A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


La langue française Part 1

25 March 2011 

Having been thoroughly engaged by La Belvédère, Maurice Ravel’s delightfully brainteasing home in Montfort-l’Amaury, my wife and I were curious about where the composer had lived previous to that house in the suburbs.

So we headed for the 17th arrondissement and braved the Étoile, that delirious traffic hub with 12 radiating spokes — one of which is the avenue des Champs-Élysées — and which proudly displays the iconic Arc de Triomphe at its center.

We began walking around the massive traffic circle, taking un bain de foule (“a crowd-bath”) among the multitudes on the Champs-Élysées.  After triumphantly arriving at the length of an arc subtending an angle of about 180 degrees (OK, I’ll help you here:  triumphantly . . . arc.  Get it?), we passed the Hôtel Splendide at 1 bis avenue Carnot, where Igor Stravinsky stayed in 1913 for the première of La sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring).  And then, directly across the street we saw 4 avenue Carnot, where Maurice Ravel had moved with his mother and brother in 1908 following the death of his father.


4 avenue Carnot today


Maurice was 33 at the time, and this would be his last permanent address in Paris before his mother died and he moved to Montfort-L’Amaury.  He wrote Ma mère l’oye here — the “Mother Goose Suite,” a work for four hands that I have enjoyed playing many times.  (Like many of Ravel’s works, it also exists in an orchestral version.)  He also wrote one of his most famous works here, as a tiny plaque on the outside of the building on the second floor points out, if the passerby happens to look up:  “Maurice Ravel — 1875-1937 — vécut dans cet immeuble de 1908 à 1917 — C’est ici qu’il compose Daphnis et Chloé.”



Perhaps the term second floor would be ambiguous in this case.  Technically, the plaque denoting Ravel’s flat would be said in France to be on le premier étage, or the first floor.  The third floor is le deuxième étage, (second floor), the fourth le troisième étage (third floor), and so on.  The problem in France arises when one wants to talk about what we in North America call the first floor.  They have a sneaky way of getting around this illogicality.  They just say au rez-de-chaussée — "at the shoed-level.”  Of course.  Since one’s shoes are normally on the ground, or should be, it makes it easy to walk into a building at the first . . ., ahem, at the shoed-level.  One can imagine that if one had to walk in “at the hatted-level,” then things might become difficult.

“At the shoed-level” of the building today where Ravel had lived is l’Empereur, a brasserie with chairs spilling out onto the sidewalk, and where, once the copious café reaches the central nervous system, people tend to forget about this problem with floor nomenclature.

But, “at the shoed-level” raises a question.  Who was the first person to come up with that mode of describing things?

Before I can offer my intrepid hypothesis, first I must address the idiosyncratic world of French orthography.  (Orthography is the way letters and diacritic symbols represent the sounds of a language in a spelling system.)  So, to take au rez-de-chaussée for example, it is pronounced something like “oh ray duh show say.”  Regarding spelling, this is indeed a very frail and puny specimen, because the term uses, oh, maybe only a fifth of the possible number of letters that other terms having a similar quantity of syllables can display with Gallic valor.

Which leads to a second hypothesis, which I shall state first (something like French floors).  Vercingetorix, chieftain of the Gallia Comata ("long haired Gaul"), while dangling the heads of enemies from the neck of his horse would build up quite an appetite for wild boar.  It is quite possible that when Vercingetorix finally surrendered to Julius Caesar in 46 BC, he had no little difficulty pronouncing the language of his conquerors, Latin, due to the pieces of wild boar bones stuck in his teeth. 

As with Modern French, he basically didn’t pronounce half the letters in a word, especially any unfortunate letter that happened to fall at the end of a word, as he would grow too weary trying to utter all the other letters up to that point that he would just leave the last one off.  Eventually, the Gallo-Roman dialect evolved into Old French, precursor of Modern French, et voilà.

Likewise, he deemed even two consonants together simply too taxing, especially “s” and “t,” and so a relatively unthreatening Latin word like studere (to study; Vercingetorix, having no written language, wasn’t much into books) was de-‘S’ed and became in French, étudier.  Similarly, status, (“state”) was diminished, as in “L'état, c'est moi,” à la Louis XIV.

But the ancient Gauls were also sentimental beings.  For this reason, Modern French has erected a little tombstone (the accent circonflexe) in memory of the executed letter, as in the case of the Latin costa (“side,” from which we get our word “coast”), which becomes côte in French, or the Latin hospitale which the French first issued in a diet version, hostel, and later eliminated the 's' altogether: hôtel.

This economy of letters might be considered admirable, except it is usually completely undone by a proliferation of unpronounced vowels.  The reason for this is that the French — noted by Charles De Gaulle for, “Notre vielle propension Gauloise aux divisions [our old Gallic propensity for divisions]" — cannot seem to reach consensus on any vowel sound.  So they liberally distribute vowels wholesale throughout words in case any vowel will do the trick.  Thus, while French has roughly the same number of consonant sounds as English does, it has almost three times the number of vowel sounds.  Likewise, according to the Gallic propensity, compared with six tenses in English, French has fourteen!

In English, when someone tells us something new we say, “O.”  The French might write this sound eau (water).  Or au.  Or eaux, aux, os, ot, ô, or (fill in your own letters here).  And if they particularly like vowels and want to use an overabundance, they write beaucoup (many) — using five vowels, which if the word were Latin would conceivably take two:  bocu.

Lavishing vowels everywhere, the French throw them at any word their oeil (eye, from Latin oculum; two eyes in French are yeux  — notice how many consonants disappeared when the vowels were added in each case?) can see and their oreille (ear, from Latin auris) can hear.  Because the modern French have to work so hard to memorize all of these vowels for these words, they are apt to see eyes and ears in the strangest places.



Similarly, the Latin digitum (finger) became the French doigt; fidem (faith) became foi; frigidum (cold) became froid; and folium (leaf) became feuille, an “f” sound followed by maybe two random vowel sounds at most.

There is a French expression that is revealing:  “Il faut tourner sa langue sept fois dans sa bouche avant de parler,” — One must turn the tongue seven times in the mouth before speaking.  It takes that much time to figure out which letters to pronounce.

There is a wonderful byproduct to this, however.  The dropping of consonants, both in how French words are spelled as well in how they are pronounced, and the similarity in pronunciation of certain vowel combinations, creates a superabundance of homonyms, which allows for quite a bit of mischievous wordplay in the French language.  “Mon père est maire, mon frère est masseur," sounds like, “my father is my mother, my brother is my sister, when, in fact, one is really saying, "My father is mayor, my brother is a massage therapist.”

No wonder the French philosopher Jacques Derrida stated that texts have multiple meanings which even their author may not have understood.  He was speaking French, of course!

Or, to illustrate how a variety of spellings can produce a succession of similar sounds, consider the following conversation at a butcher’s shop:


Combien sont ces six saucissons-ci?
Ces six saucissons-ci sont six sous.
Si ces six saucissons-ci sont six sous,
ces six saucissons-ci sont trop chers !


Although this may sound like a leaky tire, what is being said here is:  “How much are these six sausages here?” —  “These six sausages here are six sous” (an old French monetary unit). —  “If these six sausages here are six sous, these six sausages here are too expensive!”

Or sometimes, words aren’t pronounced at all.  French communication may consist of a bof — the famous Gallic shrug that denies knowledge or responsibility (simply stick out your lower lip and raise your eyebrows and shoulders simultaneously), or la moue — the classic pout, which indicates discontent or disgust (here you start by looking bored, then purse your lips and shake your head slowly).

But then there is my first hypothesis, which I will list second — in emulation of French floors again.



The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (France)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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