How much French do you speak?

Just the other day, I was watching my latest favorite television series, Downton Abbey, and I heard one of the characters use a French word I’d never heard used before in an English sentence: “She’s found her métier—farm laboring.” That struck me as the height of pretension, but then again, it is a show about English aristocrats during the First World War. In any case, métier means “profession, occupation, or trade.” I knew this word from my French classes, of course, but I never knew that we used it in English. I guess being a country boy from South Carolina, I wasn’t high-class enough to have trotted it out in my own conversations. It got me thinking, though, about how much French there actually is in English. As it turns out, between the recent imports and what we inherited from the Normans, there’s a lot more than you might imagine.

Recent Imports

Métier is one of those French words that entered the English lexicon in recent centuries through literature, the arts, and other cultural exchanges. Because we “adopted” them directly into English, they’ve preserved their unmistakable character as Gallicisms even when we don’t pronounce them exactly right. Originally, these words were used primarily by the upper echelons of society (Look, there’s another one!), those privileged enough to have spent their time reading, visiting art exhibits, and traveling to France. As such, although they may be recognizable by a broad segment of today’s English-speaking population, they aren’t used in the normal course by most of us … except perhaps when we want to sound chichi.

used under license from CartoonStock
used under license from CartoonStock

Continue reading How much French do you speak?

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Oh là là! Where’s my baguette?

Yes, I’ve spent three semesters learning French in a rigorous academic setting here in Paris, but there are still those moments when I just have to fake it … like hanging out last night in a bar with French college students, or sitting around the dinner table with my French family, or taking an oral exam. Truth be told, I understand what they’re saying to me SO much less than they think I do, but I put on a good act!

So, go pour a glass of red, grab that baguette, sit back, and enjoy this little gem a friend found on the Internet:

And don’t worry if you can’t quite make out what she’s saying about Americans in Step Four. You don’t really have to understand it—just shake your head and cuss a little!

© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved (not the video, of course … if only I were so talented)

Why do I speak American?

“Je parle américain” means “I speak American.” It’s a catchy title for the blog of an American expat in France, but why do I say that? After all, I speak English, right?

The fact of the matter is that, while we Americans might say we speak English, as far as the French are concerned, we speak something else. When I enrolled in French courses here in France, I always listed “anglais” as my native language, of course, but I had already learned by then that many French think of my native language as something other than English. I can still remember the first time someone in France asked me how we say something in “American.” I chuckled at the time, thinking it was an odd thing to ask … until I quickly realized that it was a serious question and no joke was intended. After all, when kids in France learn English at school, they learn the Queen’s English, and what comes of out my mouth when I speak is certainly not that!

Of course, the differences between what we speak in America and what they speak in Britain are far greater than just our accents. Accent is, after all, just the way you pronounce the same words: “You say tomato; I say tomato …” Well, it doesn’t make much sense when you read it, but you understand.  Continue reading Why do I speak American?

No more French?

Photo: The classroom where I spent two semesters with Monsieur Carlier. Yes, I was there this morning before sunrise. © 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

It’s official. I’m not a French student anymore.

That’s right. I just finished up my third and final semester of French courses at the Cours de Civilisation Française de la Sorbonne. Last week, I wrote a 1,540-word paper on French-Canadian literature. Then, I spent an hour and a half answering the question “Why can we speak of a myth of progress?” for a “Myth and Modern Thought” seminar. On Saturday, I took my final exam in French grammar, reading comprehension, and written expression. Today, I cleared the final hurdle: the oral exam.

The oral exam has always been the most intimidating for me. Despite the fact that it only counts for maybe 10 or 20 percent of the final grade and only lasts for 10 or 15 minutes (as opposed to 3 hours for the written exam), there’s something infinitely more nerve-racking about sitting at a table across from two French professors and speaking in French about an excerpt from a work of French literature. To be honest, I think I spent more time studying for the oral than I did for the written exam: reading and re-reading eight different texts as disparate as Montesquieu’s Les Lettres Persanes and Albert Camus’s Le Premier Homme, summarizing each one, reviewing the more esoteric vocabulary, identifying the major themes, and then worrying about my pronunciation when it would come time to read aloud!

This morning, I was very lucky. I ended up drawing at random Baudelaire‘s L’Albatros. You might remember that this is the poem I never got around to memorizing for a recitation earlier this semester, despite our professor’s pleas. Of course, I didn’t have to recite it this morning, but I did have to read it aloud and—just to let you know—even reading French poetry with a English-speaking mouth isn’t an easy thing to do. But I did it and did it pretty well, if I do say so myself. It’s a good thing I practiced a few times with Michel this weekend! I explained the “story” of the poem and then moved on to discuss the analogy: the poet, like the albatross, is a “different” being, beautiful and graceful in his own world, but clumsy, misunderstood, and sometimes ridiculed when “brought down to earth” among the rest of us. I even got to talk about neoplatonism. How often does one get a chance to do that in an average day? After my ten minutes were up, it was time for the next student … and I was relieved to have reached the end.

The CCFS location on rue du Fouarre where I spent two of my three semesters ©2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

Now that it’s all over, though, I’m already getting nostalgic. I’ll miss my classmates and my professor, who was one of the best I’ve ever had. Of course, as long as I live in France and as long as I have a French family (no matter where I live), I’ll keep learning French. It just won’t be in a classroom anymore … and that makes me just a little mélancolique.

© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

Beautiful Ambiguity

© Paramount Television

One of the most charming things about French family life is the way one expresses both the “step” and “in-law” relationships. In English, we use the prefix “step” to denote that a relationship has been created by the marriage or coupling of a new, non-biologically-related person with one’s parent. For example, your stepfather is the man who marries or co-habits with your mother after the end of her relationship with your father. Stepbrothers and stepsisters are pre-existing children that come into the family because of this new couple. Think of The Brady Bunch: Mike was Marcia, Jan, and Cindy’s stepfather; Carol was Greg, Peter, and Bobby’s stepmother; the girls were the boys’ stepsisters; and the boys were the girls’ stepbrothers. Conceivably, one could extend the prefix to other family members, as well. We use the suffix “-in-law,” however, to describe the relatives of one’s spouse. For example, your father-in-law is the father of your husband, and your sister-in-law is his sister. Again, one could use the suffix for extended family members as well.

Fairly clear and straightforward, right?

For an anglophone, though, the French way of describing these relationships can seem quite confusing. Continue reading Beautiful Ambiguity

Good Feast!

Today was September 29: Michaelmas, or the Feast of Saint Michael. In America, we don’t generally make a big deal about the feast days of saints. There are exceptions, of course, the most well-known in America being Saint Patrick’s Day, when we wear green and get drunk, all while pretending to be Irish … and perhaps the Feast of Saint Francis, when you might take your pooch to church for a blessing even if you haven’t darkened the church door for a few months. It was not until I met my French husband, though, that  I realized how feast days are still very current in the French consciousness, even if they have largely—if not entirely—lost their religious connotation. As soon I had a few French friends on Facebook, I started to see “bonne fête” popping up in my newsfeed—not thanking someone for a great party the night before, but sending good wishes on the feast day of the Saint that bears his or her name. It’s a nice tradition, and one that I’ve adopted with my French family and friends.

Continue reading Good Feast!

You don’t say!

Registering for my fall classes this morning got me thinking about what it is that I really love about learning a foreign language. It’s certainly not conjugating the pluperfect of the subjunctive mood! Instead, it’s linguistics and etymology: how we say the things we say, and why it is we say them that way. Today’s musing:

pas

For anyone with even a basic knowledge of French, “pas” is a pretty easy word. It means “not” … right? Well, I’ll get back to that in a minute but, more importantly for now, “pas” also means “step” — as in the motion we make when we place one foot in front of the other. Hence, we have the expression “faux pas” — one that we’ve adopted directly into English — meaning a mistake or, more precisely, a “false step.” So, how exactly did a word that means “step” also come to be the most common word in French to mean “not”?

Continue reading You don’t say!

“The Pain of the Country”

Tomorrow is September 11, but this blogpost won’t focus on the tragedy of that day 10 years ago that will forever mark me and those who witnessed or were personally touched by the events and their aftermath. I could never do it justice—I could never adequately put my sentiments into words. Silent reflection is how I plan to mark this somber moment tomorrow.

But this anniversary necessarily brings home to mind. Being a stranger in a strange land is never an easy thing, and at moments like this, the disconnectedness is amplified, the distance is more expansive, the ache to go back is more painful. The French have an interesting expression for what we call homesickness. They call it le mal du pays (literally, “the pain of the country”) and, somehow, it seems appropriate this weekend to speak of a yearning for something much larger than even my family and friends—a yearning for my home … my homeland … my country.

Continue reading “The Pain of the Country”

Tonton Michael

Photo: “Buzz l’Éclair” © 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

This week, I’m in Doncourt-lès-Conflans, a village in the countryside of Lorraine, just west of Metz. Michel and I are babysitting our niece and nephew, Tiphaine and Romain. They’re the ones I referenced in this post about a child’s imagination … or was it about my rusty drawing skills? In any case, vacation is over for their parents, but school doesn’t start back for them until next week, so it’s Tonton Miko (that’s Michel) and Tonton Michael (that’s me) to the rescue!

Continue reading Tonton Michael