Adventures in French

Have I mentioned that my French is kinda shit? I mean, functional, for my purposes, but much shittier than my BA transcript would tell you. Speaking is right out. Listening is extremely dubious. Composition extends to three-sentence Joie du livrethank-you letters to second-hand booksellers whom I found via abebooks and who were so kind as to send me emails notifying me that they’d shipped the volumes of dense 1970s historical stuff which I will then proceed to spend several months, possibly the rest of my degree, avoiding as much as I can.

Reading, though, reading is OK. I can read the French-language parallel translations of my OF texts, for starters. Mostly this results in me realising that the translator is wrong and has made shit up, although, on one notable occasion I ran in circles for weeks trying to translate something which looked nothing like either the French-language translation or the English-language translation, only to have my supervisor point out that the French translation had been spot on, which I would’ve known if I’d not forgotten large numbers of French idioms.

That aside, though, I have discovered a pretty simple pattern when it comes to me and academic French. Well, two, actually. The first thing is that I can comfortably read articles and/or books which are younger than me; anything older than I am gets progressively more difficult, until you get far enough back to hit Old French.

The other is: if it’s about sex, I can understand it.

Seriously. I can be picking my way through a discussion of narrative structure and more-or-less know what’s going on, but as soon as there’s sex, voilà, the paragraph will proceed to be entirely comprehensible. This applies to history, too: of the first chapter of Le Chevalier, la femme et le prêtre, the only part I’m really certain I understood was the part where Duby wonders about Phillip’s reasons for marrying Bertrada, and waxes lyrical about her hypothetical charms and the possibility that she seduced him.*

Given that my comprehension of French is largely dependant on care factor, this probably tells you a lot about me.** Rated R for Abstract SexBut given that I’m not actually in the habit of reading French books about sex, it’s also a pretty clear sign of the way linguistic registers in English work. The vocabulary for talking, in a SRS BIZNIZ way, about sex is almost exactly the same in English as in French. Observe:

Le texte ne révèle pas que la demoiselle abuse la situation pour assouvir son propre désir sexuel, mais il est difficile de ne pas remarquer l’image figuré d’une ejaculation ayant lieu sous l’effet des vigoureuses carresses.***

Firefox spellchecker is only underlining about half of the words in that sentence – and most of the ones it is underlining have English counterparts distanced by only a few letters. It’s true that on any topic, the higher-register English vocabulary is going to come a lot closer to the French; but it’s particularly true of anything to do with sex.

Moral of the story is: if you want an easy way to recover your French reading skills, start by reading about sex.

Next I have to test this “If it’s about sex, I can read it” theory by attacking Simone de Beauvoir… the principle may not hold where the sex hand at is of the sex-and-gender variety rather than fucking. We’ll see.


King Edmund is not impressed*The only part of the chapter I’m really certain I don’t understand is why the hell Duby thought this little hypothetical tangent was relevant at all. Also, woman kidnapped from her home, where she is the wife of another man, by King of France. SHE SEDUCED HIM is obviously the explanation we’re looking for. I very much agree with Magister that we need to think about men’s motivations in ways which move beyond political expediency and acknowledge that men, even politically powerful men, are humans; and if we could do so without making it a point-and-snigger situation, or all about the hotness and/or predatory sexual advances of ladies involved, I would be very much delighted.

**Other things which make sense to me include ecclesiastical terminology and, apparently, la taxonomie specifique. Discovered that one while listening to a Radio-Canada postcast which consisted of an announcer with an adorable Quebecois accent interviewing an arachnologist. Most of the arachnologist’s conversation about la biodiversite and whatnot went entirely over my head, but his impassioned spiel on the importance of la taxonomie specifique made sense! For that we can blame a good friend of mine who’s a palaeontologist and cares very deeply about the taxonomic classification of long-dead molluscs.

*** Thieved from J. R. Mc Guire, ‘L’onguent et l’initiative féminine dans <i>Yvain</i>’, Romania 112 pp. 62-82 (p. 73).


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