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:

[fəˈnɛtɪks]

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?”

<ba-dum-dum>

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)!

<sigh>

Back to the soundproofed cubicle.

© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

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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

“He took the midnight train goin’ anywhere.”

I’m a nerd.

Today, I watched the season one finale of GleeAs you probably all know, Glee is a musical comedy television show about a fictional high school glee club in small-town Ohio. I’ll admit it — I’m a fan. It’s kitschy and the music is almost always top notch — especially when Mercedes is belting it out. Anyway, during the season finale, the glee club ended up choosing a medley of Journey songs for their number at the Midwest regional competition. Here’s how they opened their performance:

Not bad, huh?

They closed with “Don’t Stop Believin'” — of course. It was their anthem, after all. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a good YouTube clip of that part of the performance.) Anyway …”What,” I’m sure you’re wondering, “besides being such a Glee fan that I’m paying homage to it on my blog, makes me such a nerd?”  Well, as soon as I saw Will Schuester write the word “JOURNEY” on his big flipchart in the rehearsal room at the beginning of that episode, two things immediately came to mind: Continue reading “He took the midnight train goin’ anywhere.”

The Top Ten Things I’ve Learned While Living in France

A few days ago, I wrote about the second anniversary of my departure for France. I described how my life had changed as a result — about what I had left behind and what I had discovered here. Since then, I’ve been ruminating on the various lessons I’ve learned during the last two years as an expat in France. Here are my top ten:

1.     When people say that French bureaucrats are paper shufflers extraordinaire, they aren’t exaggerating. In fact, they may be understating the case. I’ve never seen such a paper-centric modern society in my life: a form for this, another form that’s exactly the same (except for two questions) to accompany the first form you already filled out, mail it in or make an appointment to drop it off. By no means may you send it electronically. If you want to survive as an expatriate in France, here’s my advice:

Invest in a good ink-jet printer and several reams of paper. You’ll need two copies of everything, s’il vous plaît … plus an extra one for your files for that moment when you discover that they’ve misplaced the two copies you already gave them. (Take my word for it; this can happen.)

2.     The French are schizophrenic about one of their own scientific discoveries: pasteurization. On one hand, they don’t pasteurize their cheese. That’s a good thing, because it tastes better that way but — since the U.S. government apparently views non-pasteurized cheese as a chemical weapon — I’d have to smuggle a Camembert into the country under the noses of those Immigration and Customs Enforcement dogs if I wanted my parents to taste a real one. (Make sure you read my August 29 revelation about importing smelly French cheese, though.)

"Louis Pasteur in His Laboratory" by Albert Edelfelt
“Louis Pasteur in His Laboratory” by Albert Edelfelt

On the other hand, the French don’t just pasteurize their milk … they ultra-pasteurize it. (I won’t get all scientific on you, but there’s a difference of about 115º in the process.) That allows the French to package and store their super-clean milk in unrefrigerated bottles or cartons for months on end. Why? It apparently has something to do with limitations on refrigeration here … like not having enough room in the fridge for all your Camembert AND your milk at the same time. (See 7, below.)

3.     The Paris Métro is undeniably a marvel of public transportation, but it stinks … literally. Let’s just be brutally honest here for a minute. The Paris Métro has a certain charm with all those green and white 1960s-era trains rolling through its hundreds of art nouveau stations, but being authorized to eat and drink in the Métro does us no favors, folks …

4.     Don’t be fooled by what looks like a toll-free number in France. Why, yes, they do have numbers here with prefixes that evoke the 1-800, 1-888, 1-877, 1-866 family of truly free telephone numbers we have back in the U.S., but that doesn’t mean that it always works that way here. The rule of thumb: never trust a number with a prefix any higher than 0809. The vast majority of 08 numbers in France are in fact toll numbers, and the amount you pay can range up to 0.75 euros ($1) a minute. The good thing is that the numbers belong to color-coded families, so always look for GREEN numbers … these numéros verts are always free. The unfortunate thing is that many (perhaps most) customer service numbers aren’t green, which leads us to the next lesson …

"green number ... free call from a land line"
“green number … free call from a land line”

5.     The French are experts at profanity. They are also, as we all know, the world champions of nonchalance. (That’s why we just use their word for it.) When these two character traits come together, you discover a marvelously nuanced array of how to say, as Rhett Butler so famously put it, “I don’t give a damn.” It takes a bit of practice, but dealing on a regular basis with French bureaucracy (or customer service calls you have to pay for) can put you well on your way to successfully distinguishing the appropriate audience and circumstances for such exclamations as:

  • Je m’en fiche! (literally, something like “I put myself out of that!”)
  • Je m’en fous! (literally, something like “I do myself out of that!”)
  • Je m’en tape! (literally, something like “I tap myself out of that!” … keeping in mind that “tap” can have the same slang meaning in French as it can in English)
  • Je m’en bats les … ! (literally, something like “I beat my … !” … well, I’ll just stop there and leave to the rest to your imagination.) You probably understand already that this is the last one in the arsenal.

And, simply adding “contre” right before the verb (“Je m’en contrefous!“) just reinforces how much you don’t give a damn! … !!!

You can always find rough equivalents between French and English swear words, too, including the euphemisms we’ve created to replace them in polite company. For instance, “merde” and “mince” are the French equivalents of “sh*t” and its polite cousin “shoot.” It might be an oversimplification, but from what I’ve seen and heard, French profanity is simply a little less profane than English profanity. (That might explain why I have no qualms about publishing “merde” but you don’t see the S-word spelled out.) What I mean is, saying “merde” doesn’t seem nearly as eyebrow-raising in French circles as the S-word is in ours. Another case in point is the word usually translated into English as the F-word: putain. Literally, it means “whore,” but it’s used as both an interjection and an adjective to express … well, almost anything depending on the context. Don’t just take my word for it — check this out:

By the way, if you don’t want to sound too crass by blurting out “putain,” you can always trot out the polite-company equivalent: “punaise.” After all of that, I realize that I’m actually giving this topic short shrift. I see some real research and a full post on this in the future. Stay tuned …

6.     As melodic and enchanting as the French language is (and as colorful, too, given number 5), the French are also experts at nonverbal communication. Despite the adage that there are no stupid questions, the truth is that there are, and if you ask one in France, you’re likely to get a look that very efficiently communicates that fact without so much as a sigh from your respondent. The French can also express an entire range of sentiment from sympathetic support to mild annoyance to overt hostility just by puffing air through their lips. It’s all a question of how forcefully it’s done. Take a look at this … (the whole video is great, but there’s a good example of what I’m talking about at about 0:55 – 1:05):

7.     Air conditioning is one of the most brilliant inventions in human history. You recognize this undeniable truth when you no longer have it. Here in Paris, summer is usually fairly mild by the standards of the Deep South, but every now and then you wake up in a sweat to a forecast high of 101ºF. That’s when you start cursing France for being a third world country, and you hurry off to the nearest supermarket to hang out in the frozen food section. Let’s face it … that dormitory mini-fridge won’t ever cut it as a make-shift air conditioner.

But it only felt like 99º with the ovenesque breeze. Same forecast for today.
But it only felt like 99º with the ovenesque breeze. Same forecast for today.


So, there you have it — my humorous look at the top ten …
okay, okay
seven things I’ve learned while living in France.

(You have to cut me a break, guys. My laptop was starting to overheat,
and I didn’t have enough battery life to make it to
the ice cream case at Super U.)
I hope you enjoyed it. Come back soon!

© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

Labor Disputes, Wooden Shoes, and Italian Bread

Today’s “French English” word is “sabotage.” Everyone, I’m sure, knows what sabotage means: as a verb, it means to deliberately destroy, damage, or obstruct something; as a noun, it’s the act of doing that. But where does the word come from? As it turns out, “sabotage” has a direct relation to wooden shoes. “Wooden shoes?” you ask. Why, yes. Here’s how …

We generally associate wooden shoes with the Dutch, of course, who are often stereotypically depicted wearing them while picking tulips in front of their windmills. They weren’t the only people, however, who traditionally wore these clunky things; in fact, they were common among peasants all over Europe, including France, where they were called “sabots.” Eventually, sabot also became a slang term for the poor country folk who, during France’s Industrial Revolution, were brought into the cities to work in the factories when city dwellers went on strike. The verb “saboter” had originally been used in French to mean “to knock or tap with the foot” or “to walk noisily,” from the sound the wooden shoes would make on cobblestones, but with the arrival of these sabots in the factories, the word took on a new meaning. Because the sabot-wearing peasants weren’t familiar with the modern machinery, saboter became slang for “to bungle a job” and “sabotage” became the slang term for their poor quality work. Every strike has its end, though, and the city-dwelling workforce eventually returned to the factories. But they’d apparently learned a new bargaining tactic from the sabotsContinue reading Labor Disputes, Wooden Shoes, and Italian Bread

Make Yourself Comfortable

One of the “French English” words that I love most is “comfortable” because … well, like most people, I like being comfortable in a comfortable place. That’s one of the great things about the word — it can describe both someone who’s in a state of physical or mental comfort and the thing or condition that makes them that way. “I’m so comfortable when I’m lying in my comfortable bed!” Like that. Little did I know when I came to France, though, the French equivalent “confortable” doesn’t work quite the same way …

As much as I like being comfortable, I like to know that the people around me are comfortable, too. I’m almost nebby about it … “Is everything alright? Are you okay? Can I get you something? Are you comfortable?” Whether it was on the sofa while watching a movie, in a train on our vacation, or during a quick aside when meeting my family or friends, I was constantly asking my husband Michel if he was comfortable …

Ça va? Tu es confortable?

On the outside, Michel was telling me that everything was fine but, on the inside, he was apparently laughing at me. Continue reading Make Yourself Comfortable

It’s bissextile …

Monday afternoon, I realized something fairly mundane but nonetheless rare: it was Leap Year and today was going to be Leap Day. Sitting at my desk, I turned to Michel and I started to tell him that (in French, because we almost always speak in French now), but I stopped short when I couldn’t find the word …

“Hé, Michel. Mercredi, on sera le jour de … euh … c’est le …
tu sais … le 29 février. Comment on dit ça en français?”
“Hey, Michel. Wednesday is the day of … um … it’s the …
you know … the 29th of February. How do you say that in French?”

“Oh, c’est la bissextile.”
“Oh, it’s the bissextile.”

<one raised eyebrow>

“Euh, la quoi?”
“Uh, the what?”

After my brain had a few seconds to parce the word and realize it had nothing to do with what I thought I’d heard, I started to wonder how the French came up with the name. It didn’t seem to have anything at all to do with leaping, or jumping, or hopping …

As usual, I did a little low-level research (meaning lots of Wikipedia articles). Michel was actually using the French adjective describing Leap Year. The adjective bissextile and the far less common noun for Leap Day, bissexte, come from the Latin word for the extra day in a Leap Year : bisextus, which itself is formed from bis (twice, second) plus sextus (the sixth). Okay, but why bisextus … why “the second sixth”?

Continue reading It’s bissextile …

Suspense. It’s French … sort of.

SUSPENSE

a : mental uncertainty : anxiety
   b : pleasant excitement as to a decision or outcome <a novel of suspense>

— from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Suspense is a “French English” word that has a few meanings in our language but is used most often to describe a sense of nervous anticipation, whether the circumstances involve dread or eagerness. For instance, we feel suspense when we’re waiting for someone to make a decision that’s out of our hands :

“Oh, please, please! Let them make a decent offer on my apartment so I can finally sell it!”

“When am I going to hear back from the prefecture? And what am I going to do if they end up refusing to renew my visa?”  

But we can also feel it when we’re watching a television show and the episode ends with a dramatic event, while leaving the story unresolved :

“What in the world are they going to do now? Is he alive or dead? And what am I supposed to do with myself until next week?!”

                                                              … or when we’re reading a book, the chapter ends with a cliffhanger, and despite the fact that we have to get up early the next morning, we just have to start the next one. 

“Suspense” came into Middle English from Anglo-French, one of those lexical imports during the first few centuries after the Norman Conquest. Its first recorded English use was in 1306 in the legal term “en suspens” meaning “not executed, unfulfilled.” By 1440, the word had also developed the sense of a “state of mental uncertainty” … because, I guess, whatever legal judgment that was “en suspens” had not yet been carried out and the future was stressfully unclear. The Anglo-French “suspens” itself derives from the Old French “suspens,” from the Latin  “suspensus” (the past participle of the verb “suspendere“) meaning “delayed.” Continue reading Suspense. It’s French … sort of.

Got a chimney? It’s French.

A while back, I posted about how much of the English language comes from French. Perhaps surprisingly, more English vocabulary comes from French than from any other language source, even Anglo-Saxon—some 30% in fact. Speaking English words of French origin doesn’t make us French speakers, of course, but stumbling across these cognates can be pretty useful if you’re in a French class … or even trying to decipher a French menu. Being an etymology nerd myself (and inspired by my blogger friend over at Le mot du (bon)jour), I decided to create a new “column” on je parle américain: the French English Word of the Week. Every week or so, I’ll write a short post about an ordinary English word that we inherited from French. Sometimes, the French and English words will have exactly the same meanings. Sometimes, though, they’ll be faux amis (“false friends”), because the words have evolved differently over time. Those can be the most interesting!

So, this week’s French English word? Given the record-breaking cold temps affecting many of my readers, I’ve decided to kick things off with:

chimney

Everybody knows what a chimney is, of course. In its primary sense, chimney means “a vertical structure incorporated into a building and enclosing a flue or flues that carry off smoke; especially : the part of such a structure extending above a roof.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

“Chimney” comes to us from the Anglo-Norman chiminee from the Old French cheminée from Late Latin caminata from Latin caminus from Greek kaminos, meaning “furnace.”

In American English, we use the word almost exclusively for the structures that carry off smoke from our homes. We generally call the industrial versions or the versions on steam locomotives and steamships “smokestacks.” In England, by contrast, such smokestacks are often called chimneys and, in some English dialects, chimney can also mean a “fireplace or hearth,” especially a large one, like those found in old castles.

Continue reading Got a chimney? It’s French.

Previous Post

To tide you over until the next post from je parle américain, allow me to share this humorous article from my blogger friend over at Le mot du (bon)jour. (To read the whole article, click on the link “Reblogged from Le mot du (bon)jour” above.) I recently wrote about how much French is actually in the English we speak, and her post highlights the confusion that can arise from mixing French and English without considering how a French person will interpret it. Now, as a die-hard Clemson Tiger, I have to take issue with the first sentence of her post because, well, if I were at Williams-Brice, it would be to cheer for the other team! Nevertheless, today’s “mot rigolo” (“funny word”) is guaranteed to make you chuckle!

Enjoy!
And come back Sunday for the next post from je parle américain!

Le mot du (bon)jour

If you ever go to a USC (that is University of South Carolina) football game, you will find yourself screaming “Go cocks!”… Very strange at first! We brought my French sister and brother-in-law to a game a couple of years ago, and we could not stop laughing because the other side of the stadium was prompted to scream “Game”, and our side had to scream “Cocks”… this lasted a whole game. So we translated with the alternative meaning of cock=rooster (so right, the other meaning…), and in French, that is: “Allez les bites!” (We wanted to text it to the big board but it did not work… I wish! I would have taken a picture!).

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