Cultural experiences and funny musings by two twenty-somethings living abroad

The Awful French Language

Back in the 1880s, Mark Twain wrote a very funny essay about his issues with the German language – the overly long words, confusing cases, genders, separable verbs, the lot. As someone who is learning French though, mostly because my new job requires it, I think it’s a shame that he didn’t do the same for the “language of love” because there are so many things about French that are just as bad!

Let’s start with numbers. I’m probably mistaken but I cannot think of any major world language that runs out of numbers and forces you to do mental maths when you go above a certain number. In French, that magic number is 69 (hur hur). So, to say the number 92 in French for example, you effectively have to say “four (times) twenty (plus) twelve” and 78 is “sixty (plus) ten (plus) eight”. Even for those of us who aren’t numerically dyslexic, this is always something that fills us up with despair, especially when those numbers are several digits long. The supposedly “stupid” Belgians though have at least proven themselves to be a bit smarter than the mental-maths-loving French by actually creating words for 70, 80 and 90 (septante, huitante and nonante), reducing confusion all around, but it’s only the Belgians who use those numbers so I’m still left with a load of French speakers constantly testing my mental maths skills.

And what about all those silent letters?! These I find very frustrating, especially at the end of words. They could scrap the –eaux suffix, use the letter “o” instead, and call Bordeaux “Bordo” instead of having us non-French speakers saying something that sounds like a bad rip-off of some American coffee shop chain called “Bordy-ucks”. And what about that weekly sporting event we call the Grand Pricks – I mean, Grand Prix. Maybe this is just me being someone who struggles with non-phonetic languages, but if so many letters in the middle of words are left unpronounced and suffixes, verb and adjective endings are nowhere to be heard, why does French bother having a written language if half the letters in a word disappear into nothingness?

Which brings me onto all those homophones, which are especially useful for telling one word apart from another! Someone could tell me “Il est un chat” (He is a cat) and I might mistake it for “Il a un chat” (He has a cat) because they pretty much sound the same. The word for skin (peau) sounds exactly the same as the word for potty (pot) – which can be quite an important difference to know if you’re looking after a two-year-old toddler. Oh and there’s “tout droit”, meaning straight ahead, and “tout droite”, which means completely right. Here’s to hoping that I’ll never find myself lost in the middle of France!

And after all that, some French-speakers say that French should be the sole language of international communication because it’s the world’s most precise language! Sure, it’s probably just France’s way of putting their middle finger up to the Brits and English can certainly be used clumsily, but any language can be used precisely and it’s the fault of the speaker if their point isn’t made clearly. Besides, there’s plenty of examples where French really is not a precise language…

–       The verb aimer means both “to like” and “to love”. It’s so precise, you can have a word that expresses two very different levels of fondness…

–       Éditer can mean both “to edit” and “to publish”, which is just as well we don’t sort out our blog in French…

–       “J’ai reçu une lettre de l’homme” – Does this mean I got a letter from the man or I got the man’s letter?

There are probably a lot of other things I’ll find frustrating with French later on – I am, after all, still a relative beginner. But things like these, which you learn at the beginner’s stage, ain’t just frustrating, they’re also pretty énervant!


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This entry was posted on January 30, 2014 by in Life in France, Things that make us go 'hmmmm' and tagged , , , .
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