If the French language was a person, they would be a patient in an insane asylum.
I’ve been rushing to complete Duolingo’s French tree before I leave for France, and all of a sudden I’m being bombarded with bizarre grammatical jargon like ‘nominative case’ and ‘perfect participle’. If you’re like me and was never introduced to the stern and unforgiving world of grammarian lexicon, you’ll be looking at the screen saying ‘whaaaaaat?’
But no, I was determined to do this right*. So, every time there’s a ‘tips & tricks’ section of a Duolingo lesson, I spend about fifteen minutes trying to decipher the ‘helpful’ nuggets of wisdom it provides.
Okay, not so bad so far, right? I knew that it was going to be difficult to try to learn a new language, especially since this is the first one I’m trying to attain fluency in.
The mental patient that is the French language likes to use many letters no one can hear when it writes. There are many silent letters in French, as well as vowel clusters- there’s about 13 different ways to spell the ‘o’ sound in ‘bone’ in this language.
And then I discovered the concept of ‘gender’ in languages, which provoked a vivid image of what French would look like as a person, similar to this:
French classifies nouns as either masculine or feminine regardless of whether or not they possess genitalia; one simply has to memorize whether or not to use ‘la’, the feminine ‘the’, or ‘le’, the masculine ‘the’, with the word. Oh, but if it’s plural they both default to ‘les’. When it comes to living things that possess genitalia, though, one can use ‘la’ or ‘le’ to the creature in question if they have a female or male sex organ, respectively (I can’t help but wonder what version of ‘the’ Hermaphrodite creatures, like earthworms, are assigned?). When in front of a vowel, though, ‘la’ and ‘le’ both slide into the word- ‘le œuf’ (the egg) is correctly spelt ‘l’œuf’.
Furthermore, the word ‘mine’ changes according to the gender of the noun I was referring to. For example, ‘my hat’ would translate to ‘mon chapeau’, whereas ‘my banana’ would translate to ‘ma banane’. The plural form, though, defaults to ‘mes’ in both instances. The same thing goes for the indefinite article’a’ (un/une) and the informal ‘you/your’ (tu/ton/ta).
So, the concept of gender is basically just straight memorization. A lot of other languages, like Hebrew, Hindi, Latvian, Welsh, and Spanish (kind of) have masculine/feminine gendered noun systems, too- but there are many languages that don’t have any gender system at all, like Finnish, Hungarian, Thai, Armenian, Bengali, and ENGLISH.
Okay. Memorization isn’t horrible, just tedious. But then I got to one of Duolingo’s number lessons, and encountered this shit:
Ugh. That’s not a cute language quirk, it’s simply annoying. French doesn’t have words for seventy, eighty, or ninety. It also begins using compound numbers at seventeen, not twenty-one.
And then there’s even weirder shit, too; ‘Qu’est-ce que c’est?’, which means ‘what is that’ or ‘what is this’, literally translates as ‘what is this that this is?’. *huffs*.
Here’s another weird thing: you can’t just say ‘je souviens’ (I remember), you have to say ‘je me souviens’- ‘I myself remember’ or ‘I make myself remember’.
There’s also the whole ‘tu’/’vous’ formality shebang, which I briefly touched upon in my last post. I’ll have to keep this flowchart in my pocket while in France so I don’t get messed up:
And then there’s verb tables.
A verb table is simply a chart of a verb and its forms in the past, present, and future tenses. Observe the following verb table for English’s ‘to do’:
|You (plural)||do||will do||did|
Pretty straightforward, eh? There’s only one break in the pattern, which I’ve written in bold. Here’s the verb table for French’s ‘faire,’ meaning ‘to do, to make’:
|Subjunctive||Conditional||Passé simple||Imperfect subjunctive|
Notice how there are four rows- no, six rows- that don’t exist in the English verb table? Yeah. Fun. There’s kind of a pattern but not really, and there are THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY irregular verbs. Three hundred and fifty of these damned tables to memorize.
However, these are just the minute struggles of a débutant. Whole other universes of mind-fucking complexity exist for me to explore within the multiverse of the French language. I haven’t even dove into to world of French idioms yet, either, which are apparently important in everyday speech. I’m given the impression that it’ll be interesting, though:
It’s not all that bad, though. I must admit, learning a new language is a romantic enterprise. It’s kind of like the relationship you fantasized about having with that sophisticated classmate in high school you weren’t brave enough to ask out. All the rules, exceptions to those rules, and exceptions to the rules exceptions contribute to the personality and feel of the language, I think, and will give me a completely different means of expressing myself and comprehending the world around me.
Besides, English is a fickle bitch herself. There are a bunch of different ways to talk about the future- consider the following: ‘I’ll buy food’, ‘I’m going to buy food’, ‘I’m bound to buy food’, ‘I was going to buy food’, ‘the food delivers at 3:00’, ‘I’ll have ordered food’, ‘I’ll have already ordered food’. There’s imaginary future, too- ‘if I go to the park’ and ‘if I went to the park’ are both indicative of a future that may or may not happen.
Our orthography is just stupid, as well. Though, thought, trough, through, and thorough all look very similar, yet the ‘ough’ cluster is pronounced differently for each word. There are quite a lot of homonyms, words that are spelled the same with different meanings, as well- ‘We produce produce,’ ‘get close to the door and close it’. I’m definitely happy that my native language is English, especially considering it’s the lingua franca of science and technology, and maybe even the world.
And don’t even get me started on those other language families- at least English and French are close, linguistically speaking- we have the Norman invaders of 1066 to thank for that (check this out: https://www.britannica.com/event/Norman-Conquest). Icelandic and German both have three grammatical genders- male, female, and neuter. Czech and Slovak both have four: masculine animate, masculine inanimate, feminine, and neuter.*** Apparently Swahili has eighteen. There’s an obscure indigenous language spoken by less than 1,000 people in Columbia that purportedly has 140 grammatical genders, including one that refers to objects that have the look of bark peeling off of a tree.
Benny Lewis, a famous polyglot, says that Spanish was the most difficult language for him to master- because it was the first one he tried to learn. I’ll get better with practice, and immersion in a language’s nation of birth is as good as you can get. And it’s not like I’ll have to travel overseas to improve and practice when I return home- Québec is close by with a whole culture of its own. When the time comes, I could send university applications to Laurentian, Ontario’s only official bilingual university. Maybe I’d even consider an extended voyage to the land of the Québécois for my post-secondary education.
Overall, I’m extremely fortunate to have such a wonderful opportunity; even though this entire post was basically one big complaint, I’m secretly a language-loving nerd who has notebooks chock-full of verb tables and other grammar rules. With a good amount of effort and an open mind, I think I’ll be just fine.
Note: I am not a grammarian and I’ve probably made grave, inaccurate mistakes in this article. Let me know if you see any, and thanks for reading! ~Z
*And I still am, for the record.
**I fully support genderqueer/trans rights and in no way seek to invalidate anyone on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum.
***Grammatical gender is theorized to have evolved from early people distinguishing between animate and inanimate objects.