But what’s it really like? The Modern Languages Course

posted by Simon Kemp

Recently, Oxford University decided to make short films about every single one of its undergraduate courses, featuring students and tutors talking about what the course is about, and what it’s like to study it. They give a much better sense of what the courses are really like than you can get from a prospectus. There’s one video on modern languages, and six more about the ‘joint schools’ combining modern languages with English, history, linguistics, philosophy, Classics, or a Middle-Eastern language. I’ll post each of them over the course of the next few months, but for starters, here’s the modern languages film:


The full playlist of videos for all our courses is here.

Terry Pratchett, Death and Grammar

posted by Simon Kemp

As you probably know, Sir Terry Pratchett, beloved author of the Discworld novels, died on Thursday. In France — yes, he was beloved by the French as well — his death was reported by Libération as follows:

Peut-être la mort s’est-elle approchée et lui a dit «ENFIN, MONSIEUR TERRY, NOUS DEVONS CHEMINER ENSEMBLE». Car c’est ainsi, en lettres capitales, que parle la Mort, personnage récurrent de l’œuvre immense de Terry Pratchett, décédé aujourd’hui à l’âge de 66 ans.

Perhaps death approached and said to him, AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER. That’s how Death speaks, in capital letters. Death is a recurring character in the immense series of novels written by Terry Pratchett, who died today at the age of sixty-six.

(The full article is here.)

In the comments below the online version of the article are the same expressions of sadness that have accompanied every mention of Pratchett’s death on this side of the Channel. But not all of them. The first comment is cross, as are one or two of the others. And they are cross about grammar.

Sérieusement Libé : peut-être également la mort s’est-IL approché de lui. Car pour Sir Pratchett la Mort est un mâle, un mal nécessaire.

And again:

Il fallait écrire : Peut-être la mort s’est-il approché et lui a dit «ENFIN, MONSIEUR TERRY, NOUS DEVONS CHEMINER ENSEMBLE»

What they are annoyed about is the use of the feminine pronoun, elle in the original article to refer to Death.

What’s going on? Well, la mort in French is a feminine noun, so the correct pronoun to refer to it should be elle, as in this line by the Romantic writer, Chateaubriand:

La mort est belle; elle est notre amie.

In Discworld, however, Death is most definitely male. He’s a guy with a skull face and a big scythe who rides around on a pale horse called Binky, ushering souls into the next life. Pratchett’s creation unintentionally trespasses on one of the most fraught areas of the French language: the question of what to do when the grammatical system of masculine and feminine nouns comes into conflict with the real-world existence of male and female people (as well as male and female animals, supernatural entities or symbolic personifications).

In all such cases, as Libé failed to realize, the pronoun is determined by the actual gender of the person, not by the grammatical gender of the noun.

So, for example, une star/une vedette (a movie star) and une sentinelle (a sentinel) are feminine nouns that can refer to men:

La sentinelle s’est assoupie. Il n’avait pas bien dormi la nuit précédente.

Gaspard Ulliel est une star francaise. Les anglais le connaissent surtout pour des publicités d’une marque d’après-rasage, dans lesquelles il dit: “I am nert going to be ze person I am expected to be any more.”

Feminine nouns that can apply to men are rare. (Apart from la personne, those are the only two I can think of right now.) Masculine nouns that can apply to women are far more common, and include many job titles and other roles in life, for instance:

un architecte – architect

un juge – judge

un médecin – doctor

un professeur – teacher

un témoin – witness

The same rule applies as above, so:

Mon professeur de français s’appelle Mme Vergnaud. Elle est très intelligente.

This rule, however, has turned into a feminist issue, with many women objecting to being referred to in the masculine, and with new feminine alternatives being coined, such as une avocate for a female lawyer, or une écrivaine for a woman writer. Sometimes it’s simply the article that’s at issue, as with the ongoing debate as to whether it’s acceptable to continue to refer to women government ministers as madame le ministre, or if madame la ministre is more appropriate. Here is a nice video of a male politician calling his female colleagues ‘madame le ministre’, and ‘madame le président‘ to their evident displeasure, and getting very much owned in response when they refer to him as ‘monsieur la députée’:

“Monsieur la députée”, “Madame le président” by LeHuffPost

Libération, at least, managed to sort itself out, when, a little later the same day, they published a proper article on Pratchett. Not only do they get Death’s gender right, they also add a little explanation as to who he is and what he does:

A la toute fin, la Mort, avec sa faux et son long manteau noir, vient tous nous chercher. Il (car, il a beau s’appeler «La Mort», c’est un homme, si vous ne le saviez pas) ne voulait pas forcément que tout cela soit terminé. Il n’y a pas d’intérêt particulier, c’est simplement son travail. Jeudi, Il est venu chercher, peut-être à regret, l’un de ses plus grands amis : Terry Pratchett.

At the very end, Death, with his scythe and his long black cloak, comes for us all. He (for, even if he’s called ‘La Mort’, he’s a man, in case you didn’t know), didn’t necessarily want it all to end. He doesn’t have any particular axe to grind, it’s just his job. On Thursday, he came, perhaps unwillingly, for one of his greatest friends: Terry Pratchett.

P.S. Before I saw the Pratchett grammar nerds, I was planning to use this post to urge you to go and see Suite française, a rare chance to see some French literature on the big screen (albeit an English-language Hollywood adaptation of some French literature, but we take what we can get). I was also going to tell you the story of how Suite française came to be published, which is if anything a more extraordinary story than Suite française itself. I’ll save it for the DVD, but in the meantime, here’s the trailer:

P.P.S. That first comment from the grammar nerd I quoted, the one that began, Sérieusement Libé, also contained an untranslatable pun, which the commenter no doubt thought was very clever. Did you spot it?

Magneto! Gandalf! Grandet!

Someone at the BBC likes French literature, since they’ve barely finished their dramatization of Marie NDiaye’s Trois femmes puissantes and they’re already starting on Honoré de Balzac’s nineteenth-century masterpiece, Eugénie Grandet.

And this time, they have Gandalf.

Yes, Sir Ian McKellen is currently appearing as Grandet, the monstrous father to the luckless Eugénie, in a two-part radio production that you can stream (if you’re in the UK) here.

McKellen throws himself into the role with gusto (in fact, he’s just won an award for Best Actor in an Audio Drama for the performance) as the rich, miserly wine-grower who hoards his wealth while accusing his wife and daughter of turning their home into a bordello if they light too many candles in the living room. (Candles cost money, you see.)  Eugénie puts up with his eccentric ways, while patiently waiting to be married off to one of the many provincial bourgeois families buzzing around her and the rumoured fortune that she’ll inherit on her father’s death. Then, cousin Charles from Paris turns up on the doorstep, hoping to move in with the family now that his father has lost all his money and, we shortly discover, his life. The prospect of another mouth to feed sends Grandet into a huge fit of grumpiness, but what he doesn’t yet know is that a much bigger problem is brewing up as the charming, handsome and sophisticated Charles catches his daughter’s eye.

Trouble lies ahead…


Eugénie Grandet is perhaps the best-loved of all Balzac’s many stories. In his prolific output and his lively storytelling he’s French literature’s closest equivalent to Charles Dickens, except that — whisper it — he’s actually better than Dickens, because all his stories take place in the same fictional universe, which means that the same characters pop up in different novels, and you can trace a single character’s life across a dozen books, now a background extra in someone else’s story, now centre-stage in their own. All Balzac’s work is available in English translation as well as in French, lots of it has been filmed (including a great version of Le Colonel Chabert with Gérard Depardieu), and it’s definitely worth your time to check some of it out.

Open Days in 2015

The Taylor Institute Library, where you get to study when you’re a student here.

 posted by Simon Kemp

If you’re considering applying to study at Oxford, then the best way to check us out is to come to one of our open days. The Modern Languages Faculty holds four open days in the course of the year, in which you can see some of our facilities, hear about all the courses we have available and ask questions of the tutors and current undergraduates.

Due to pressure of numbers, all the open days need to be booked for, which you can do online. The May 2nd day is our largest event, and usually gets fully booked, so it’s worth getting tickets early. The other three days, on July 1st and 2nd and September 18th, are smaller scale, but have the advantage of coinciding with the general university open day, for which all the colleges of the university open their doors for you to wander around the grounds and meet the tutors. (You don’t need to book in for college visits.)

Here’s our schedule for this year:


Open Days schedule and bookings

Open Day Date Programme Bookings Contact
Main Faculty Undergraduate Open Day 2nd May 2015 Programme Book a place | Amend a booking | Cancel a booking Nicola Gard
*Faculty Undergraduate Open Day 1st & 2nd July 2015 Registration will open in the next few months Nicola Gard
*Faculty Undergraduate Open Day 18th September 2015 Registration will open in the next few months Nicola Gard

After booking, you will receive a ticket via email. If you do not receive your ticket within 24 hours, please check the spam folder in your email system and, if it is not there, contact it-support@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk.

Due to restricted places on our Open Days and the sheer volume of students wishing to attend, if after booking a place you are then unable to attend, please do cancel your place using the ‘cancel’ option(s) above, or email the relevant contact above to cancel your place for you.

Further Information

The Modern Languages prospectus for undergraduates is available by clicking here

A general prospectus for undergraduates is available by clicking here

Further information from Undergraduate Admissions is available by clicking here

Further details on our Open Days can be found by clicking here.

We hope to see you there.