The French love for art goes well beyond paintings and sculptures alone. It applies in equal proportion to gastronomy and language. The ability to engage in vivid conversations, no matter how trivial the subject, is not just a skill but a vital part of French life. Count yourself lost without it. The French furthermore take pride in creating complicated structures, coded expressions and heaps of abbreviations. Welcome into the labyrinth of the French language.
Beside English, Spanish and Chinese, French features among the most widely spoken languages in the world. It is associated with love, good cooking and wine, but also with words that look completely different from how they are pronounced. Like the Portuguese, they are fond of writing down sounds that are not pronounced, or using several letters to pronounce the sound of only one. Missing out on one letter may easily make you say something different from what you intended to say.
`The French like using abbreviations to make life easier`
Difficulties for foreigners
According to Sarah (29), the most difficult sounds for foreigners are the ?U?, the non-rolling ?R? and the nasal sounds like connexion or vacances. Linking words to each other is another problem in both hearing and speaking. Word gender is another troubling factor, which reaches its worst difficulty when combined with the possessive pronouns his/her. These are not matched with the gender of the owner (a man or a woman), but to match the gender of whatever is owned. `His bike` and `her bike` are both translated by `son v?lo`; `His sister` and `her sister` are both translated by `sa soeur`. A similar structure exists in other Roman language ? one main difficulty being that gender changes across borders.
To keep the language difficultly accessible to fellow Romans, a word that is masculine in French may very well be feminine in Spanish, for example. To keep it interesting, there are three words in French which even change gender depending on their number: they are masculine in singular, and become feminine in plural.
Sarah also thinks that French tend to use more words then for example the English. A construction as simple as `What is that?` can have up to eight words in France: `Qu`est-ce que c`est que ?a?`. A negation is officially includes two parts (`Ne` and `pas`), even the first half of it is usually swallowed in spoken language. French texts usually requires more words, longer words and therefore more ink and paper than straightforward English or functional Swedish.
Contrary to French, German is a language that one can learn in school and practice in real life in the same way. French is different. Spoken language greatly differs from written language and the use of slang (argot) is spread among all classes of society. The worst version is called Verlin, which deliberately puts words in the wrong order to make them incomprehensible for outsiders. Many of these words nevertheless made it into people`s every day vocabulary: Zarbi meaning bizarre, Muf being the inverse pronounciation of femme meaning woman. Tuf - F?te - Party, Laisse b?ton - Laisse tomber - drop it, and many more examples following your preferences. Originally a language for school kids in underdeveloped cities and regions, the Verlin has made it to many people`s every day language. Some words have even adopted the opposite meaning of what they actually express. C??tait terrible!, `It was terrible`, means that is was excellent.
A little more official are the many abbreviations that are used, and of which hardly anybody will remember the exact meaning. Claire (28, photo) helps me compile a little list, which now includes: SMIC for minimum wage, ASSEDIC for the institution paying unemployment benefit, CAF for the institution providing social subsidies, SDF for homeless people, HLM for subsidised residences, BAC for secondary school diplome, Fac for university, Prof for teacher, CDI for long-term labour contract, DOM-TOM for overseas territories, TGV for high speed train, PQ toilet paper, F3 a studio with 3 rooms, Dab, short for d`habitude` for `usual`, A+, short for `a plus tard`, `see you later`. Just to mention a few.
International abbreviations are conveniently re-organised as well. NATO becomes OTAN, OPEC becomes PPEP, AIDS becomes SIDA. `EU` stands for United States, European Central Bank (ECB) becomes BCE. Most exciting example: Walki-Talki becomes Talki-Walki.
More than words
Numbers also play an important role, and that is not only the fact that 80 is referred to as four times twenty (`quatre-vingts`): Une 205 is a Peugeot 205, A la Une (`on the one`) is the cover page of a newspaper or magazine, Sur la (ligne) 3 (`on the three`) is likely to refer to public transportation, especially in Paris, Dans le 16eme (`in the sixteenth`) refers to a neighbourhood in Paris, and Dans le 69 (`in the 69`), if without sexual connotation, refers to department 69, Rh?ne, which surrounds the city of Lyon.
Other than Spanish, Portuguese and Italians, the French are not continuously touching each other when they talk and neither do they move their arms a lot. Hands are certainly part of the conversation, but it?s mostly facial expressions, indefinable sounds and non-existing words that serve as illustrations. There is a lot of sighing and shoulder-shrugging, too, especially when people express dissatisfaction about something. Words like enfin, sinon, l?, ben, machin, truc, en fait, du coup or local equivalents for `You know what I`m saying`, glue conversations together without actually having a literal meaning.
A typical French person may not always care about grammar mistakes, but will pay a great deal of attention for describing things very careful. Superlatives are not avoided. Emphasising an already exaggerated version of a word can be done by saying the same word twice (`C`?tait top-top`: It was very good very good) or by adding one of the following prefixes: hyper ~, ultra ~, super ~ or trop (too ~). In other cases, new words are invented. `Nickel` (worthless metal) means `as good as it gets`, `La p?che` (the peach or the fish) means `in shape`. `L`Hexagone` (the Hexagone) means `France`.
Offending somebody in French is done by saying something about his/her family members, referring to genitals or calling each other `dirty ~` in combination with a non-French nationality of your liking. `Putain`, litterally referring to somebody who makes money by physical exercise in close cooperation with clients, is used all the time and at any occasions that differ from a desired status quo: when people hurt themselves, want to offend each other, add emphasis to their words. It makes `putain` probably the most polyvalent word in the entire French language.
The French further have a lot of expressions for some other phenomena that are apparently very important. Eric (28) lists a number of expressions people use when they go home. `Je me casse` (I break myself), `Je me tire` (I pull myself), `Je me barre` (I ban myself), and Je m`escape (I escape myself) are common substitutes for the more neutral `Je m?en vais` (I?m off). Like the Scots, the French have many words for drunk, which in direct translation make: blinded, torn apart, round, broken, candled (past perfect tense of candle), or simply drunk: bourr?(e).
Caroline (26) tells me that her favourite French word is d?licat because it can have so many meanings according to the context. She can consider herself lucky, because the word d?licat is quite frequently used. Just like `au fur et ? mesure` (as things progress), the Latin `? priori` (if nothing strange happens) and the ever quoted `dynamique`.
The above should reasonably well explain why French are convinced that you can only learn a foreign language by actually going to that country: what they speak there will be entirely different from what you learn. And that statement is probably more true in France than in any other Western-European country. Bon courage alors!
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