The military has this problem. People transfer from one “duty station” to another fairly often, and you need to be able to get them integrated quickly–you can’t have someone taking up unproductive space on a ship or on a base for very long. The US military has gotten this integration process down to a science. Basically, when you show up at a new command, you’re given a check-sheet. You take it around to various and sundry places–the medical clinic, the pay clerk, the base library, etc. The people who work there do whatever has to be done to get you integrated into the unit. They sign your check-sheet, and you go on to the next place. It takes maybe two days to get totally set, and then you’re productive.
The place where I work when I’m in France has a similar system. By now, je connais déjà cette musique–I know the drill–and I can usually get all of my administrative stuff done the first day back in the lab. There’s only one problem: I have to successfully pick up the check-sheet. The issue is that it’s called a feuille jaune–a “yellow piece of paper” (it is indeed a piece of paper, and it is indeed yellow), and I constantly mess up and ask the administrator for a feuille jeune. Only a one-vowel difference, but it means “young piece of paper,” not “yellow piece of paper.” This gets me confused looks, or by now a smile. I was reminded of just how ambiguous this really is on the way to work this morning, when I saw the poster that you can see at the top of this post. What’s interesting about it is the word jeûne, which is pronounced the same as the word jeune, but spelt differently–notice the circumflex accent in the former. As I said, they’re pronounced the same, but jeune (no accent) is “young” or “youngster,” while jeûne (with accented û) is a fast (that is, when you don’t eat). The pair of words has been much in the news lately. The issue here is that the French government will be instituting a spelling reform at the beginning of the next school year. Among other derangements of the current system, some words with circumflex accents will be losing them. There is a major Twitterstorm about this. One funny tweet that I read pointed out that the circumflex accent on jeûne (a fast) is the only difference between je vais me faire un petit jeûne (I’m going to take a little fast) and je vais me faire un petit jeune (I’m going to have myself a little youngster.)
Now, “fast” is a perfect Zipf’s Law sort of word: it certainly is not common, but it also is certainly not particularly weird in any way–any native speaker knows it. I had never run into jeûne before the Twitterverse went crazy about the spelling reform, and in fact, that’s how I learnt it. Now it’s a couple months later, and there it is: right there in my face as I went to work this morning. Zipf’s Law!
- jaune (adj.): yellow.
- le jaune: scab, strikebreaker.
- le/la jeune: young person.
- le jeûne: fast, fasting.