No, I’m not the professor.

Rodney Dangerfield, in Back to School

Today, I went back to school.

“Wait a minute. You’re still taking French classes?” you’re surely asking in utter disbelief. “Shouldn’t you be fluent by now?” Well, no and yes … kind of. I’m done learning French. I’m not fluent, but there are only so many times you can take the same course over and over to “ameliorate your competence” before you get the side-eye. Now, I’m going to Université Paris Descartes to earn my licence. “Licence? What’s that? It sounds like either (1) what you need to drive in France or (2) what you need to practice law there.” Well, no, it’s neither that mundane nor that prestigious. It’s a bachelor’s degree …

“What?! A bachelor’s degree?!” Continue reading No, I’m not the professor.

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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

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

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!