Category Archives: French language

Best of Blog: la limousine et la baïonnette

While the blog is on its summer holidays, here are a selection of the best posts from the past couple of years. We’ll be back on the first Wednesday in September with another question on an A-level text: ‘Just how clever is Lou from No et Moi?’

The Limousin is a region of France to the south-west of Paris around the city of Limoges. Bayonne is a town on the Atlantic coast near the Spanish border, in the heart of the Basque country.

The Limousin is a mostly rural area, famed in France for its distinctive red-brown limousin beef cattle. It doesn’t have a lot of limousines, and yet the region is without doubt the origin of the word.

Similarly, the place-name of Bayonne is the origin of the word bayonet (la baïonnette in French).

So how did limousines and bayonets come to get their names?

The link between Bayonne and bayonets is the more straightforward one. Rural France in the seventeenth century was prone to sporadic conflicts between different groups. During one such, the peasants of Bayonne found themselves short of gunpowder and bullets. As an alternative, they lashed their hunting knives to the end of their muskets to make improvised spears, and the bayonet was born. (They may not actually have been the first people ever to do so, but the association with Bayonne has stuck.)

Limousin and the limo is a more mysterious connection. No one actually knows for sure how the region came to give its name to the stretched cars beloved of film stars and hen nights. The first vehicles to be known by the name were luxury cars in the 1900s which had an enclosed compartment for the passengers behind a driver’s seat with roof and windscreen, but otherwise open.

One suggestion is that shepherds of the limousin region wore a distinctive hooded cloak. Carriages with separate cover for driver and passengers became known as ‘limousin’ carriages by association, and when the similarly structured motor vehicle appeared, the name was carried across. Do make up your own etymology for the term, though, if you can think of something more plausible.

Other French words derived from place names include le corbillard (hearse), which originally referred to a water-bus shuttling between Paris and the suburb of Corbeil, and la dinde (turkey), which is a contraction of la poule des Indes (chicken from the West Indies), showing that the French had a better grasp of where turkeys come from than the English did.

Lastly, the flower meadow saffron is le colchique in French, which is derived from Colchis, the home of the tragic heroine Medea in Greek myth. Medea’s story involves multiple poisonings, and in French the poisonous flowers of the meadow saffron are associated with her crimes. Les colchiques, and their poison, feature in the most famous poem by Guillaume Apollinaire, which gives me all the reason I need to reprint it here by way of conclusion:

Les Colchiques

Le pré est vénéneux mais joli en automne
Les vaches y paissant
Lentement s’empoisonnent
Le colchique couleur de cerne et de lilas
Y fleurit tes yeux sont comme cette fleur-la
Violatres comme leur cerne et comme cet automne
Et ma vie pour tes yeux lentement s’empoisonne

Les enfants de l’école viennent avec fracas
Vêtus de hoquetons et jouant de l’harmonica
Ils cueillent les colchiques qui sont comme des mères
Filles de leurs filles et sont couleur de tes paupières
Qui battent comme les fleurs battent au vent dément

Le gardien du troupeau chante tout doucement
Tandis que lentes et meuglant les vaches abandonnent
Pour toujours ce grand pré mal fleuri par l’automne

Meadow Saffron

 The meadow is poisonous but pretty in the autumn / The cows that graze there / Are slowly poisoned / Meadow-saffron the colour of lilac and of dark shadows around the eyes / Grows there your eyes are like those flowers / Mauve as their shadows and mauve as this autumn / And for your eyes’ sake my life is slowly poisoned

 Children from school come with their commotion / Dressed in smocks and playing the mouth-organ / Picking autumn crocuses which are like their mothers / Daughters of their daughters and the colour of your eyelids / Which flutter like flowers in the mad breeze blown

 The cowherd sings softly to himself all alone / While slow moving lowing the cows leave behind them / Forever this great meadow ill flowered by autumn

Best of Blog: Asterix, from Waterloo to Waterzooi

While the blog is on its summer holidays, here are a selection of the best posts from the past couple of years. We’ll be back on the first Wednesday in September with another question on an A-level text: ‘Just how clever is Lou from No et Moi?’

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 is as elegant as it is clever.

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.’

Best of Blog: Encore Tricolore, circa 1400

While the blog is on its summer holidays, here are a selection of the best posts from the past couple of years. We’ll be back on the first Wednesday in September with another question on an A-level text: ‘Just how clever is Lou from No et Moi?’

‘… a parler, bien sonere et parfaitement escrire douce frances qu’est la plus belle et la plus gracious langage et la plus noble …’ [A detail from a manuscript of the Manière de langage, Cambridge University Library, MS Dd.12.23, f. 67v.]‘… a parler, bien sonere et parfaitement escrire douce frances qu’est la plus belle et la plus gracious langage et la plus noble …’[A detail from a manuscript of the Manière de langage, Cambridge University Library, MS Dd.12.23, f. 67v.]

posted by Edward Mills

For those of us who are fortunate enough to study languages, holidays can be a great way to practise: there’s nothing like embarrassing your parents by ordering their train tickets for them. If you don’t speak the language, though, there is one trusty route to fall back on: the phrasebook. As an idea, phrasebooks have a long history; much longer than you might otherwise think when leafing through a Collins or a Berlitz. Some of the earliest manuals that we possess today were written for learners of French in England in the high and late Middle Ages; still objects of study today, they offer a fascinating insight into how languages were taught over five centuries ago. To illustrate this, I’ll be taking three examples, from consecutive centuries: the Tretiz, written by the wonderfully-named Walter de Bibbesworth around the second half of the 13th century; a Manière de langage from 1396; and a fifteenth-century general primer, the Liber Donati (named after the Latin grammarian Donatus).

These three texts were all written in England, and the circumstances in which they were produced reveals a great deal about the esteem with which French was held in the later Middle Ages. French was widely spoken in what is today Britain in the wake of the Norman Conquest, as part of a (very interesting indeed) triglossia[1] with Latin and English, but as interactions with the continent became more frequent the value of learning French for non-native speakers greatly increased. This is why the Manière de langage is able to state its purpose so boldly: ‘Ci comence la maniere de language que t’enseignera bien a droit parler et escrire doulz françois selon l’usage et la coustume de France.’[2] Assuming on the part of the reader a basic knowledge of the Anglo-Norman dialect of French, all three of these texts aim to educate an English audience that needs vocabulary specific to certain situations.

Of course, all of this may well ring bells — that essentially remains the purpose for the modern phrasebook today. Nor is it an alien concept for textbooks to be written in what is termed the ‘target language’: how many times have you read the phrase ‘corrigez les phrases suivantes’, or else ‘écoutez et répondez’? In a wonderful example of differentiation by prior knowledge, Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz and the Liber Donati even include annotations (‘glosses’) offering English translations for more complicated French terms — ‘berce’ is glossed as ‘cradel’,[3] ‘espaule’ as ‘scholderbon’,[4] and ‘autre fois’ as ‘anoth tyme’.[5]

Another similarity with present-day phrasebooks comes in the way in which new material is presented. We’re all familiar with the hackneyed, slightly stilted dialogues that fill the pages of Encore Tricolore or Élan, so it should come as no surprise that most of the new terms in the medieval texts are first seen in dialogue form. The Manière de langage and the Liber Donati both present the characters of the traveller and his servant (intriguingly called Jehan in both texts) as a focalising device through which the reader can see themself. Here again, similarities abound, as the topics of conversation — a good indication of what it was judged as important to learn — are practically identical to today. The Liber Donati provides an example of how to book into a hotel:[6]

— Hostilier, hostilier.
— Sir, sir, je su cy.
— Purrons nous bien estre loggez ciens?
— Oy, certez, mez maistrez … Combien estez vous en nombre?

While on the road, whether in 1300 or today, it’s also important to be able to ask for information from people you meet. Thankfully, the Manière de langage is here to help, providing multiple ways of how to ask for the time:[7]

Et puis le sr s’en chivalche sur son chemyn, et quant il venra ou my lieu de la ville, il demandera du primer homme qu’il encontrera, ainsi : « Mon ami », vel sic : « Biau sire », vel sic : « Biau filz, quelle heure est-il maintenant ? » Vel sic : « Qu’est ce qu’a sonnee de l’oriloge ? »

But perhaps the most striking similarity between the Collins Gem in your pocket and its medieval equivalent is to be found not in vocabulary, but in grammar. The concept of gender, always tricky to explain, is dealt with in the Tretiz just as it often is today: by looking at the body. Just as we introduce the concept of gender by focusing on the agreement in the phrases ‘j’ai les cheveux noirs’ (m.pl.) or ‘j’ai de longues jambes’ (f.pl.), the Tretiz explains the best way to teach your children the concept of gender is through the human body. Plus, it will stop your darling child from being mocked:[8]

Et quant [un enfant] encurt a tele age
Qu’i[l] prendre se poet a langage,
E[n] fraunceis lui devez dire
Cum primes deit sun cors descrivre
Pur l’ordre aver de ‘moun’ e ‘ma’,
‘Ton’ e ‘ta’, ‘soun’ e ‘ça’, ‘le’ e ‘la’
Qu’i[l] en parole seit meuz apris
E de nul autre escharnis.

There’s a huge amount more to be said about these books, whether it be what happens in the narratives that they construct, the individual manuscripts in which they survive, or the complicated relationship between French and English during this period. For now, though, I hope this short foray into the medieval world through the medium of tourism has left you with a sense that your A-Level textbook has a long history behind it. When you’re next grappling with the pluperfect tense, just remember that you’re not the first — some time around 1447, readers of the Liber Donati were faced with another element that would not look out of place today:[9]

J’avoy enseigné, tu avoiez enseigné, il avoit enseigné, nous avoions enseigné, vous avoiez enseigné, ils avoient enseigné.

I find it fascinating to think that all of the things we think of as ‘modern’ tools to learn a language — vocabulary primers, sample conversations, even verb tables — have existed for centuries, in forms we can still look at today. While the medieval learner of French may not have had WordReference on his iPhone, the influence of the tools that he did have can still be felt today. As the (nineteenth-century) French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr would say, ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.’

If you’re interested in reading more about medieval French literature, there are many excellent websites out there. Websites such as the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts Blog and the Medieval Fragments project are a great place to start; I also wrote a more general introduction to medieval French over at the University of Cambridge’s Be Cambridge blog. The Manière de langage is also available online here.

 

Edward Mills is a postgraduate student in medieval French literature at Wolfson College. Thanks very much to Daron Burrows for proof-reading prior to publication.


1. ‘Triglossia’ refers to a situation wherein three languages are spoken in a given space. See also ‘diglossia’, the phenomenon of two languages being spoken in a given space, and Polyglossia, the University of Cambridge’s student-run modern languages journal (which I definitely wasn’t involved with. Nope. Never.) [↵]
2. Manière de langage, p. 382. “Here begins the Manière de langage which will teach you the proper speech and writing of sweet French as it is used in France.”[↵]
3. Tretiz, l. 7. [↵]
4. Tretiz, l. 98. [↵]
5. Liber Donati, p. 18. [↵]
6. Liber Donati, p. 20. “Innkeeper, inkeeper. / Sir, here I am. / Can you house us here? / Certainly, sirs … how many are you?” [↵]
7. Manière, pp. 394-95. “And then the sire continues on his way, and when he finds himself half an hour away from the town, he asks the man whom he meets, thusly: ‘Friend,’ or ‘Good sir’, or ‘Good man, what time is it now?’, or ‘How many times has the clock sounded?'” [↵]
8. Tretiz, ll. 21-28. “And when [a child] reaches such an age / That he may apply himself to languages, / You should first tell him in French / How to describe his body / By proper order of ‘mon’ and ‘ma’, / ‘Ton’ and ‘ta’, ‘son’ and ‘sa’, ‘le’ and ‘la’; / So that he be better educated in speech / And not be mocked by others.” [↵]
9. Liber Donati, p. 11. [↵]

Spot the Grammatical Error! (Kids’ Books Edition)

posted  by Simon Kemp

It’s quiz time again, and once again, there’s an opportunity to feel smug and superior by spotting mistakes made by French native speakers. Last time, we were hunting out grammatical errors that unfortunate French folk had decided to tattoo on their bodies for all eternity. This time is if anything even worse. The mistakes are in picture books aimed at teaching very young French children how to read.

Below are pages from five picture books, with one mistake in each image. Can you find them all? Answers at the bottom of the post.

(Hint: as is common when native speakers make mistakes, all the errors sound OK when you read them out loud, but are written wrongly on the page, rather like English speakers confusing their, there and they’re.)

1.

 

2.

3.

4.

5.

 

Scroll down for answers…

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Should be ‘ils tendent le cou (‘they stretch their necks out’).
  2. Should be ‘qu’il fasse moins chaud’ (‘until it gets cooler’).
  3. Should be ‘rassemble’ (‘gathers’).
  4. Should be ‘s’écrie’ (‘shouts out’). ‘S’écrit’ means ‘writes to himself’.
  5. Should be ‘histoires’ (stories).

Images borrowed from the French website Bescherelle ta mère (note: contains adult language!).

Bons mots: savoir-faire

200_s  posted by Simon Kemp

We already know what ‘savoir-faire’ means, don’t we? After all, it’s part of the English language.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that it usually refers to…

the ability to speak or act appropriately in social situations.

They give a few examples of usage, including this one from 1924:
He had, it seems, spent previously some months at Deauville and Paris… and there acquired that polished French and developed that savoir-faire, both so typical of him.’
And this one, about the British Queen Mother in 2000:
‘Her savoir-faire was as much instinctive as learned.’

It’s about sophistication, elegance, good manners and suave self-assurance. It basically means this:

andrews-sophisticated-couple

Right?

Well, yes, that’s what it means in English, but would you be surprised to learn that that’s not what it means in French?

According to the Larousse dictionary, savoir-faire means:

compétence acquise par l’expérience dans les problèmes pratiques, dans l’exercice d’un métier.

… in other words, it’s know-how (a term that’s also used in French as a synonym for savoir-faire).

So not so much them…

andrews-sophisticated-couple

as him:

img-handyman-skills

It can mean being handy with putting up shelves, or good with IT, or having organizational skills. Savoir-faire in French is any kind of practical competence (especially job-related) that you’ve learned by experience.

 So, if savoir-faire in French means know-how, what’s the French for savoir-faire (in the English sense of the word)?

It’s savoir-vivre.

Savoir-vivre is defined in the French dictionary as:

Connaissance et pratique des règles de la politesse, des usages du monde.

…which is basically the same idea of social sophistication that we saw in the original English dictionary definition of savoir-faire.
Bizarrely, then, when you’re translating between the two languages:
if you see savoir-faire in an English text you should probably translate it as savoir-vivre in French
and if you see savoir-faire in a French text you should probably translate it as know-how in English.
How did this odd situation come about?
Well, it seems that when the term first came into English, it had the same meaning as in French. The Oxford Dictionary first records it being used in 1788 in the following line:

‘I have a very great opinion of your savoir faire, especially in the articles of sugar and rum; but for your savoir vivre—none.’

It’s pretty clear that both savoir-faire and savoir-vivre are being used here in their original French senses of know-how and sophistication respectively.

Over the course of the next century or so, savoir-faire in English gradually came to get its present overtones, either because English speakers associated the French with being sophisticated, or because being able to drop French words into your English conversation was itself seen as a sophisticated thing to do. Probably a little of both.

It’s actually quite a common phenomenon. A word that’s fairly ordinary and neutral in French, will come over all sleek, sexy and stylish once it’s borrowed by the English.

It happened with le savoir-faire.

It happened with un je-ne-sais-quoi, which means ‘a certain something I can’t quite put my finger on’ in French, and ‘a certain stylish and sophisticated something I can’t quite put my finger on’ in English.

It happened with un rendez-vous, which in French is the normal, and entirely neutral word for an appointment. If a French person has un rendez-vous with their dentist, it likely involves fluoride gel and oral hygiene tips; if an English speaker has a rendez-vous with a dentist, we expect roses, wine and sugar-free chocolates.

And it happened with la lingerie, which to French people means pants of both the lacy, exotic variety and the sensible, practical, keeping-everything-warm-through-the-winter kind. (It also refers to women’s nightwear of all sorts, and to places where underwear and nightwear are manufactured, sold or stored).

ruedelal

There are several other examples. Can you think of any?

If a language can have an inferiority complex, then it seems English might have got one. If it’s trying to express a certain je-ne-sais-quoi, a kind of effortless, stylish, savoir-faire, then  only French will do.

belle-epoque

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.

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.’

6b23640e0c2342a8d6d0e355e42e122a

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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Tu Tweetes?

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Last week, we offered you a helpful guide towards when you should use tu and when to use vous in conversation with a French speaker. This week, there’s news that these guidelines are falling apart, social chaos is breaking out, and it’s all the fault of social media. Twitter in particular.

Le Monde, the BBC and the Guardian have all been discussing the issue recently, sparked off by a twitter spat between French journalists. Here’s part of Le Monde’s take on the drama (vocab in bold given below the extract):

Il y a un peu plus d’un an, un utilisateur de Twitter, @peultier, journaliste au Monde.fr, a été mal inspiré : il a tutoyé Laurent Joffrin. Les deux confrères ne se connaissent pas, ne se sont jamais rencontrés. Cette audace formelle s’est déroulée sur Twitter. Il n’est pas rare que deux journalistes se tutoient dès leurs premiers échanges lorsqu’ils se rencontrent en reportage, un tutoiement confraternel en quelque sorte. Sauf que Laurent Joffrin, Laurent Mouchard de son vrai nom, est l’aîné de son interlocuteur, et lui est supérieur dans l’échelle sociale, puisqu’il est patron de la rédaction du Nouvel Observateur. 

Franz Durupt, alias @peultier, aurait-il tutoyé son aîné s’il l’avait croisé dans la « vraie vie » ? Sans doute pas. Et son accès d’audace virtuelle n’avait pas plu à Laurent Joffrin, peu séduit par ce décalage entre les bonnes manières et les usages en vogue sur les réseaux sociaux« Qui vous autorise à me tutoyer ? »avait rétorqué le patron du Nouvel Obs à l’impudent, sur une tonalité« volontairement balladurienne », a-t-il expliqué plus tard.

 

être mal inspiré: have a bad idea

le confrère: colleague, fellow (journalist); the adjective ‘confraternel’ (‘between colleagues’) comes up later

l’aîné de: older than

l’échelle sociale: the social scale

patron de la rédaction: editor-in-chief

croiser qqn: run into someone, come across someone

son accès d’audace virtuelle: his fit of virtual daring

le décalage: gap, mismatch

le réseau social: social media

rétorquer: retort

balladurien: reminiscent of former Prime Minister, Édouard Balladur (here, haughty and dignified)

The BBC explores the social niceties involved in online communication in French in a bit more detail. Here’s an extract:

The informal version of “you” in the French language – “tu” – seems to be taking over on social media, at the expense of the formal “vous”. As in many countries, online modes of address in French are more relaxed than in face-to-face encounters. But will this have a permanent effect on the French language?

Anthony Besson calls most people “vous”. As a young man, it is a sign of respect to those older than him, and he’s often meeting new people through his work in PR in Paris.

Yet this all changes on social media. “I always use ‘tu’ on Twitter,” Besson says. “And not just because it takes up fewer of the 140 characters!”

Lots of other French people do exactly the same.

“Tu” is normally for family and friends, but when you’re communicating through @ symbols, joining networks and tweeting under a pseudonym, a formal “vous” can seem out of place, even to someone you’ve never met.

“In the philosophy of the internet, we are among peers, equal, without social distinction, whatever your age, gender, income or status in real life,” Besson says.

Addressing someone as “vous” – or expecting to be addressed as “vous” – on the other hand, implies hierarchy.

It’s too early to say whether Twitter will change how French people talk in everyday life.

Historically, the biggest shifts towards “tu” occurred at the time of the French Revolution and during the social upheavals of May 1968.

“People who played an active role in May ’68 pleaded in favour of getting rid of the distance created by ‘vous’ and doing away with hierarchy,” says Prof Bert Peeters, of the French and Francophone Studies department at Macquarie University in Australia, co-editor, of Tu ou vous: l’embarras du choix – Tu or vous: an awkward choice.

“However, as they grew up and became mature adults, they realised that having just ‘tu’ in French was not adequate, or not part of being French, and ‘vous’ started coming back.”

Although “tu” is more common than it was pre-68, strict rules still govern its use.

“You would offend a lot of people if you used ‘tu’ and they didn’t know you. It is difficult to say whether social media will change this,” Peeters says.

“However, if people’s first contact is on social media and they start using ‘tu’, it would be awkward to use ‘vous’ in a different context. Once you start with ‘tu’, it is very hard and very rare to abandon it.”

So, frankly, it’s a social mine-field, especially if you’re tweeting someone from an older generation with more old-fashioned ideas about politeness than you. One thing you can definitely get right, though, is the lovely new French verb, tweeter. Here,, to finish, it is conjugated in all its forms:

Présent: je tweete, tu tweetes, il tweete, nous tweetons, vous tweetez, ils tweetent

Passé composé: j’ai tweeté,tu as tweeté, il a tweeté, nous avons tweeté, vous avez tweeté,ils ont tweeté

Imparfait: je tweetais, tu tweetais, il tweetait, nous tweetions, vous tweetiez, ils tweetaient

Plus-que-parfait: j’avais tweeté, tu avais tweeté, il avait tweeté, nous avions tweeté, vous aviez tweeté, ils avaient tweeté

Passé simple: je tweetai, tu tweetas, il tweeta, nous tweetâmes, vous tweetâtes,ils tweetèrent

Futur: je tweeterai, tu tweeteras, il tweetera, nous tweeterons, vous tweeterez, ils tweeteront

Subjonctif: que je tweete, que tu tweetes, qu’il tweete, que nous tweetions, que vous tweetiez, qu’ils tweetent

Fun with Grammar: ‘Tu’ or ‘Vous’?

malpoli

posted by Simon Kemp

Ah, the eternal problem. To tutoyer your French conversation partner or to vouvoyer? Go too formal and you might come across as cold and distant. Go too familiar, and you might seem disrespectful. Which should you go for?*

*(Answer: if in doubt, go for ‘vous’, but don’t worry too much. The French person you’re speaking to will be so pleased to hear you make an effort to speak their language, they probably won’t care about any slips you make with the social niceties.)

And if you’ve been vouvoying your acquaintance for a while, at what point do you take the big step of a move to tu?**

**(Answer: generally speaking, leave it to the French person. They have a better idea than you do of how it all works!)

A flow-chart has been doing the rounds on the internet for confused would-be French speakers. (I picked it up here, on the LA Times site.) Simply follow through who you are and who you’re speaking to, and it will give you the answer for most situations.

It’s meant to be funny (there’s a special track for if you happen to married to a certain former French President ), but it’s actually surprisingly practical and on-the-money in its advice.

Behold, your francophone social anxieties resolved:

 

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Handy as this is, unfortunately social media and online culture seem to be changing the rules of how all this works faster than even the French can keep up. We’ll stay with this topic next week to see how Twitter and Facebook are changing they way French people talk to each other.

Spot the Grammatical Error! (Tattoo Edition)

posted by Simon Kemp

You know those kinds of language exercises where you have to spot the grammar, spelling or punctuation mistake and correct it? Well, here’s one.  What makes this one a little different is that every one of the errors below has been permanently inked on skin by French tattooists. The lucky clients can either wear the mistakes for ever as a sort of walking grammar test, or negotiate to find out how much it costs to add an extra circumflex to an existing design.

Your task below: spot and correct all the errors in the tattoos pictured. (We’ll tell you how many mistakes there are to find.) Answers at the end of the post.

1. One grammar mistake to find:

choix

2. One grammar/spelling mistake to find (not counting the colloquial shortening of “ne” to “n'”):

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3. Three mistakes to find in this one:

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Answers:

1. ‘Si j’avais le choix entre toi et la vie, je te choisirais car tu est ma seule raison de vivre.’ Should be ‘tu es’, not ‘tu est’. The whole sentence means: ‘If I had to choose between you and life, I’d choose you as you’re my only reason to live.’

2. ‘La vie n’se respire qu’une seule fois, Et le bonheur ça se vie sans aucune loi.’ Should be ‘ça se vit’ (from ‘se vivre’, to be lived), not ‘ça se vie’. The sentence means: ‘Life is only breathed once. And happiness is lived without any laws.’

3. ‘Ma vie à commencée le jour ou tu es né.’ Should be: ‘Ma vie a commencé le jour où tu es né’ (‘a’ not ‘à’;  ‘commencé’ not ‘commencée’; and ‘où’ not ‘ou’). The whole sentence means: ‘My life began on the day you were born.’

 

How did you do?

5/5: Excellent! There may be a lucrative career for you as a French tattoo artist.

3/5 or more: Well done! You can perform a useful public service as a French tattoo corrector.

2/5 or less: Good try! Maybe take a dictionary along with you when getting any French tattoos of your own, though.

 

These and many more French grammar fails are to be found at Bescherelletamere.fr.