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Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Etre chic


Off and on since 1972 I've "done French". Why?

We spend most holidays in France. Speaking French (purposefully) gives me a buzz. I profit from the self-imposed discipline. I'm reminded how language works. Elitism; snobbery.

After 15 years here in Hereford the pattern is fixed. During the week I prepare about ten pages of a worthwhile novel (presently Delphine de la Vigan's Rien ne s'oppose à la nuit; note the preparatory scribble in the pic). In front of Pat, a retired languages teacher with huge reserves of patience, Beryl and I read alternate passages aloud to improve our pronunciation and then translate them as exactly as we can. We're all of an age.

After all that time you might expect I'd be word-perfect. Rather the reverse. My deteriorating memory will quite soon drive French into that black hole down which ski-ing and swimming disappeared.

But there's another problem. The complete French vocabulary is smaller than that for English (viz. 1039 vs. 1149 pages in the Collins-Robert shown). The French often modify existing words rather than create new ones, not always logically. Attendre means to wait, s'attendre (the reflexive) means to expect. Even worse, there's vouloir (to want to) and en vouloir (to have a grudge).

Such small differences tend not to stick with me.

Not that I'm complaining. If French were easier I'd be denied my snobbism. Remember the Pharisee: I thank thee, O Lord that Thou hath not made me as other men.

Which raises an interesting religio-philosophic point... 

4 comments:

Lucy said...

And 'vouloir dire' is 'to mean'. I wouldn't mind your French class, it would make me read more than I do currently. In my French/English dictionary the French section is much bigger than the English, which makes me wonder what's going on.

If you want to bugger up a social occasion involving French people try getting onto the subject of the untranslatability of the word/concept 'communitarianisme'. I did and forgot to make the coffee, so was doubly damned.

Roderick Robinson said...

Lucy: Re. your dictionary have you discounted pages devoted to grammar and irregular verbs? Google says the ratio is roughly 100,000 (F) vs 250,000 (E). Anecdotally I've noticed many so-called translations to the French ending up as definitions rather than single words. Very disappointing.

Rouchswalwe said...

Just this afternoon, I learned how to say Abonnement with a German accent.

Roderick Robinson said...

RW (sZ): Surely this must have arrived as if to the manor born. I mean, who's to argue with you? Far far harder to duplicate the French way - all to do with cadence and knowing which syllable to stress. Never, never anything as simple as emphasising the first.

Anyway, now all you have to do is find someone you can practice on. Taking things a stage further finding someone who appreciates the Shakespearean meaning of practice, the verb - to deceive, to tease or a combination of both.