Mon époux

Last Friday, I celebrated my third wedding anniversary! It’s hard to believe that it’s already been three years since that magic day. We shared a wonderful evening of fun and food to celebrate, but this article isn’t about that at all. Those of you who know me well won’t be too surprised to learn that my anniversary celebration eventually turned to a discussion of linguistics and etymology. “Etymology on your anniversary?!” Yes, yes … I know. I’m a geek. I admit it. That’s the real testament to our marriage, after all: that my incessant droning about language and history hasn’t resulted in divorce proceedings!

So how did this subject even come up? Well, it has to do with the French word for husband. (See? There is a connection!) The French have a couple of ways to say the word — mari or époux — and it’s the latter that sparked the idea for this article. You see, while the English word “husband” doesn’t come from French (like “wife,” it’s from Old English), the general term for the person you’re married to (your “spouse“) does.  Continue reading Mon époux

franecdote 1694 : In So Many Words

Used under Creative Commons
Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic License

I started a new Thursday night tradition a few weeks ago called “THAT year in French history” where I publish a “franecdote” (an interesting fact or story from French history) on the blog’s Facebook fanpage. The key is that “THAT year” depends on the number of Facebook fans je parle américain has every Thursday night. Without going into a long explanation since you can read more about it here …

Screen Shot 2013-07-07 at 11.07.00 PM

… the first franecdote was published on June 20, 2013, when je parle américain had 319 Facebook fans, so it was for the year


And now, here it is for the first time on the blog itself … Continue reading franecdote 1694 : In So Many Words

French Kiss: Don’t Forget Your Galoshes

From the 1995 Lawrence Kasdan romantic comedy French Kiss
starring Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline

This might come as a surprise to you but, before today, the French didn’t even have an officially-sanctioned word for one of their most famous romantic exports:

French Kissing

That’s right. The very practice that returning World War I soldiers nicknamed after the French has only just now gotten its own entry in the French dictionary. This racy new vocabulary word?


Continue reading French Kiss: Don’t Forget Your Galoshes

The “All Good” Law

Languages are always evolving, and the speed at which they’re doing it has only increased in recent years. Broader international travel, continued waves of migration, and the dawn of the Information Age have made cultural exchange, including the importation of words from other languages, quicker and easier than ever before. There’s a clear trade imbalance, though, and it’s English that’s the chief exporter these days. And the French are very sensitive to that. Continue reading The “All Good” Law

Le petit chapeau

Disclaimer: I’m not a linguist (yet) so, if you are one, please be gentle in your reactions if I’ve gotten something completely wrong …

As English speakers, one of the first things we notice about French is the widespread use of diacritical marks — or “accents” to be less linguistic about it. For students of the language (native speakers and non-native speakers alike) they can sometimes be the bane our existence. Accents obviously aren’t necessary — we don’t really use them in English, after all* — but they serve important functions in the languages that do use them. Sometimes, they denote a change in the pronunciation of the underlying letter. In French, for example, ça and ca don’t sound the same. Sometimes, though, accents don’t change the pronunciation at all; instead, they serve an orthographic (spelling) function to distinguish homophones. For example, la and là sound exactly the same in French but have entirely different meanings. Even though modern French is full of accents (the accent aigu, the accent grave, the tréma, etc.), they were introduced relatively late to the language. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find many diacritical marks in a text from the Middle Ages. So what explains their introduction? Well, a comprehensive account of the evolution of French accents is thankfully far too complex to go into here, but I do want to talk about one in particular that has an interesting story and implications for English-speaking students of French:

le petit chapeau … the little hat … the circumflex Continue reading Le petit chapeau

Second Breakfast

The inspiration for this post — believe it or not — was an ultrasound I had yesterday. Don’t worry: It turns out that I’m not pregnant nor do I have an appendicitis or a hernia. What I feared might be a more serious condition was, in fact, just an infection from a ninja spider bite. But that’s a story for another day, because you want to know what in the world that has to do with “second breakfast.” Continue reading Second Breakfast

Hooked on Phonics

You all know that I’m a perpetual French student; it’s how I justify to the French government my need to stay in their country every year. In fact, I’m now on my fourth semester of French classes here, the third time at the highest level they teach at my school. I truly enjoy both my grammar class and my French culture seminars. There’s just one class that I simply cannot stand:


Phonetics class is where I spend 5 hours a week, every other week, sitting in a soundproofed cubicle, wearing headphones, repeating French sentences … over and over and over … and then listening to a recording of my voice saying these things … over and over and over. It’s a quixotic quest to improve what Michel continues to assure me is a charming American accent. (Of course, I have to take that compliment with a grain of salt, since he’s not exactly a unbiased observer.) Phonetics class is, simply put, a torturous experience … but it’s necessary. I recently had an experience that comically demonstrates why.

Friday afternoon, I took my Swedish friend Helena to my new favorite Paris sweetshop, Sugar Daze. We ordered a few cupcakes and some coffee and sat down to chat and catch up with each other. Incidentally, Paris schools were on fall break this week, so the children of Sugar Daze’s owner, Cat, were hanging out in the store as well. At one point, Helena and I started talking about our phonetics classes, I pulled out a page of my phonetics exercises, and I started reading them aloud. That’s when Cat’s adorable, bilingual five(?)-year-old daughter — who apparently had been listening to us — interrupted in a completely serious, inquisitive tone:

“Why are you speaking Spanish?”


Classic! I just couldn’t stop laughing!

And voilà, folks: a case in point for why phonetics classes are in – di – spen – sable (pronounced with the proper French accent, stress, and rhythm, please)!


Back to the soundproofed cubicle.

© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

Nuit Blanche

I’ve been wanting to write about this French expression for a while now, and I finally have the occasion!

Nuit blanche is the French expression for an “all-nighter” — literally “white night.” It refers to a night when you don’t sleep at all, and it could result from any of several reasons — including, importantly for  a student, staying up all night cramming for a test. But for most French, I suspect, a nuit blanche is associated with partying all night long!

<cue Lionel Ritchie>

Since 2002, “La Nuit Blanche” has been used to refer to an annual all-night arts festival in Paris. Every October, the city’s museums, art galleries, and cultural centers open to the public free of charge for an entire night. In fact, the City of Light truly lives up to its nickname by turning itself into an outdoor art gallery with performance spaces and art installations all over the place. The history of La Nuit Blanche is long, but it seems to have been inspired initially by Helsinki’s 1989 “Night of the Arts” and the subsequent wave of such nocturnal arts festivals across Europe. You can click here for some of the history of La Nuit Blanche, and here for a guide to Paris’s most recent festivities on October 6 of this year.

My nuit blanche this week was just a bit different, though …

Continue reading Nuit Blanche

Perpetual Student

If you know me well, you know that I’ve spent a heck of a lot of time learning things that I haven’t necessarily parlayed into gainful employment. I graduated from a high school specializing in science and math, but I didn’t become a scientist or a mathematician. Then I went off to college to study architecture, but didn’t become an architect. In fact, I changed my major to political science, but I didn’t become a political scientist either — even after following up with a degree in foreign affairs. Instead, I ended up working as the marketing director for — of all things — a professional society of pension actuaries! I guess the only time I’ve actually put all that book-learnin’ to practical use was after law school when I became a lawyer for seven years. Thank goodness for that, too, because my savings from that time in my life helped me move to France without a job and start a new chapter here as … <drumroll> …

a student.

This time, for obvious reasons, I became a student of French. After all, when I moved to France in 2010, I only remembered a smattering of the French I’d studied two decades earlier in high school. Initially, I anticipated a year of French courses and then, of course, I’d be gainfully employed in France doing … something. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, though. I even got certified to teach English back in March, but I’m still looking for what I’ve started to describe as “the ever-elusive teaching gig.” As a non-EU citizen, I need to find an employer who’s willing to sponsor me for a work visa, but no one wants to jump through the hoops of French bureaucracy when a qualified EU citizen can do the job just as well. Another option is to become an independent contractor, but that involves a complicated process that isn’t guaranteed a positive resolution. I’m keeping all options on the table, though. In any case, don’t worry about me too much. I do have a few irons in the fire at the moment, so keep your fingers crossed. Continue reading Perpetual Student

“I’m fabulous, baby!”

Putting aside my recent frustration at the post office and the continuing saga of my immigration headache, I’m having a fairly entertaining couple of weeks hanging out in Paris theaters. Tomorrow night, Michel‘s musical theater troupe returns to the stage with their September reprise of Pas de Gondoles pour Denise. I’m obviously partial, but this amateur troupe’s latest production is, quite simply, top-notch fun … and the Paris theater critics agree. A fun and uplifting tale about the search for love, the story of Denise unfolds on stage through powerful vocals and impressive choreography, with a musical score set to the melodies of popular songs. I’ll be there Friday night (with friends) and Saturday night (with Michel’s family) for my third and fourth times seeing the show.

As much as I’d like to encourage you to come out and see Denise, there won’t be any available seats for the September shows by the time you read this. They will go on tour around France, though, in the coming months, so stay tuned. I’ll keep you posted! In the meantime, how about this:

That’s right! Sister Act … the Musical … in French!

Continue reading “I’m fabulous, baby!”