering system. Everything seems fairly straightforward until we get past sixty nine or soixante-neuf (no sniggering at the back please). Then, instead of seventy we have to say sixty ten, then sixty ten and one, sixty ten two and so on. But wait, it gets even worse when we arrive at eighty.

Then we have to say four twenty, four twenty and one, four twenty two etc. and then, lo and behold, the nineties are said like this: four twenty ten, four twenty eleven etc. I mean, how laborious and confusing is all that?
Even the French speaking Belgiums opt for a more sensible approach to this subject i.e. 70 (septante), 80 (huitante).

Now we come to the masculine/feminine situation. Apparently, some centuries ago, the very learned Académie Français got together and decided that their beloved language, although very beautiful and poetic, just wasn't complicated enough. I imagine the discussion went thus:
"What can we do to make it really difficult for foreigners (The English) to communicate with us?"
"Why don't we make some nouns male and some female!" offered one nefarious professor.
What a brilliant idea they all decided.
"But how do we decide which is which?" enquired another.
"It doesn't matter! In that way it makes the code even more indecipherable to the stupid 'Rostbifs'."
"Yes, in fact we could make certain things, say, the day or the year to change sex at some inexplicable point in time and for no logical reason!"
"Pure genius!" they unanimously agreed.

Not only is this concept incredibly strange for us poor simple English to get used to but it is compounded by another example of how the structure of the sentence is grammatically and dramatically affected by the male/female criteria as is also the distinction between whether the person you're speaking with is a stranger or a friend i.e vous or tu and so it goes on.
Okay, I do concede that we Brits do refer to our cars and boats or houses as 'her' but this exception is generally considered more a term of endearment.

During a conversation with some English visitor friends, we were discussing among other things, how the French plural "s" is hardly ever verbalised at which point my friend's 11 year old son remarked with a wry smile:" Seems to me like an incredible waste of ink..."

Having said all this, when you start delving into another language, the more you discover the more complex it seems. A bit like understanding Quantum Theory but much more difficult although during all this, some of the absurdities of English become very apparent. It brings your attention to certain idiosyncrasies of spelling and the French student will be baffled by words like: through, trough, bough, thought, drought etc. words that we take for granted. At least with French the grouping of vowels are, in general, consistent.

Also I will quote roughly, if I may, from William Styron's novel Sophie's Choice on one of the oddities of the English infinitive verb, "… you could say, causing me to bloom like a rose or making me bloom like a rose… in English there's no hard and fast rule." I'd never actually considered that before.

My critics on this subject tell me that I'm trying to translate everything literally into English but this is not strictly true. What I'm trying to do is to understand how these two quite similar tongues in certain ways can be so diverse and perverse in others.

What concerns me sometimes is that anyone in my disadvantaged position is tantamount to being the equivalent of a three-year-old or worse, which has made me determined to dig out that Linguaphone course and get down to some formal study of this infuriating (and of course beautiful) language instead of moaning good about it… Bonne chance!"

About the author

Kim van Hoorn started out as a graphic designer back in the seventies designing, among other things, record sleeves for the music industry in London before setting up on his own in the provinces. At this time he also produced work for a company of chartered surveyors which is how he became more interested in drawing buildings. He now lives in SW France where he continues to draw and write (and study French). For more details about his work please visit his website at: http://www.penandinkdrawings.org/


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Good Moaning - trying to make sense of the French language
Good Moaning… The struggles and frustrations of an Englishman, living in France, trying to make sense of the French language and at least getting things off his chest, if...

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