Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The Systematic Tyranny of the French

I'm finding french to be very difficult. The deeper and deeper that I get into it, the more complex it's becoming and the more vaster the amount of information I need is growing. It's frustrating and at time discouraging.

I have learned enough french that I can say that I know probably all of the grammatical elements and rules. And I know them fairly well. I definitely need a lot more drilling and memorization, but I am getting good grades on all my tests, and can do all the questions and exercises without referring to my notes.

However, what I'm starting to realize is that french is an extremely empirical language. What I mean by that is that it really isn't governed by any overall theoretical system that you can apply to a given situation. You just have to know what a french person would say in that situation and how they would say it. Yes, they have the subject verb object relationship of all romance languages and they generally tend to stick to that, but all the other grammatical elements are so filled with exceptions that it's really a stretch to say that there are rules at all in French. Not to say that it's a flexible language. Au contraire, mon ami! There is always a right way and wrong way to say something in french and they will always let you know when you've said it the wrong way.

Here is an example of what I'm talking about: adjectives. This part of speech, as most of us should know, exists to qualify or describe a noun. In english, the adjective always goes before the noun. Done. That's the rule. In french, the adjective can go before and after the noun. However, when you choose to put it before or after a noun is extremely complicated. Colors, for instance, always go after the noun. That's one hard and fast rule that I have actually yet to see broken. But I'm certainly not counting on it. (Seriously, french is so nuts that I wouldn't be surprised if someone said, every color except chartreuse goes after the noun). Supposedly, adjectives of more than 2 syllables also go after the noun. But incroyable and excellent can go before or after. There are also adjectives that have different meanings depending on where they are placed. Pauvre (poor) for instance. Un pauvre homme is a man for whom one feels pity. Un homme pauvre is a man who has little money. This usage is actually quite cool, allowing nuances and interesting double entendres. (The Bloc Quebecois tag for this year's election was "La Propre Partie du Québec" which means literally "Québec's own party" but propre, when it comes after the noun also means clean, so it had a suggestion that they weren't corrupt, which is patently false, but it was a nice piece of language anyways.).

That is just a small piece of french grammar and as you can see, it requires a lot of memorization and just practice. There are so many things like that. Adjectives also have to agree in gender and quantity with the noun they are qualifying. That's tough enough, but on top of it there are tons of exceptions. So you say "les fleures vertes" (the green flowers. Green is vert, but you have to add an "e" because flowers are feminine and an "s" because it's plural in this case). But if you say "les fleurs vert et blanc" (the white and green flowers), you don't make the adjectives agree because you don't do that with composed colors. Why? Only the french know and they're not telling. Sorry to bog you down in these details, but I'm trying to give you sense of what I go through every single class. Each day there is some new exception that totally throws you. We spent an hour today discussing when you say "jour" (day) and "journée" (day). The same goes for "soir" (evening) and "soirée" (evening).

So why am I complaining? I know, it's a language. It wasn't designed from the ground up, but is a rich reflection of the societies and history of a certain region and has developed over centuries and is still changing today. I can appreciate that and I'm certainly no fan of esperanto. But what bugs me is that the french textbooks and teachers are always acting like there is some system and set of rules guiding everything. So when you start out with French you're lulled into this idea that when you encounter some grammar that you don't understand, you'll be able to figure it out by following the rules. But there are no rules! Obviously, you have to learn the basics, but after that, I think you've just got to let go of any theoretical crutches and just memorize, listen, read and talk to people as much as you can. If you start looking for the french for justification for usage, you get into these crazy discussions that make your head swim. The teacher pulls out this huge book that explains just why tout (all) is an adjective only in the singular and an indefinite pronoun in the plural and why sometimes you pronounce the "s" in tous and other times you don't. It's maddening.

And there are much more systematic languages that manage to maintain a rich literature and spoken culture. In spanish for instance, you always pronounce everything the same way! It's brilliant and easy and hasn't stifled them at all. I appreciate that french is a complex language, but stop trying to tell me that it makes some kind of sense. It's rich and nuanced, but it is not well-structured and is riddled with kluges and exceptions.

Now here's the rub. This is from the same people that brought us the metric system! That's right. It was established under Napoleon's regime and when he conquered Europe, he got it in place there. I don't know how the french managed to force the rest of the world to follow suit since then. If anyone knows of a good book on the history of the metric system, I'd love to know about it. Anyways, why did they work so hard to dismantle a perfectly good system of measuring to be replaced by a soulless, impractical, yet highly efficient and systemized one but not do anything to their language? Bizarre.


Anonymous said...

what's a kluge?

Former Lanzvillian

Buzby said...

‘An ill-assorted collection of poorly-matching parts, forming a distressing whole’ (Granholm); esp. in Computing, a machine, system, or program that has been improvised or ‘bodged’ together; a hastily improvised and poorly thought-out solution to a fault or ‘bug’

Anonymous said...

I feel your pain... I really do!

I spoke french all my life and I still struggle to write it well.

But you know, English is still a challenge for me. I know it's simpler, or at least more coherent, but still...


boulet said...

I feel for you ! French is a tough language. I won't deny it. The very exasperation you express has been something I experienced when trying to teach French for an Adult Education program.

About adjectives here is an extra thorn on your side: bonnet blanc et blanc bonnet (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/blanc_bonnet,_bonnet_blanc)
Most of the times colors are used as you mentioned : after the noun. But old French/poetic French use a little freedom on this "rule".

I agree that pronunciation can be tricky, especially consonants going mute sometimes. But English is far from any systematism too: how do you pronunce bass ? Is it the fish or the music instrument ? My feeling : once you know the basic patterns, one should be able to say a new French word correctly just by seeing how it's written. With English it's way more random.