Baffled by Brigitte’s “Bon retour:” verbs of returning

rentrer
Explanation of when to use three different French verbs meaning “to return,” from the web site “Learn French Online with Pascal,” http://www.frenchspanishonline.com/magazine/rentrer-revenir-retourner/.

For me, the most absurd part of being in France is that I understand spoken French so much more poorly than I can read it.  I’ll sit at home at night reading in French about different theoretical perspectives on whether or not verbs can be considered to be concepts–no problem.  Then I go to work the next day and someone says “good morning” to me in a way that I haven’t heard before, and I stand there like I’ve just been hit upside the head with an ax handle, blinking like an idiot.

Case in point: my last day in the lab this summer, Brigitte and I chatted about whatever it was that we were chatting about–no problem.  As I headed out the door for the last time, Brigitte said: Bon retour!  I was totally flummoxed.  I knew that retourner is “to return,” but was she wishing me a nice return to France some day?  Was she wishing me a good trip home?  I had no clue.

Turns out this wasn’t such an odd question.  Today I came across a nice video from the web site French Spanish Online and its video series Learn French With Pascal on the subject of three different French verbs that all mean something like “to return,” but with subtle differences in their deictic properties.  Deixis has to do with how languages express relative location.  An example in English is the words this and that, which express the notion that something is either relatively closer to the speaker (this), or relatively further from the speaker (that).  Most languages have some reflection of deixis in their grammar.  For example, in the Kukú language, spoken in South Sudan, most verbs can be inflected (and some must be inflected) for whether the action of the verb is taking place towards or away from the position of the speaker.

As explained in Pascal’s video, the three French verbs rentrer, revenir, and retourner differ in this way:

  • rentrer is to return home.
  • revenir is to return to where the speaker is.
  • retourner is to return to someplace where neither the speaker nor the listener is.

So far so good.  However, we still need to know a couple of related nouns and/or expressions.

A very culture-specific one is la rentrée.  “The return” is that time at the end of the famous French summer vacation period when people return from their vacations to school or their job.  Ads bemoaning the rentrée appear in France almost as soon as vacation starts.  According to the French Wikipedia disambiguation page for rentrée, we can speak of the rentrée scolaire, when kids go back to school; the rentrée universitaire, when college students go back to school, which happens some weeks later; and the rentrée littéraire, the period between the end of August and the beginning of November when many new books are published in France, hoping for good sales timing in anticipation of the end-of-year holidays and good placement in the competition for literary prizes.

So, what did Brigitte mean when she wished me bon retour (“good return”)?  According to WordReference.com, bon retour translates as have a good journey home or have a safe journey home.  Why retourner, and not rentrer?  Is it because neither the speaker nor the hearer is where the hearer will eventually be going (home)?  I don’t know!  Pascal tells us that there are many exceptions, but I don’t know whether or not this is one of them, versus neither speaker being there trumping home being the destination.  Do you know the answer?  If so, why not leave it in the comments?

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