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 2

1 April 2011 

(Read Part 1)

The sun is getting ready
to go beddy-bye.
Now to my first hypothesis, which I am listing second (in emulation of French floors again).  Wild boar bones notwithstanding, I think the important consideration is the thought process behind word choice for the interpretation of reality:  in a word, the French have a childlike perception.  For example, the English are direct:  “sunset.”  The Germans, like engineers:  Sonnenuntergang (sun-go-under).  The French, however, tell a little fairy-tale:  soleil couchant (sun goes to bed).  What could be more satisfying, after a burning course across the sky all day, than for the sun to find a lit de plume waiting for it?

And even if the sun doesn’t happen to shine, it only pleut des cordes (rains some strings) — nothing to worry about. 

Not only do the elements have anthropomorphic personalities, but everyday objects around the French have volition.  The label on the bottle says, Ce vin se boit frais (This wine drinks itself chilled). 

And when the Frenchman calls his friend to bring a bottle over and his friend is late, he begins to wonder what has happened and says, “Je me demande s’il viendra [I ask me if he will come]."  Soon he wonders if his friend is lost, and in a situation in which an English speaker says “It’s easy to make a mistake,” he says, “Il est facile de se tromper [He is easy of self to trick]."  But finally his friend arrives, saying the streets were very crowded:  “Il y avait beaucoup de monde [It there had much of the world]" — demonstrating a childlike tendency toward aggrandizement.

However, to the disappointment of our Frenchman, his friend had run out of wine:   “Il n’y a plus rien [It not there has more nothing]," and he suggests going to the movies instead, saying “On va au cinéma ce soir? [One goes to the movies this evening?]"  “Allons-y! [We go there]," the Frenchman replies enthusiastically.  When they get into his friend’s car, our Frenchman says, “C’est une voiture propre [It is a clean car]" and his friend responds, “C’est ma propre voiture [It is my own car]."



Soon they find an economical parking that charges quatre-vingt-dix-neuf euros (four-twenty-ten-nine euros, or ninety nine in adult-counting terms), and arrived at the theatre, where they had hoped to meet their friend, une fille aux cheveux longs (a girl to the long hairs).  Unfortunately, they were told she just left:  “Elle vient de partir [She comes of to go]."  The Frenchman’s friend consoles him, saying, “A ta place, je ne m’inquiéterais pas [At your place, I not me would inquiet]."  But immediately our Frenchman sees something on the counter at the theatre and asks, “Qu’est-ce que c’est que ceci? [What is it that it is that this here?]"  It is a bottle that someone has “arrived” at opening, and Monsieur Français is at last happy.


*          *            *


The Académie française was established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu with the official duty of preserving the French language.  Unfortunately, la langue de Molière has had quite a struggle of late. 

Not that the French language doesn’t continue to change on its own despite the Academie’s efforts.  For example, during the playwright Molière’s time, the ‘r’ was rolled at the tip of tongue, now it is an uvular r, rolled in the back of throat — comme un tigre.

A curious sound on the streets of Paris in the past few years results from the advent of Verlan, a youth-speak.

Molière fountain, between rue Molière and rue de Richelieu

The name demonstrates the method of derivation, being the inverse of “L’envers,” i.e., French for “inverse.” 

Take voiture (car).  The reverse becomes “Turvoi,” which is then shortened to “tourv”.  Femme (woman) becomes “meuf.”  Arabe (one of the largest immigrant populations) becomes “beur,” and noir (black person) becomes “renoi.”  There is a lot of Verlan in rap music.  Fou (crazy, insane) is “ouf,” the state of the world perhaps, as it seems today.

But the most serious threat is English, that international language of business and technology, which has been making incursions for decades.  Le week-end has been taken wholly into the French language, along with le parking and le smoking and le sandwich, and the latter term, according to French orthography, doesn’t require an “e” before the “s” to make the word plural.  (Le parking, it should be noted, refers to the actual structure, i.e., the parking garage, while le smoking refers to a dinner-jacket — what, in the days of Humphrey Bogart, was called a “smoking jacket.”)



In 2008 there was a minor scandal when singer Sebastien Tellier performed a song that was mostly in English at the Eurovision song contest.  Marc Favre d'Echallens, from a group that strives to defend the French language against the growing use of English, said that, “A song represents the soul of a country."  He denounced cultural "uniformity" and the "hegemony" of the English language in the world today.

Even French president Nicolas Sarkozy complained last year about the “snobisme” of French diplomats, saying they “are happy to speak English,” rather than French, which is “under siege.”  He claimed that, “Defending our language, defending the values it represents — that is a battle for cultural diversity in the world.”  Regrettably, ces hommes ne sont pas aisé à chausser — “these people are not easy to shoe,” i.e., not easily persuaded, even if they are au rez-de-chaussée.

Today there are approximately 200 million French speakers in the world but, of those, only 65 million are actually French.  In fact, more than 50 percent of French speakers are African.  L’Alliance française, an educational institution devoted to teaching French, has been toiling uncompromisingly at branches around the world.  It is not likely that French any time soon will mange les pissenlits par la racine — eat the dandelions by the roots (that is, expire).

La langue française makes an invaluable contribution to the world, even if one does not happen to speak it.  For, c'est le ton qui fait la chanson — “it is the melody that makes the song,” meaning: It is not what you say but the way you say it.


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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