Friday, February 11, 2005

Faire faire

Finally, I've found a grammatical usage in french that is simpler and more versatile than its equivalent in english! You've seen this theme repeated here often, I know, concerning how french is more precise and complex than english. A great example is the word Get in english. You can get angry, get hungry, get a sandwich, get a job, get fired, get across the street, get a good grade, get even with somebody, etc. In french, there is a different verb for each of those examples and some where there is no real equivalent.

However, I did discover the use of faire that is much more versatile than I had originally thought. Faire means to make or to do and is quite commonly used. Tu fais un pizza ou tu fais un travail (you make a pizza or you do job). You can also pair it with another verb, which is also a structure you find in english. Je les ai fait sortir (I made them leave). Le professeur nous fait écrire un récit (the teacher made us write an essay). That's all pretty straightforward to the anglophone.

However, I'd seen it come up quite a lot more in my reading and I just skimmed it over as a stylistic idiom. Then, in class, the teacher said we were going to spend the morning on Faire Faire. Well, I thought, that seems to be a lot to spend two whole hours on. Maybe it's more complex for people who don't have the same construction in their own language. Ah, my naïveté. It turns out that you can make other people do things who aren't even there! Je fais faire un gateau. Translated literally, that means "I make to make a cake." What it means is "I'm having a cake made." What it means to a francophone's ears, culturally speaking, is that you are going to a cake shop and ordering a cake. This is the same for many services like that. So on peut faire nettoyer les chemises ("one can get their shirts washed" or "one can take their shirts to the cleaners where they will be washed"). And my personal favorite, je vais faire livrer un pizza ("I'm going to have a piza delivered).

Two things struck me about this. The first is that the teacher expressed how difficult it was for her and other francophones to construct these kinds of sentences in english. When I thought about it, I could see how awkward and subtly structured that kind of grammar. "I make a cake" versus "I'm going to have a cake made." To the non-native speaker, to have (when not being itself), is almost always used in english as an auxilary for the past tense (I have made a cake). That weird passive voice without a subject must seem very tricky. And using get, as in "I'm going to get a cake made" is even worse. So I rejoiced quietly that for once there was something easier to understand and construct in english.

My second thought—and now after having written the above, I'm not so confident in it's validity—is that the french construction seems to efface the subject more than the english. In both french and english, this usage tends to be concerned with services that others are doing for the speaker. And in both cases, the person who is performing the service is not actually present as the subject in the sentence. "I'm going to have my shirts cleaned" makes no mention of cleaner. However, at least you've slipped into the passive voice, which then suggests the absence of the subject. French uses the passive voice a lot. Yet in this construction, they don't. It looks as if the subject is performing all of the action. There is no past participle, as there is in english. So in english, "I'm having a cake made" is "I'm going to make make a cake" in french. Which suggests, to my mind, an even greater effacement of the subject, which then (and I'm stretching here) suggests a society that places service people further down on the social scale.

Furthermore, it seems to me, and this is very subjective, that in english, we don't use this construction as often. Few people say "I'm going to have a cake made." They tend to say, "I'm ordering a cake" or "I'm getting a cake from the bakery," phrases that implicitly suggest someone else is actually doing the work. When I first understood that Je vais faire livrer un pizza meant "I'm going to have a pizza delivered," it sounded to me like it was a magician speaking, as if he was going to wave a magic wand and a pizza woud suddenly be delivered, since he was "making to deliver a pizza." Today's french, unlike today's english, reflects its past strongly and I believe that this faire faire construction is an excellent example of that.

Unfortunately, my happiness at discovering this simple construction was short-lived, when I also learned that there are a lot of things that must be made to do something rather than simplying doing it. What am I talking about? Well, in french you don't send a letter and you don't cook a turkey. You make to send your letter and make your turkey cook. Je te fais parvenir une letter ("I'm sending you a letter"). Ma mère a fait cuire un dinde pour Noël ("My mother cooked a turkey for Christmas"). Almost every cooking verb takes faire before it. The reasoning behind this is that you are not actually sending this letter or cooking this turkey. The mail system is sending the letter and the stove is doing the cooking. Logically, it makes sense and is, again, more precise than english.

Which, following on my initial preposterous theory, suggests that the french have a greater appreciation of their machines and operations than we english speakers do. What that means, socially and culturally speaking, I'll leave you to ponder.


Anonymous said...

Je fais donc je suis.

WeSailFurther said...

You said:
"Few people say "I'm going to have a cake made." They tend to say, "I'm ordering a cake" or "I'm getting a cake from the bakery," phrases that implicitly suggest someone else is actually doing the work."

In English, most people say they are going to have a cake made when they are actually going to have a cake made for them, a custom, personally designed/ordered cake. They say they are going to "get a cake" when said cake is already made and they just have to go to the cooler and pick it out. Maybe I'm being too picky, after all, you did say that ordering a cake was a good example of English speakers using that construction.

I don't know if it is the difference between how speakers feel about the service workers or if it is actually the looseness of the you said in your earlier post about literalism...the listener will undertsand that saying "I'm getting a cake" could mean picking it up or getting it made custom. It's less work for the speaker and more work for the listener-if the listener wants to know if the cake is custom or stock they have to ask. Waste of time when the speaker could just give that information in the opening statement. Maybe it's just a matter of self-centeredness on the part of American English speakers..."I'm gifting you with my words/ideas and you'll take them how I feel like giving them to you."

I wish I knew enough German to make a comparison between the three languages. But if I recall correctly it is also a pretty precise language, though it seems like it is English's closest relative.

Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts. One thing to consider though is that the French actually don't use the passive voice anywhere near as often as we do in English. For example, they would be more likely to say "on m'a montr� un beau tableau" than "j'ai �t� montr� un beau tableau". They seem to have an aversion to the passive because not only do they use "on" to make up a subject even when there isn't a direct "person" who "does" the verb, but they also use reflexive verbs (la maison se trouve � Paris, not la maison est trouv� � Paris).

All this means that using an expression such as "faire faire" is not necessarily indicative of "a society that places service people further down on the social scale", as you said. What you say is probably right, but I'm not sure about the reasoning behind it!

J Wilson said...

Thanks - I am trying to learn this bit of French just now ! Merci pour votres penses !

Unknown said...

In a teaching or ODA context: "faire-faire" = learning by doing :-)