Seven Steps to Classier French!

I stopped finding French particularly romantic after I started to study it, but it remains an undeniably classy language. The Russians knew it, the English knew it, Nietzsche knew it. I’m still only an advanced student of French, but I’ve learned to appreciate languages on a level beyond their communicative powers – sounds, economies, histories, obscure internal logics – and I know few linguistic pleasures greater than a well-wrought French phrase. (Latin poetry is also apparently marvelous.)

Not everyone who reads this blog speaks French or studies French or even wants to study French. For those that are interested, however, I had a real French person read these over, and even though she didn’t quite understand why I’d want to compile such a list in the first place, she assured me that each entry is ‘fancy but not quite pretentious.’ (Although, if you’re like me, you don’t mind erring on the side of pretense.) This isn’t ne…point or passé simple or eusse and company. (Someday I’ll find out what tense that is). It’s just a few tips for language lovers from a fellow student.

Ce sont. This is actually just proper French, but it reeks of class. It’s easy to forget that ‘c’est is the contraction ‘ce + est,’ and a phrase’s noun and verb must, of course, agree. In spoken French, you can get away with answering the question, ‘C’est quoi ce bruit?‘ with ‘C’est les voisins,’ but it’s cool and correct to respond, ‘Ce sont les voisins.’

C’est moi qui… This is another instance of simply speaking proper French. It seems funny at first, but one should say, ‘C’est moi qui vais au cinema tous les jours,’ although you’ll often hear, ‘C’est moi qui va au cinema tous les jours.’ Most French people ignore this (and will deny it if you point it out to them), no French person that knows better can account for it, and even resident grammar expert, Chris, is at a loss. In English, we would never say, ‘It is I who don’t like to eat broccoli,’ or would we?

Certes. Even when you’re not the one talking, conversation demands a variety of responses for your contributions, however minor, to appear enthusiastic. I often find myself nodding, ‘Oui.. Oui.. Mm. Oui oui oui,’ when a few strategic adverbs (tout à fait, justement) can make the whole exchange feel much more natural. Certes (‘of course,’ ‘certainly’) is somewhat literary, but it’s preferable to ‘Je suis d’accord,’ and it serves as a firm and courteous start to your rejoinder: ‘Certes, pourtant…

Quoique. Peppering your speech with adverbs is handsome, but conjunctions are the backbone of intelligent discourse. There are dozens. I find par contre, d’ailleurs and pourtant to be among the most effective – toutefois if you’re looking to impress. Dictionaries will often translate them all interchangeably, but mastering their subtle differences is a delicious, geeky challenge. ‘Quoique’ is the newest addition to my repertoire. It indicates a quick reconsideration (‘although’) but with an almost mischievous tone: ‘Nous ne devons pas nous moquer de lui – quoique, il est un peu bête.’

Regagner. I use this more often than I should, but moderate usage will buy you a first-class ticket to classville. It just means, ‘to return to’; ‘J’ai regagné Tulsa hier soir,’ is the same as ‘Je suis retourné à Tulsa hier soir,’ although it’s less ponderous than verbs like retourner and revenir because it isn’t followed by the preposition ‘à’. (If you have to use retourner, you can keep it classy with a hot pronoun: ‘J’y suis retourné hier soir.’)

S’avérer que. What an underrated verb phrase. It means ‘it turned out that,’ and, once learned, it will prove so handy that you’ll have to be careful not to abuse it. ‘Je voulais tellement voir Inland Empire, mais il s’est avéré qu’il ne passait qu’Eraserhead.’

Il est, elle est. This is pure class. I saved it for last. One of the charming features of Latinate and Germanic languages that English (thankfully) misses out on is the arcane gender assignments to nouns. When speaking French, you can always use ‘C’est‘ to indicate an object; it’s common and correct. But if you know the gender of the noun to which you’re referring, always opt for ‘il‘ or ‘elle.’ Even if your subject is obvious, it suggests a more intimate, knowing connection. I first learned to appreciate this after tasting a bottle of wine with my friend, Judith, who speaks an elegant, Parisian French. ‘Qu’est-ce que t’en penses?’ I asked, always deferring final gustatory judgment to the French. ‘Hmm…’ she intoned. ‘Il est bon.’

And he was.

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~ by ohkrapp on August 19, 2008.

6 Responses to “Seven Steps to Classier French!”

  1. When you say “apparently” about Latin poetry, are you using it in the original sense, that is: “It is apparent that Latin poetry is marvelous”. If so, felicitations. I’m autodidacting myself Latin now.

    I thought “quoique” took the subjunctive and wasn’t followed by a comma, but it’s been a few years since the Sorbonne.

  2. yes, i think latin poetry is self-evidently marvelous. but i also read it somewhere.. that’s great that your ‘autodidacting’ (important neologism!) latin. i only made it to the fourth chapter of wheelock’s latin. it’s tough, especially if you’re not in a class.. reading latin is like solving a puzzle: it can take a few minutes of referencing to find out, for example, whose flowers are being given to whom by whom? a sentence like ‘the girls are giving the sailor’s flowers to the poet’ can be dispatched in four words. very economical, but it comes with a density that’s intimidating for the independent beginner. i hope to get back to it. then, of course, greek!

    ‘quoique’ needs subjunctive when it’s a conjunction (‘quoique ce soit’), but not when it’s an adverb as above. i’m not sure about the punctuation; french comma usage continues to confound me.

    this maupassant sentence, for example: ‘je tAcherai, cet hiver qu’il me soit prEsentE.’ (too lazy to copy and paste accents), lit. ‘i’ll try, this winter to have him presented to me.’ it seems like there should be no commas or a comma after ‘winter’.. anyone?

  3. Yes but is it an adverb in the context you used it? Doesn’t it introduce a seperate clause, “Il est un peu bête”?

  4. i *think* that the subjunctive is reserved for when what follows is part of its own clause:

    ‘quoiqu’il soit un peu bête, je l’adore.’
    ‘je l’adore quoiqu’il soit un peu bête.’

    BUT

    ‘il est un peu bête. quoique, je l’adore.’

    that *seems* right to me, but now i’m doubting my example in the post. i’ll ask, like, a real french person.

  5. eusse be subjonctif passé, non?

  6. Well, about the “quoique” problem:

    Even though it might be a little subtle and unclear even to the majority of French people (and I include myself when saying this), there are two main ways to use “quoique”. The first one would be what you, Krapp, cleverly described as a change of mind, a reconsideration. Like, “en fin de compte” or “en fait, non, bla bla bla”.
    But when you wrote “quoiqu’il soit un peu bête”, you used “quoique” when it would have been preferable to use “bien que”…
    “Quoique” with the subjunctive is mostly used when wanting to say something like “peu importe”, and could be then translated with a term like “whatever”.
    for example: “Quoi qu’il en soit, changeons de sujet.” or “quoi qu’il arrive, nous resterons ensemble” (*whatever happens, we’ll stay together*).

    See what I mean? maybe it’s not clear. And maybe I don’t know about all of the different ways to use that word. French can be tricky, like any other language. And being French myself is a curse right now, because I never know how to answer the simplest questions on our grammar. I just don’t think about why we say things in a certain way, I forgot.

    AND, I thought of a great “classy” french expression for you: “ma foi”.

    I used it with a client today. She gave me a 20 euros bill and said: “peut-être voulez vous cinquante centimes?” (*maybe you need 50 cents too*), and I replied: “ma foi…” meaning: why not, or yes, I could use 50 cents…”

    see what I mean? did u know that one?

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