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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!

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Check out my latest on the Huffington Post.

 

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