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you say la tomate, I say le tomate

If I’m to believe Carole and the guy I buy fruit and vegetables from at the market, my French is improving. I definitely understand more. And I’ve been able to have deep discussions with the owner of the grocery store about which cookies ont meilleux et pourquoi.

I’m learning that if you put something French sounding at the end of every English word you don’t know the French word for, 75% of the time, you’ll be right. Examples: publicity=publicite (publeeceetay); geriatric=geriatrique (geriatreek); totally=totalement (totalmon). Every now and then there’s an exception to that rule, and instead you put something French sounding in front of it. Examples: weekend=le weekend; internet=le internet.

I’ve also become better at looking like I understand. People can go on for paragraphs before realizing I don’t understand what they’re saying. And by then, I can usually pick out a few words and piece it together. Of course, when I can’t piece it together and am forced,  after someone has rambled on for two paragraphs to say “je ne comprends pas”, they look at me like I’m crazy for not stopping them sooner. Some of them walk away grumbling under their breath, but fortunately, I usually can’t understand them.

I’ve also learned the French stall word. In the US, we have “like” or “uh”. Here, it’s “errrr”, which sounds much smarter than the US versions. Especially if you do it with that subtle roll at the back of your throat and let the rrrrrs roll into your next real word.

The conjugation thing is still a problem. I can only manage the simplest tenses (okay, my repertoire is still pretty much present tense, but that’s  true for me in English too). I’m sure I sound like some stupider version of I Dream of Jeannie to the French. Is it possible to sound stupider than I Dream of Jeannie?

But here’s the thing that really trips me up: every time I think I’ve got all the nouns and adjectives right and the verbs conjugated correctly, I un when I should une or le when I should la. What is with this focus on whether a noun is masculine or feminine? Yes, I’m suffering from acute gender confusion.

Back in the good old U S of A, nouns are just nouns. We don’t care if a pastry, domesticated animal, potato, or an illegal war based on lies is a boy or a girl, to us, it’s just pastry, domesticated animal, potato, or an illegal war based on lies. I firmly believe nouns should not be discriminated against. Well, that’s what I tell Carole when I screw up (“le…la…c’est sexiste!”)

But there’s something really dodgy about labeling all nouns either masculine or feminine.

When I ask how they know whether every word is masculine of feminine, they answer cryptically that they know it en couer (by heart). The implication is that it’s some sort of innate thing. Maybe masculinizing and feminizing things is in the human DNA, a part of the common consciousness.. Maybe the French are just more in touch with it. If I just tap into the part of me that’s plugged into the pulse of mankind maybe the right words will instinctively blurt from my mouth. The problem is I’m not sure if I can still speak when I’m that drunk.

There’s no rhyme or reason to what’s designated masculine or feminine. Baguette and saucisson are both feminine, but I think the French must be mistaken. Look at them—they’re totally masculine. And tampon is masculine. Go figure. I guess I could make a case for that one if I really thought about it, but I’d rather not.

I’m starting suspect that in real life, the French don’t really gender discriminate their words. They only do it when we’re around. It’s just a passive aggressive trick they established to retain a small sense of superiority after we saved their derrieres in WW2. When we say “le baguette”, they correct us and tell us it’s “la”. When we say la baguette, they tell us it’s le. We wind up confused, frustrated and totally helpless. Just the way they want us.

When Carole informs me that chat is masculine, unless le chat est une chatte comme Desdemona, I float my theory past her (in French, of course). She seems impressed that I am able to communicate a fairly complex thought in French. She thinks about it for a moment, smiles and corrects me.

It’s LA deuxieme guerre de LE monde.

Zut! Je ce rende!


Check out my latest on the Huffington Post.


54 Responses

  1. Let’s call the whole thing off.

  2. I know exactly what you mean with the word gender confusion, I study French at degree level and I still get masculine and feminine mixed up! It just takes lots and lots of practice.

    Whereabouts are you in France? I have to spend a whole year in Strasbourg from september! Ahhhh !

    • Carole says that her general rule is: bad things are masculine and good things are feminine. I’ve yet to really test her theory, but since weekend is “le”, I think it has some holes.
      Strasbourg sounds lovely. I’m a sucker for a place with canals. They’re so picturesque. The only negative I can see is that it’s really close to Germany, so the accents are scarier.
      I’m in Auvers sur Oise. It’s about 32 miles northwest of Paris. Van Gogh lived and died here.

  3. Oh, my! Bu it does give you “foragio” for a great post. Good job.


  4. I completely sympathize, as Spanish is the same way. “Genders” for inanimate objects and concepts is basically ludicrous.

  5. Hi! Being from mauritius I am bilingual. But I still have some problems with French. I think nobody is perfect in French. Its grammar is so complex. The trick to gender in nouns, imo, is to find out which sounds better. La baguette sounds better le baguette 🙂
    BTw saucisson is masculine not feminine 🙂

  6. I wonder how “word gender” started – anybody? And why English words don’t have those designations…. North Coast Muse @ http://sally1029.wordpress.com

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  8. “They only do it when we’re around. . . . We wind up confused, frustrated and totally helpless. Just the way they want us.”

    The French are tricky! You know what Dave Barry says: a “beautiful country, whose master chefs have a well-deserved worldwide reputation for trying to trick people into eating snails. Nobody is sure how this got started. Probably a couple of French master chefs were standing around one day, and they found a snail, and one of them said: ‘I bet that if we called this something like “escargot,” tourists would eat it.’ Then they had a hearty laugh, because ‘escargot’ is the French word for ‘fat crawling bag of phlegm.'”

    My favorite is when, if you’re talking with someone (as opposed to reading the written word), two completely different words are exactly identical except for the gender. For example, if a French says something that sounds like “fwah”, is he talking about faith, or liver? It depends on whether he says “la” or “le”. In practice, I suppose you can always tell which it is by the context, but I still think it’s pretty funny.

  9. Hello,
    I have had the joy of being married to a French lady for years. So after reading your post I asked her why the gender differences in words and she reminded me that French is a descendant of the Latin language of the Roman empire and it was the Romans who started all the gender classification.
    Good to know.
    Best of your success in French. I know the French people always appreciate when one trys to use their language as much as possible.

    • Hi David,
      Ask your wife if they’d consider changing the gender thing. Rome fell, after all.
      So far, the French have been very kind. I think it’s the sort of kindness usually bestowed on the village idiot.

  10. This article is very entertaining, especially when you are from France like me.

    If I had a little hint to give you about articles, it would be that new tech stuff, like are internet, ordinateur, GPS, are mostly masculine. But there are exceptions : la télévision, la fusée…

    Don’t worry if you’re making mistakes though, French are still arguing whether it’s LE ou LA Nutella !

    • Thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Carole (my neighbor) told me something similar about the newer stuff being usually masculine. As for the Nutella question, according to Carole’s logic, Nutella is feminine because it’s very, very good.

  11. Isn’t it ‘la deuxieme guerre DU monde’?!


  12. Adorable ! (Which works in both languages.) Have you noticed the differences in spacing around punctuation yet? Bizarre !

    As for masculine and feminine – try a hit of Russian. Then you get masculine, feminine and neuter, each with their own endings. Which explains why you need vodka (feminine).

    And it’s la deuxième guerre mondiale. (Forgive my French.)

    Great post!

  13. Should that be Carole or Carol?

  14. I hear you with the verb stuff. I realized not long ago that if I say “I go to store next Friday. I go to hairdresser last Thursday, people know what I mean. If I say “I go to store before two days,” they may be a little confused, but they’ll figure it out. Verb tenses are highly over-rated.

  15. I totally understand the idea of pretending like you know exactly what someone is talking about in another language, when you’re just picking up some words here and there. The same is with me when I speak in Urdu (the official language of Pakistan) with someone who uses complex words in paragraph after paragraph. I just nod and laugh when appropriate. I pay attention to body language. And then I’ll use a few words here and there from their speech in order to continue the conversation haha.

    So there you go. You’re not the only one. Thanks for the entertaining article.


    • Hi Ammad,
      The pretending to understand thing works really well. But I can’t help worrying that I’ve agreed to something really, really horrible. For example, what if I agree with someone who is saying that Dick Cheney is a great man? I don’t know if I could live with myself.

  16. Baguette is feminine, but saucisson is masculine. Saucisse however is feminine.

    Oh, and Nutella is masculine.
    You say du Nutella, not de la Nutella.
    Or you never say une crepe a la Nutella, it is une crepe au Nutella.
    But Nutella is une pate a tartiner. (it is hazelnut spread, and ‘spread’ is feminine)

  17. very entertaining

  18. Hi, congratulations, your post was very clever and entertaining. It was very interesting to see how masculine
    and feminine nouns or, as you put it, gender segregated nouns, go down with someone who doesn´t have that at all
    in their native language. As for their being an innate capacity to determine the gender of nouns, I can tell you, as
    a native speaker of Portuguese who is also hispanic and has some knowledge of French, that noun genders are
    very different, even in these 3 latin languages with a lot in common. Even so it does, yes, sound very funny when
    people get them wrong. Because we are acutely consciuos of this getting them right becomes essential to feeling
    fluent. So in that sense you are not alone at all.

    As to the theory on keeping face after WWII, don´t you think it possible that native English speakers have
    grown used to feeling undertanding and keeping a straight face when people have trouble expressing themselves
    in their language? I often feel that, and maybe it is the small price to pay for having such hegemonic language.
    What I can say is, between speakers of the most common latin languages, which are often similar enough to allow
    for some cross communication, the jokes always flow both ways.
    All the best.

    • Thanks jmablogger. The fact that several of the latin languages have different masculine and feminines proves my point–it’s all a clever trick to make the other culture feel inferior. Speaking of which, I had to look up “hegemonic”.
      I’ve been happy to find that even when there is no common language to allow for cross communication, the jokes still can flow both ways.

  19. As an English (ou , with a small ‘a’) Canadian who has lived and worked in a bilingual setting for many years … good luck with that!

    One of my favourites? The or dilemma.

    Maybe I’ll get to try out my French in France some day, where I’m sure they’ll find not only my lack of fluency but also my accent … or is it ?

    • Uh-oh, the system didn’t like my attempt at French punctuation in my previous comment and removed the words entirely!

      What I meant to say was:

      As an English (ou ‘anglaise’, with a small ‘a’) Canadian who has lived and worked in a bilingual setting for many years … good luck with that!

      One of my favourites? The ‘d’eau’ or ‘de l’eau’ dilemma.

      Maybe I’ll get to try out my French in France some day, where I’m sure they’ll find not only my lack of fluency but also my accent ‘tres amusant’ … or is it ‘amusante’?

      • If you were like many Americans, you’d go over to France and pretend that it’s THEIR accent that’s tres amusant.
        BTW, I’m going with “d’eau”. This is the twitter generation, after all.

  20. We do have the occasional use of gender in English pronouns when you might not expect it. When we’re talking about a ship, for example, we might say that ‘she sank off the coast of …’ etc. However, we could also say ‘the ship sank of the coast of …’, so the noun itself does not display an inherent gender unless replaced by the pronoun ‘she’. Anyway, this sounds like waffle, so I’ll shut up now.

    • Great post!
      It is always very amusing to read about people tying to grasp the complexities of this gender thing. The rule is simple: the French grammar is filled with exceptions to its many rules, and this rule is an exception as it doesn’t exist…

      There is no rule or logic to the gender if nouns, you just have to learn them. One thing to note though, French and the other latin languages try to be more macho than most by having a male as a prefered gender.
      A group of persons or things with mixed genders is referred as a male group. An unknown entity is also male, where in English it is female. For example, when talking about a user of something, it would be referred as ‘her’ in English but as ‘il’ (him) in French…

      So, basically, there is no rule. Why is the sun male (le soleil) and the moon female (la lune) in french when it is the opposite in german???

      Bonne chance en France!

    • Ahh, but the “she” is optional in english pronouns. But a waffle sounds delicious right now.

  21. are you saying it could be that menkaure in another world might mean mankaura?

    cuz if that’s true then khaefre might translate to , shoot I’m drawing a blank,

    but this is the most informative post I’ve ever read

  22. I’m sorry but is “el tomate’, no “la tomate”

  23. Yep, there are many cognates. Except for when “sale” means “dirty” and “l’ordinateur” gets you “the computer,” and “bibliotheque” takes you to “library,” whereas “librairie” will put in in “bookstore.”

    My AP French teacher back when I was in high school suggested that if we couldn’t remember the gender of a noun, and both “le” and “la” sounded right, we should try using “un/une.”

  24. […] French, Humor, Musings, Opinion, Personal by Wanderer Recently I read  this interesting post, you say la tomate, I say le tomate, featured on the WordpILress home  page. It was based on the quirks  and twists of noun gender in […]

  25. It is good to learn other languages especially if you love to travel. Pronouncing those words are difficult but as long as you start learning, your mouth will never stop..lol..

  26. Argh! A major mistake in your post is that “saucisson” is masculine (un saucisson) and not femine like baguette.

    Gender of words are anyway a strange thing. I speak also German and I know that many words change their gender when used in a different language…

    Courage et bonne chance for your French!


  27. I’ve just discovered your delightful blog, particularly amusing as I live in France.

    I don’t think I’ll ever ‘maîtriser’ the gender thing. Why is mon poêle mascule, despite having an e at the end, and how easy it is to confuse it with ma poêle, my frying-pan. And again, the pronunciation is not very different from le poil, hair or bristles (but why for goodness sake à poil mean naked?).

    You are so right you can get away with murder by pronouncing things in a ‘French’ way. I find lots of gesticulating also gets you into the mood. My downfall is elision – when to run everything together. It was some time before our builder tactfully explained that when I said my husband was on the terraces above the house – ‘en haut’ (pronounced as one word), it sounded more as if he was ‘en eau’.

    Distinguishing between s and ss is another pitfall, as in baisser and baiser. Frankly I avoid both words rather than make a mistake!

    Then there are the words that seem the same but are not. A fellow member of my choir said he found my (non) coiffure ‘terrible’ and then blushed when fellow singers burst out laughing. I had been taken aback at his apparent insult, but in fact he meant that it was ‘tremendous’! Similarly I still smile when someone is referred to as ‘délicieuse’ (delightful rather than tasty).

    Then again, I tend to pick up idioms from one lot of friends that make the other, more correct, Parisian, ones shudder. I have recently been reprimanded for saying that something was ‘trôp bon’ . And it is hard not avoid the unfortunate trend and talk about ‘le feeling’, ‘le look’ etc.

    I agree with someone else that I find French punctuation baffling. It’s bad enough having to remember to type in all those accents (thank god for spellcheckers which do most of them for you), but I always forget what keys to hit to get the curious quote marks « » Qnd oh the night,qre of typing zith q French keyboqrd::: Perhaps the most serious problem is the French use of a comma for a decimal point. At the best of times my ten times table is poor, but this can be positively dangerous.

    If we think we have problems, however, think of the poor French having to struggle with multiple applications of the ending ‘-ough’, vowels which they find so difficult to pronounce, and the terrible ‘h’. I think English has FAR more exceptions and idiosyncrasies than French. And that’s before we get onto English as spoken in England, the USA, Australia or India!

    Keep writing and I will keep enjoying.

    • Hi Frances. I hear you on the “trop bon” thing. I was recently told that I’ve been implying to the man at the grocery story that I’m good in bed, rather than just good. Oh well, he’s kind of cute. Thanks for reading!

  28. I have read so many posts concerning the blogger lovers however this piece of writing is truly a good article, keep it up.

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