Intermission – French phrases (Sunday, 2010 July 4)

July 6, 2010

Gus asked me in an email whether there were any cool phrases I’ve picked up. Here are a few.

  1. "laisser tomber". I was on the fence about this. There’s no French verb for "drop", as in "I dropped my cell phone." Instead you say you "let fall" something. This seems silly but in fact I think it’s pretty convenient for cases like this morning, where I moved something that nudged my watch off the ledge to plummet six feet to the ground, cracking the liquid crystal irreperably. I didn’t "drop" my watch, but I sure did "let fall" the cheap piece of shit. J’ai laissé tomber ma montre.
  2. "il menace de pleuvoir". "It is threatening to rain." This made the list first because I like the way it sounds. Each morning I check outside to see whether I should wear my boots or can get away with the sandals (I don’t wear my sneakers because not appropriate and my dress shoes because too annoying to get the mud/dirt off of them.) Each morning il menace de pleuvoir and I decide to go with my boots. But from what I’ve seen there’s a lot more menace than pleuvoir — even yesterday, when it really started to come down, it let up ten or fifteen minutes later. This is "rainy" season, but I guess there is also a "very rainy season" which might be more severe. In any event my boots are starting to smell, so I might let ’em air out for a few days and take the sandals anyhow (once I get back to training, that is).
  3. "ils s’occupent de toi". The verb "s’occuper de" + something has a basic meaning of "spending time on" + something. I’ve heard it used in meanings that tended towards "He’s busy with you" as well as meanings more like "He’s taking care of you". The above was what my host brother said of the people at the Peace Corps who were taking care of me when I was sick.
  4. "Du courage". "Take heart." This is what my host family says when they see me struggling with French, or with laundry, or with other trivial tasks that are nevertheless really challenging all of a sudden. It’s also what the trainers tell me when they see me panicking that I will never be a real teacher. Somehow hearing it always makes me feel better.
  5. "ado", short for "adolescent", which you can probably guess at. I like it because it reminds me of the English word "teenager".

There is another French thing I wanted to mention and that is the gender of nouns. This is one area of the Romance languages that a lot of my friends probably think doesn’t make any damn sense. Even one of my French grammar books says something like "French nouns are arbitrarily assigned to genders. It will take you some time with the language before you get a feel for how gender of nouns is used." But the thing to realize about grammatical gender is that it is not a gender of a concept, but a gender of a word — it’s an orthographic property, not a physical property.

In other words, you may be tempted to say that it doesn’t make sense that, for example, "pomme" meaning "apple" or, in usage, "potato" (pomme de terre) is feminine, since the potato or apple doesn’t really have a gender. But that’s like complaining about the spelling of word "dog" by saying "How can this little Chihuahua be spelled the same way as this huge St. Bernard? You should be using capitals for the St. Bernard." Get it? It’s an orthographic property, and it has nothing to do with the objects themselves. It’s "arbitrary" in the same way that other forms of spelling are arbitrary, and it is difficult to remember and apply in the same way that, for example, tonal languages take time to get the hang of, for the same reason — it’s an orthographic property that we don’t use in English, and your brain just doesn’t have space for it in each word. But there are words for which that spelling/pronounciation difference actually has consequences — for example, "une tour" is a tower, whereas "un tour" is a turn. ("It’s my turn.") And even when it doesn’t, getting it wrong marks you a rube the way any other shitty pronounciation/spelling mistake marks you a rube.

Comments are closed.