‘Marmite genevoise’

 

marmite-en-chocolat

posted by Catriona Seth

One of the most famous characters in Geneva’s folklore is ‘la mère Royaume’. Her feast is celebrated every 12th December, on the anniversary of the republic’s victory against the duke of Savoy in 1602, which is known as ‘l’Escalade’. The name comes from the Savoyards’ attempt to invade Geneva by climbing (‘escalader’) the walls of the city on wooden ladders in the middle of a cold winter night. There was fierce fighting as the Swiss inhabitants, struggling to defend their political and religious freedom, repelled the invaders, many of whom were mercenaries. ‘La mère Royaume’ who was said to be in her sixties, and hailed from Lyons, took a pragmatic approach: she poured a cauldron full of hot soup out of her window onto a Savoyard soldier. Her ‘marmite’ became the stuff of legends—and yes, the marmite you love or hate to have on your breakfast table is called after the French word for cauldron which inspired the shape of its original jar.
In Geneva, hot vegetable soup is served during the ‘Escalade’ festivities; pudding is a chocolate cauldron filled with sweets wrapped in red and yellow, the colours of Geneva, and little marzipan vegetables. It is smashed ceremonially with the following words being repeated by all: ‘Ainsi périrent les ennemis de la République!’, ‘Thus the enemies of the Republic perished!’.
There are serious aspects to the celebrations which many consider to be Geneva’s most important public festivities, like processions to honour the dead of 1602, historical re-enactments or a service of thanksgiving, but one of the best-loved traditions is a recent one: the ‘Course de l’Escalade’ or ‘Escalade race’ which was first run in 1978. course-escalade-2016It is hugely popular and, made up in fact of several races according to the distance you want to run, your age etc. It happens in early December and is the largest event of its kind in Switzerland with tens of thousands of men, women and children taking part, some in fancy dress. Doubtless many of those who start when the whistle is blown and they hear ‘A vos marques, prêt, partez!’ (literally ‘on your marks, ready, go!’) and reach the ‘ligne d’arrivée’ or finishing line, want nothing more than to tuck in to a bowl of hot ‘soupe de légumes’ as the onlookers toast their success and the memory of ‘la marmite de la mère Royaume’ whilst reflecting on the irony of ‘Mother Kingdom’s cauldron’ having helped save the Republic!course-historique137-2

(NB. 2017 French Film Competition for schools in next week’s post.)

Book Club – Hélène Gestern, Eux sur la photo

arton927posted by Catriona Seth

Published in 2011, Eux sur la photo (translated into English in 2014 as The People in the Photo) is the first novel by Hélène Gestern who has published three more since, all to critical acclaim, including her most recent one, L’Odeur de la forêt (2016), which is on the longlist of the prestigious ‘Fémina’ book prize. Eux sur la photo, which won several literary prizes in France, is about a young woman’s quest for her origins. She was only a very small child when her Mother died and she wants to learn about the woman she hardly knew. She finds a photograph and her hunt for clues starts there. As the story unwinds, we get to know more about her and about Stéphane who recognises his Father next to Hélène’s Mother on the snapshot when she has it published in a newspaper column in an attempt to get to gather information. The characters join forces to fill in the blanks as they face the fact that they have a common background about which they knew nothing. Their investigation of their parents’ past becomes a voyage of self-discovery as they learn to trust each other and their feelings. The book is also a reflection on memory and memories as well as on the power of photographs both to reveal and to conceal scenes and sentiments. There are descriptions of different pictures and various documents like letters, text messages and emails. This means the pace is varied but also that there is never a dull moment and the chapters are short and compelling.

Here is the blurb from the back of the book—what the French call the ‘quatrième de couverture’:

Une petite annonce dans un journal comme une bouteille à la mer : Hélène cherche la vérité sur sa mère, morte lorsqu’elle avait trois ans. Son seul indice : deux noms sur une photographie retrouvée dans les papiers de famille. Une réponse arrive : Stéphane a reconnu son père.
Commence alors une longue correspondance, parsemée de détails, d’abord ténus puis plus troublants. Patiemment, Hélène et Stéphane remontent le temps, dépouillant des archives et cherchant dans leur mémoire. Peu à peu, les histoires se recoupent, se répondent, forment un récit différent de ce qu’on leur avait dit.

Parsemer : To scatter
Ténu : Tenuous
Troublant : Unsettling
Dépouiller : Here, it means to scrutinise or to examine something thoroughly.
Se recouper : Here, to overlap.

This is the first paragraph of the book itself:

Le photographe a fixé pour toujours trois silhouettes en plein soleil, deux hommes et une femme. Ils sont tout de blanc vêtus et tiennent une raquette à la main. La jeune femme se trouve au milieu : l’homme qui est à sa droite, assez grand, est penché vers elle, comme s’il était sur le point de lui dire quelque chose. Le deuxième homme, à sa gauche, se tient un peu en retrait, une jambe fléchie, et prend appui sur sa raquette, dans une posture humoristique à la Charlie Chaplin. Tous trois ont l’air d’avoir environ trente ans, mais peut-être le plus grand est-il un peu plus âgé. Le paysage en arrière-plan, que masquent en partie les volumes d’une installation sportive, est à la fois alpin et sylvestre : un massif, encore blanc à son sommet, ferme la perspective, en imprimant à la scène une allure irréelle de carte postale.

This scene of three people with their tennis rackets on a sunny day in the mountains is the photograph which sets Hélène’s thoughts in motion and makes her decide to find out more about her Mother’s past.
Bonne lecture !people-photo146-2

Un Grand Pain Rond

pain-rondposted by Simon Kemp

The most distinctive thing about the sound of spoken French is its use of so-called nasal vowels. These are quite literally vowel sounds that come out of your nose: part of the air you’re breathing out as you speak has to go through your nostrils, rather than all through your mouth, as with the more common oral vowels. French is unusual in being so keen on them. English doesn’t have any, and nor do German or Spanish.

In fact, there are only three European languages — French, Portuguese and Polish — that actually make them part of the language to the extent that they have oral and nasal versions of the same vowel, and speakers and listeners distinguish between them.

So, in French, the words

gras

and

grand

use the oral and nasal versions of the same vowel.

There are four nasal vowels in standard French. The four vowels of the phrase in the title, in fact:

un (also in brun, humble and parfum)

grand (also in ampoule, encre and empêcher)

pain (also in vin and impossible)

rond (also in on, ombre and maison)

Here you can hear them pronounced and see the phonetic symbol for each of the four sounds:

And here are three interesting little facts about French nasal vowels:

  • You can often spot people from the south of France by the way they say their nasal vowels. In Provence and the Midi, they often sound as if they have an English -ng at the end of it, so il vient sounds a bit like il vieng, le lapin like le lapeng. There are some lovely accents méridionaux in this trailer for the Provence-set film, Manon des sources. Listen, just before the one-minute mark, how the nasal vowels of destin (destiny) and bons à rien (good-for-nothings) come out in a strong southern accent, when the villain of the piece says: ‘Ce sont ceux qui sont bons à rien qui parlent d’un destin,’ (‘Only good-for-nothings talk about destiny’).

 

  • While standard French has four nasal vowels, some French dialects distinguish five or even six different ones. In the Champagne region, for instance, some speakers pronounce pain and pin differently, even though the dictionary says they should sound the same.

 

  • A more widespread and growing tendency, though, is to actually ditch one of the four nasal vowels, and make do with just three. Surprisingly, it’s the sound in un, which in the Paris region and increasingly across northern France is disappearing, replaced by the sound from pain. (Given that pronouncing the word un was probably one of the first things you had to learn when you began studying French, you’re within your rights to feel a little aggrieved at this.) At some point in the not-too-distant future, the two sounds are likely to be indistinguishable in standard French, making words like brin (a twig) and brun (brown) into homophones.

 

You can find out more about these and many other quirks of the French language in Henriette Walter’s wonderful book, Le Français dans tous les sens, also available in English as French Inside Out.

Plus, if you’re interested in how language works, how it develops, and how diverse it is across the communities which speak it, then you can explore some linguistics in a modern languages degree. At Oxford, linguistics courses are available as options within any modern languages course, or as half of a degree in modern languages and linguistics, which you can learn about here.

More Interview Questions

posted by Simon Kemp

It’s university admissions time again, and Oxford has been trying to take some of the mystery out of our interview process. As well as releasing the video above, the university has been asking its tutors to reveal the questions they ask interview candidates. The story has been widely reported in newspapers, as well as on the BBC website here.

One of the questions was from an interview for a place on a degree involving French:

What makes a novel or play “political”?

This was a question for a French course. Interviewer Helen Swift, from St Hilda’s College, said:

“This is the sort of question that could emerge from a student’s personal statement, where, in speaking about their engagement with literature and culture of the language they want to study, they state a keen interest in works (such as a novel, play or film) that are “political”.

“We might start off by discussing the specific work that they cite (something that isn’t included in their A-level syllabus), so they have chance to start off on something concrete and familiar, asking, for instance, “in what ways?”, “why?”, “why might someone not enjoy it for the same reason?”.

“We’d then look to test the extent of their intellectual curiosity and capacities for critical engagement by broadening the questioning out to be more conceptually orientated and invite them to make comparisons between things that they’ve read/seen (in whatever language).

“So, in posing the overall question, ‘What makes this political?’ we’d want the candidate to start thinking about what one means in applying the label: what aspects of a work does it evoke? Is it a judgement about content or style? Could it be seen in and of itself a value judgement? How useful is it as a label?

“What if we said that all art is, in fact, political? What about cases where an author denies that their work is political, but critics assert that it is – is it purely a question of subjective interpretation?

“A strong candidate would show ready willingness and very good ability to engage and develop their ideas in conversation. It would be perfectly fine for someone to change their mind in the course of the discussion or come up with a thought that contradicted something they’d said before – we want people to think flexibly and be willing to consider different perspectives…

“Undoubtedly, the candidate would need to take a moment to think in the middle of all that – we expect that “ermmm”, “ah”, “oh”, “well” will feature in someone’s responses!”

There are further details about the Oxford interview on the university website here.

And you can explore lots more on the subject in the blog archives in the ‘Applying to Study Modern Languages’ category.

 

Asterix, from Waterloo to Waterzooi (Part Two)

asterix2

posted by Catriona Seth

(Continued from last week’s post.)

The best known poem in English about Waterloo is certainly Lord Byron’s ‘Eve of Waterloo’ from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Three allusions that I have noticed in the translation of Astérix chez les Belges refer to this poem (there may be others I have missed.) Let me point just one of them out[1]. It is the caption the English translators give to a full page illustration of festivities which is a visual pun on a painting by Breughel: ‘There was a sound of revelry by night’. This is the first line of ‘The Eve of Waterloo’ so they are bringing in a famous poetic allusion to the battle which English-speaking readers might recognise, in the same way as the francophones will hopefully have picked up the reference to Victor Hugo.

The Asterix version of the Belgian feast, complete with boar meat and Dogmatix/Idéfix licking a plate under Obelix’s seat
The Asterix version of the Belgian feast, complete with boar meat and Dogmatix/Idéfix licking a plate under Obelix’s seat

 

The original painting of a village wedding feast by Breughel the Elder
The original painting of a village wedding feast by Breughel the Elder

 

One of the great strengths of the Asterix series is that there is something for everyone, from the highbrow Waterloo poetry puns to the franglais names of the self-explanatory Zebigbos or of a village maiden called Iélosubmarine in honour of the Beatles song. You do not need to get them all to enjoy a good read, but everything you pick up draws you a little further in. The more you read them, in a sense, the funnier they are. So… if you want something instructive and fun to read, go for the French version of any one of the 36 albums which recount ‘les aventures d’Astérix le Gaulois’ or compare the original and the English translation: you will be in for a fun, stimulating and thought-provoking treat.

[1] The others, for curious minds, are ‘Nearer, clearer, deadlier than before…’ and ‘On with the dance. Let joy be unconfined.’

Asterix, from Waterloo to Waterzooi (Part One)

asterix

posted by Catriona Seth

If we were playing a word association game and I said ‘Eiffel Tower’, chances are you would answer ‘Paris’. If I mentioned a village in Gaul which is heroically resisting Roman rule, I surely would need to go no further: menhirs and magic potion would instantly come to your mind and you would answer ‘Asterix’. You would be right. The diminutive Gaul’s adventures have been enchanting French children  since 1959. He was the brainchild of René Goscinny (1926-77) and Albert Uderzo (born in 1927). There have been 36 albums up to and including Le Papyrus de César in 2015, and every time a new one comes out, there is great rejoicing amongst readers of French, young and old.
The Asterix books have been translated into more than a hundred languages. You may well have read them in English. If you have, I am sure you will join me in celebrating the great art of Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge who translated them. As bilingual children, my sister and I read Asterix both in English and in French with the same pleasure, and thinking about what made the books funny was one of the ways I got interested in languages. Take the names of the main characters which play on words. It is easy to go from ‘un astérisque’ (the typographical star sign: *) to ‘an asterisk’ and the name of Astérix/Asterix, or to see that ‘un obélisque’ or ‘an obelisk’ gives us Obélix/Obelix, but such obvious translations do not always work. ‘Dogmatix’ is a brilliant name for the little dog, but if you look at the French version, you will find he is called ‘Idéfix’. His English name is, if anything, better than the original, since it keeps the idea that because of his instinct he is rather single-minded which someone who has an ‘idée fixe’ would be (someone ‘dogmatique’ or ‘dogmatic’—the word is the same in French and in English—is unwavering in the conviction that he or she is right or is very set on following a dogma). There is also the added play on words with ‘dog’.
If you read the names of the characters or the places out loud in the original, you will see they are often typical French phrases. The poor old bard who always gets tied up is ‘Assurancetourix’ (an ‘assurance tous risques’ is a comprehensive insurance) and the village elder is ‘Agecanonix’ (to attain ‘un âge canonique’ is to reach a great age). One of the Roman camps is called ‘Babaorum’ (‘un baba au rhum’ is a rhum baba). There are dozens of other fun examples.
Because the Asterix books rely so much on wordplay, it is often difficult to get the same joke in two different languages. Sometimes the translators slip in a pun which is not in the original. I seem to remember an exchange at a banquet in which one character says to the other ‘Pass me the celt’ (for ‘the salt’) and another observes ‘It must be his gall bladder’ with the gall/Gaul homophone providing the joke. This is to make up for the fact that some French puns quite simply cannot be translated.
Beyond the linguistic transfer, there is cultural transfer at work in the English versions of the albums. Preparing a paper for a conference to mark the bicentenary of the battle of Waterloo last year, I remembered that in Astérix chez les Belges, before the battle, a warrior, who lives in hope, asks his wife whether he will get potatoes in oil (i.e. chips, the famous Belgian ‘frites’) for his meal. She serves up another justly famous Belgian speciality, a sort of enriched chicken and vegetable stew, called waterzooi (there is usually no final ‘e’). The feisty Belgian looks at the dish and sighs ‘Waterzooie! Waterzooie! Waterzooie! morne plat !’

asterix2

For the record, it is absolutely delicious and anything but dreary as the photograph shows.

Homemade waterzooi (© Spx)
Homemade waterzooi (© Spx)

The Belgian warrior’s crestfallen rejoinder is a cue for many a cultured Francophone reader to burst out laughing. Why? Because amongst the most celebrated literary evocations of Waterloo—probably the most famous battle ever fought on Belgian soil—is Victor Hugo’s poem ‘L’Expiation’ which contains the line ‘Waterloo! Waterloo! Waterloo! morne plaine !’ The dish set in front of the hungry Belgian and which was not what he hoped for is described in such a way as to echo the dreary plain on which the armies clashed. The reference works at several levels and means you need to recognise the poem on the one hand, Belgium’s national dish on the other. Where does this leave the translators? High and dry, you might think. Clearly there is no way of producing a similar effect here.

Their solution, which I shall tell you next week, is as elegant as it is clever.

Oxford Types

What’s Oxford like? And, more particularly, what’s an Oxford student like?

Wonder no more. Here, in one minute five seconds, is the answer:

Someone a bit like you, perhaps? Take a look at our ‘student life’ and ‘applying to study modern languages’ categories on the left if you’d like to find out more.

Great French Lives: Jean Nicot

260px-jean_nicot

posted by Simon Kemp

Jean Nicot has left his mark on both the French and English languages. He is, as you’ve already guessed, the man who gave his name to nicotine, the highly addictive, mood-altering substance that’s the essential chemical ingredient in cigarettes, cigars, snuff,  and those stick-on patches you use when you’re trying to give up the other ones.

‘How did Nicot come to give his name to this most dangerous of parasympathomimetic alkaloids?’ I hear you ask.

Because he was the man who introduced tobacco to the French court in the sixteenth century.

‘Was he then a swashbuckling adventurer, bringing exotic herbs and spices from far-off lands new-discovered across the Atlantic Ocean?’

Not exactly.

‘Where did he bring it back from, then?’

Portugal.

‘But the tobacco itself came from somewhere more exciting?’

From his back garden, actually.

‘Grown from seeds he got from…?’

A seed salesman.

‘Who got them from…?’

Belgium.

‘Ah.’

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Jean Nicot (1530-1604) was a courtier at the court of King François II, who was sent as an ambassador to Portugal in 1559 to negotiate a marriage between the six-year-old king of Portugal and a five-year-old French princess. It didn’t go too well, and he was eventually forced to flee the country two years later.

Before he ran away, though, he had time to plant a crop of tobacco from some seeds bought from a Flemish merchant, and in 1660 he sent some dried, powdered tobacco leaves to the French king’s mother. He told her to get the king to snort the powder because it would cure his migraines. History does not record whether or not it worked.

Tobacco did, though, quickly become highly fashionable among well-to-do French people keen to imitate royal habits. After a while, they even discovered you could smoke it. It was often known as l’herbe de Nicot, and Nicot’s name became permanently associated with it. (This was possibly helped by the fact that Nicot was keen on renaming tobacco as ‘Nicotiane’, and later in life compiled one of the first ever French dictionaries.) When the plant came to get a Latin name, it was called Nicotiana tabacum in his memory, and from there its chief psychoactive chemical took the name nicotine.

Right to the end of his life, Jean Nicot was convinced that tobacco was a medicine and that he was doing everyone a favour by starting the trend for it.

French culture would never be the same again.

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Number One

oxford-university-radcliffe-camera

posted by Simon Kemp

This week, just a little supplemental note to the post a few weeks ago noting that, according to the QS university rankings, Oxford modern languages faculty is the best modern languages faculty anywhere in the world.

Now, according to the Times Higher Education, it seems we’re also part of the best university in the world. According to their global rankings, which (in their words) are ‘the definitive list of the world’s best universities, evaluated across teaching, research, international outlook, reputation and more’, Oxford University is number one. It’s the first time in the twelve years that the ranking has been compiled that a UK university, rather than a US one, has gained the top spot. Their full list, with detailed breakdown of how we do on teaching, research and other measures, is here.

I mention this not just because I want to brag about it, but because it helps to prove the point I really want to make which is that

(a) we’re a great place to study modern languages,

and so,

(b) you should really think seriously about applying to come and study them with us.

We’re looking for bright, talented and well-motivated people from all backgrounds to come to Oxford and join our modern languages courses. Last year we invited 87% of the people who applied to us to study modern languages to come for an interview, and offered places to 34% of applicants. That shows, I think, that wherever you’re from and whatever your story, we’ll take your application very seriously and think carefully about whether we can offer you a place. We’re always delighted to hear from potential students. If you think you might enjoy studying with us, what do you have to lose by applying?

We’re waiting to hear from you.

 

A blog for students and teachers of Years 11 to 13, and anyone else with an interest in French language and culture, written by the staff and students of Oxford University. Updated every Wednesday!