Marc-André Robitaille

Director, Translation

Why is French such a curious language?

Taking German classes in college, it did not come as a surprise to me that linguistic genders were not universal and that in some instances, words had none. In my native “binary” language, French, a word was either feminine or masculine. English had taught me words could be learned, spoken and written without gender. Simultaneously, Spanish taught me that the -o and –a endings were not without exceptions, even though my native le and la were adamant guides to gender.

As a francophone born at the time, this noun was… borne… from its adjective form, I knew that some French words, in singular form, were masculine, but feminine in their plural form (amour, délice and orgue) while others did not exist in singular form (such as frais [fees] and fiançailles [engagement]).

Could one say of French that it is a curious language? If you consider…

  • its numerous subtleties and diplomatic nuances (one single word in English might have dozens of equivalents in French)‑though French does present its own curious and lazy shortcuts (a hôte in French is both the host AND the guest; both landlords AND tenants louent apartments)‑,
  • its very complex verb conjugation scheme (though some tenses and modes are less and less used commonly),
  • the DNA-embedded reluctance of French speakers to use the same wording in adjoining sentences, and
  • here in Quebec and more and more in France, linguistic cross-contamination… aka the booby traps and land mines that are called anglicisms, false cognates (or faux amis or false friends as they are false-friendly named) and calques (or loan translations)…

Then, yes, French IS a curious language in the sense that it has its peculiarities and that it is intriguing, still to its masters’ eyes. To loosely paraphrase Socrates, I know for a fact I know nothing… as the constant student of French I am.

It takes years and years of regular practice, ceaseless efforts to better one’s mastery of the language and the tools with which one hones a perfect translation and, finally, a clear understanding of both linguistic rules and cultural realities… while taking into account our partners’ needs and expectations.

But I digress.

What would be a post on curious French words without a list of nice cocktail anecdotes and trivia?

Santé, dear Reader.

  • In French, when a man marries his fiançée, she becomes his… woman (femme) (literally). The verbs marier and épouser both are equivalents to the English verb “to marry”… though only the person officiating at the wedding can marier people who wish to épouser.
  • Ressasser (or to keep turning over when one speaks of personal ideas or thoughts) is the longest palindrome of the French language.
  • Try as you may, you will never read the words quatorze (fourteen), huître (oyster), muscle, triomphe (triumph), larve (larva) and belge (Belgian) at the end of French verses… simply because they rhyme with no other words.
  • Oiseaux (birds), anchois (anchovy) et chouchou (darling, my pet)… words in which none of the letters are pronounced.

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