VIVE LE FRENCH LANGUAGE
September 19, 2011 10 Comments
The more that my French improves, the less well I speak the language.
It’s not just that it is hard to learn a new language when one is older, but I generally struggle with any language that believes that inanimate objects should be endowed with a sexual preference.
There are some basic rules in French on how to split objects into their sexual camps, but the exceptions to each rule are so many that the rules become fairly useless to those of us who didn’t grow up with a language that made the gender of the object an integral part of the word when first learning it as a child. A French child learns from the beginning that the word for table is “la table” and the gender is just part of the word. Not so easy for us who grew up believing that sexual differentiation tended to apply only to living things, and that most of the time this could be discerned by things such as the clothing that was worn, length of hair, first name, the shape that was formed by a tight sweater or if an animal, at least by the bits that were generally on display.
I have now spent over a decade trying to discover some magic formula that would enable me to come to grips with the fact that things that can’t actually have sex do have sex assigned to them, but with little success. I have now decided that actual gender allocation has nothing to do with logic, but is based more on these having been decided after a night of heavy wine-tasting by members of the “Commission Generale de Terminologie et de Neologie” who control these things in France.
For starters, in French, the fact that a chair is female (la chaise) does not seem to align with the fact that a sofa is masculine (le canapé). Nor does the fact that a wardrobe (l’armoire) is feminine but a cupboard (le placard) is masculine. At least a man (l’homme) is masculine and a woman (la femme) is feminine, but then a person (la personne) is always feminine, as is a victim (la victime) even when they are males. Totally illogically a man’s shirt is feminine (la chemise) and a woman’s blouse is masculine (le chemisier), which I am convinced was decided after a heavy night of Bordeaux reds.
The good news for me in my language gender struggles was to find out that the word for fireplace (la cheminée) is feminine and that the fireplace implement, the poker (le tisonnier) is masculine, and supported by cave (la grotte) and flagpole (le mat), at least did make some sense to me based on their respective shapes. However, this brief moment of elation at some pattern recognition fell apart when I discovered that a tunnel (le tunnel) is masculine and a tower (la tour) is not, and completely disintegrated when I was told that the French word for vagina is masculine (le vagin) … figure that one out.
I now wondered whether the gender of these words may have had more to do with which sex is more interested in the object rather than its actual shape, function or connotation, further supported by the fact that the male sex organ is masculine in gender and that the French actually have over 100 different words to describe a phallus.
I was also surprised to find that most natural disasters are feminine like famine (la famine), flood (l’inondation), pestilence (la peste), eruption (l’eruption) and illness generally (la maladie). Even wars, which are generally started by men, are blamed on the fairer sex (la guerre). The question that one must ask is how long will the French keep blaming Eve and her kind for everything that is wrong with the world?
When it comes to food the same holds true, as some of the best things to eat in France are masculine including cake (le gateau), cheese (le fromage), soufflé (le soufflé), goose liver (le foiegras) and truffle (le truffe)and some of the nastier foods that exist(based on the French need to not waste any part of a pig) are feminine such as tail (la queue), spleen (la rate) and cheek (la joue).
Flowers tend to be more logical with the lily (le lis) and cactus being masculine (le cactus) and the tulip (la tulipe) and rose feminine (la rose), but when it comes to fruit and vegetables my plan to base it all on shape fell apart when I found out that the carrot (la carotte),zucchini (la courgette) and banana (la banane) are all feminine.
Even countries and continents have a gender attached to them but while the USA and UK are both considered to be masculine (not necessarily so by the non-French speaking parts of the world), Australia and France are both allocated to the feminine side of the divide. I am sure that this will shock and bewilder my Australian male friends who have always seen themselves as one of the last bastions of “blokedom”. At least they are in good company as Russia, China and Turkey are all feminine, despite the fact that women are hardly considered to have equality in any of them. To make it even more confusing whilst Niagara Falls is feminine, the Grand Canyon is masculine.
I am aware that getting the genders mixed up will not stop me from being understood in France, but the French do consider it important and a real test as to whether you actually do speak some French or whether you are just a “Franglais” speaker in disguise.
I could just do what author David Sidaris suggests, which is to use the plural all the time (les) (See “Me talk pretty one day”), but it is hard to get through life here when you have to buy or describe everything at least as a pair. I already have enough trouble when I write my name in French as “Les Hayman” with locals believing that I am describing the two of us.
I have therefore decided to pretend that I have a speech impediment and use the word “li” for everything … in France it is always better to be seen as being physically handicapped rather than sexually ignorant.