End-of-year round-up

NoteCardParis1posted by Simon Kemp

Adventures on the Bookshelf is about to head off for its Christmas break. There’s just time for a quick look back at 2015 before we go.

For France, 2015 opened with a tragedy and has closed with another one. In January, we looked at responses in the French press to the shootings at Charlie Hebdo.

Last month, we found ourselves witnessing another massacre, this time on a much larger scale, with the attacks on the Bataclan concert hall, the Stade de France, and diners and drinkers of Paris’s cafe culture. Again, we looked at some of the responses to the events in the French media.

In between, though, there was much to explore in French language, literature and life. We learned how to make grammatically correct chocolate cake with the aid of glamorous French movie stars, discovered why Terry Pratchett causes trouble for French gender rules, and uncovered the complex secrets of the mysterious Mrs Vandertramp.

Expanding our vocabulary, we encountered the gripping etymological drama of the unicorn and the crayfish, found out what the cool kids on the street are saying these days, and learned the hidden connection between limousines and bayonets. Plus, there was the opportunity to laugh at hapless French sign-writers struggling with their own language, or try your skills in our fiendish faux-amis quiz.

Guest appearances were made by two more heroes who gave their lives to the service of the French nation and their surnames to the service of the French dictionary: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin and Etienne de Silhouette.

We also discovered what the students at Oxford have been up to lately, from turning parchments into webpages to falling in love with the Montmartre district of Paris.

As ever, there were suggestions of books and films you might like to if you want to explore French culture in a little more depth.

And, snuck in among the other posts, were a few reasons why you might like to think seriously about doing a degree in modern languages, and a little advice on how you might go about it if you wanted to apply to study the subject with us.

Merry Christmas to you from the Oxford Modern Languages Faculty. Thank you for reading, and we’ll see you on the first Wednesday in the New Year.



From Saint Nicolas to Petit Papa Noël


posted by Catriona Seth

In places like Lorraine, the former sovereign duchy which became a part of France in 1766 and is now a ‘département’, or in Fribourg, in Switzerland, one of the earliest signs of the festive season is the presence, in the local ‘boulangeries’, of figures made of ‘pain d’épices’ (gingerbread)—which the Swiss sometimes call ‘biscômes’—in the shape of a bishop, complete with a crook or crozier (‘une crosse’) and a mitre (‘une mitre’—the word for the episcopal headgear is the same). He is Saint Nicolas (there is no ‘h’ in the name in French), a 3rd century Turk who is the patron of Fribourg and of Lorraine, but also, amongst others, of sailors, physiotherapists and children. His feast day on December 6th is celebrated with public processions in which he walks the streets, with his donkey, sometimes accompanied by a darkly clad individual, the ‘Père fouettard’, literally the whipping father, who is supposed to chastise badly behaved boys and girls. Saint Nicolas, on the other hand, carries a long basked strapped to his shoulders like a backpack—it is called ‘une hotte’ and is similar to the one used by grape-pickers. In it he has presents and sweets for those who have not been naughty.


Because he was considered to be a major figure of the early Church, Saint Nicolas’ relics were revered in different places of worship like Bari in Italy, Fribourg—where his right arm is preserved in a jewelled reliquary—and Saint-Nicolas-de-Port, South of Nancy, in Lorraine, where one of his finger bones—a ‘phalange’ or phalanx—is still kept in the treasure-house of an important gothic basilica. The modern pageants grew out of religious ceremonies.

The name ‘Santa Claus’ is a deformation of Saint Nicolas or its Dutch version, Sint Nicolaas, and in many French-speaking regions the bishop has been overtaken by the jolly figure of Father Christmas as the purveyor of gifts to be opened no longer on December 6th, but on the 24th or 25th. ‘Le Père Noël’ is called upon to leave presents not in stockings, but in shoes left out at the foot of the tree—‘le sapin de Noël’. Whilst the tradition of singing carols is much less prevalent in French than in English, many French-speakers know the words to the musical equivalent of a letter to Santa, Petit Papa Noël—said to be, in Tino Rossi’s original version, the best-selling French single of all time. The singer (in fact a father giving voice to his sleeping son) asks Father Christmas not to forget his ‘petit soulier’ when he comes down from the skies to deliver thousands of toys—‘des jouets par milliers’. The request comes, even though he admits ‘je n’ai pas été tous les jours très sage’, but then again, hands up anyone who can claim only ever to have been good!

For a time-warp experience, you can find the original Tino Rossi recording of ‘Petit Papa Noël’ taken from the 1946 black and white film Destins here:

And Vincy’s lyrics here.

This is the chorus (‘le refrain’) of Petit Papa Noël:
Petit papa Noël
Quand tu descendras du ciel,
Avec des jouets par milliers,
N’oublie pas mon petit soulier.

And here is some vocabulary for the rest of the song:

La paupière : the eyelid.
Quelque chose me tarde: I am impatient for something to happen. The verb ‘tarder’ has the same root as ‘tard’ and ‘un retard’, meaning late and a delay.


Un joujou: a toy. Remember, ‘joujou’, which is a familiar term derived from ‘jouet’ is one of the words ending in ‘ou’ which has an irregular plural (not an ‘s’, but an ‘x’): des joujoux.

The following words all have irregular plurals with ‘x’: bijou, caillou, chou, genou, hibou, joujou & pou. Some French-speaking children learn the following mnemonic: ‘Viens mon chou, mon bijou, sur mes genoux, laisse tes joujoux et jette des cailloux à ce vieil hibou plein de poux.’

In the mnemonic, ‘chou’ is not used to mean ‘cabbage’ but as the equivalent of ‘dear’. ‘Un pou’ is a louse and ‘un hibou’, an owl.


‘Le marchand de sable’, literally ‘the sand merchant’, is the sandman who is said to sprinkle sand in children’s eyes to make them sleep and dream sweet dreams.


‘faire dodo’ is a familiar expression meaning to sleep. You sometimes encounter ‘dodo’ as a noun: ‘J’ai fait un bon dodo après le déjeuner’ is a way of saying I had a good sleep after lunch.

photo (13)


French Film Competition 2016!

Bande_de_filles_photo-Estelle-Hanania-©-Lilies-Filmsposted by Kate Rees

As in recent years, the Oxford University Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages is organising a French Film Competition, run with the help and generosity of Routes into Languages (South).

The competition has been a successful and entertaining way of getting young people interested in France and French culture, and has attracted hundreds of entries over the last few years. The challenge is to re-write the ending of a film in no more than 1500 words. It is open to all students of secondary-school age, from years 7-13. We’re also very keen to encourage filmed entries via Youtube submissions, so please feel free to re-imagine the endings of the chosen films in as creative a way as you can.

This year we have chosen two films directed by Céline Sciamma, an up and coming French director. Pupils in years 7-11 are invited to re-write the ending of Tomboy (2011), which sees a young girl moving to a new Parisian neighbourhood and exploring her own identity.


Those in years 12-13 are encouraged to look at Sciamma’s most recent film, Bande de filles (2014), which depicts the life of a group of young black girls coming of age in the suburbs of Paris. Raising issues of gender, race and class, this is also a film about friendship and conflict.


We very much enjoy judging the competition and are always impressed by the imagination and wit of the submissions. Entries should be submitted by email to french.essay@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk by noon on 31st March 2016.

A first prize of £100 will be awarded to the winning student in each category, with runner-up prizes of £25. For further details about entering the competition (including the points in each film where we’d like you to take up the story), please see the questions below, and go to http://www.mod-langs.ox.ac.uk/film_comp to find the link to the cover sheet for your entry.

We’re looking forward to reading your work!

  1. What counts as ‘the ending’ of the film?

We’d like you to start your re-writing from the following points:
Tomboy: from 1:06:03, when Laure’s mother says “Lève-toi tu dois t’habiller”

Bande de filles: from 1:16:59, when Marieme/Vic says ‘J’ai un plan’ to her friends.


  1. Does ‘re-writing’ mean I have to change everything?

There is nothing stopping you from watching the ‘real’ ending and then modifying it as you see fit. Indeed, you might find this helpful. Please note, though, that we’re looking for creative, entertaining and inventive new endings, which address as fully and plausibly as possible the strands of the story that are left unresolved at the end-points we’ve specified above.


  1. What form should the essay take?

There is no particular expectation as to how you submit your entry – you might like, for example, to submit it in screenplay format (with descriptions of camera angle, voice-over, lighting etc.), or as a play (with speech-prefixes and dialogue) or in prose, as in a novel. You might even like to submit your ‘new’ ending via YouTube or other social media..! If so, email us the link with your attached coversheet. The form should be the one you feel shows your creativity in the best light.


  1. Where can I or my school/college get hold of the films?

The DVDs are readily and affordably available via Amazon (http://www.amazon.co.uk or http://www.amazon.fr).


  1. Is there a limit to the amount of entries any one school can make?

Yes. There is a limit of 15 entries per school per age group.


  1. Should I enter as an individual or can I enter as part of a group?

We would ask you to keep to individually-named submissions, please: this is just to ensure as much as possible parity and fairness between entries, and to avoid any distinction between smaller and larger groups.