Some periphrasis allowed

If people are rolling on the floor laughing while I talk, that’s a GOOD thing, right??


One of the things that I love about France is the frequency with which I hear people casually throwing around technical terminology about language.  From my perspective, awareness of language and how it is structured is just more common here than it is in the US, and for someone like me who really likes to talk about language, that’s a big plus.  (Plus as a noun and other American English oddities explained below in the English notes.)  I’ve run into the term lexical field (in French, quite detailed: here) over drinks and on a web site for kids preparing for the bac, or high school exit exam; corpus came up in a cafe across the street from the Philharmonic; a recent discussion of labor unrest on the radio devolved into talk of ontologies.

Historical change in the periphrastic use of “do” in English. Picture source:

Still, I had to laugh when the directions for the test of oral production that I took the other day mentioned periphrasis.  Periphrasis is the use of longer, multi-word ways of saying something when there’s a shorter, typically single-word alternative.  (Don’t bother looking it up on Wikipedia–the entry is incomprehensible.)  For example, in English you can say smarter, or more smart; the more smart option is an example of periphrasis.  More commonly, we would use an adjective and say that it’s periphrastic.  French has a periphrastic and a non-periphrastic future tense: ils dégringoleront means they will tumble down, and so does ils vont dégringoler.  The first one is not periphrastic; the second one is.

How does that come up in a test of oral production?  It has to do with vocabulary, and how you deal with needing a word that you don’t know.  Here is a description of the C1 level of the CEFR, the Common European Framework of Reference for defining language skill levels:

Le niveau C1 est intitulé niveau autonome. Ce niveau semble être caractérisé par le bon accès à une large gamme de discours qui permet une communication aisée et spontanée comme on le verra dans les exemples suivants : peut s’exprimer avec aisance et spontanéité presque sans effort. A une bonne maîtrise d’un répertoire lexical large dont les lacunes sont facilement comblées par des périphrases. Il y a peu de recherche notable de certaines expressions ou de stratégies d’évitement ; seul un sujet conceptuellement difficile peut empêcher que le discours ne se déroule naturellement.

The bolded sentence: Strong command of a broad lexical repertoire whose gaps are easily filled by periphrasis.  If I recall the scoring criteria, the way that it’s phrased is that you’re allowed to use some periphrasis to fill in for words that you don’t know.  Not too much–just some.  How would that work?  Well, I often fail hilariously when trying to make deadjectival nouns.  For example, instead of happiness, I might say something like happitude or happiment.  (In French, that is–I speak English just fine.)  In my daily life, I just go for it, and if people start rolling on the floor laughing while I’m talking, that’s a good thing, right?  On the other hand, during a formal exam, you might want to use a periphrastic construction and say something like the feeling of being happy rather than risking inadvertently coming out with happitude.  In his fascinating book Babel no more, Michael Erard argues that one of the important indicators of skill in a language is the ability to work one’s way around problems in expression–an interesting insight, and one that runs counter how we usually think of what it means to have skill in a language, which is to not have problems in the first place.  Using periphrasis in this way would be an example of working one’s way around a problem in expression.

How did the exam go?  I don’t know!  I’ll find out around Thanksgiving time (a tough time for American expats in France–there are no cranberries in Paris).  I’m super-pessimistic about this kind of thing.  However, I can say this: I felt really good about it afterwards.  Excerpt from a letter to a friend:

The test itself plays to my strong points in that 50% of the oral production test is pronunciation/grammar/vocabulary, but the other 50% is about your ability to put together and present an argument that involves a compare-and-contrast plus your own take, and that’s what I do for a living all day.  And, my pronunciation and vocabulary aren’t bad, I wouldn’t say.  Grammar is another question altogether.  But, still: I think it went really well.  I walked out of the room on a huge high.

The format of the test is that you’re given two sets of two printed documents.  You get to pick the set of documents that you want.  I chose the documents about la philosophie grand public–you could translate it as something like “pop philosophy,” although that has somewhat more negative connotations in this context than are deserved–because part of the presentation requires giving your own personal perspective on the issue, and I do have a perspective on this issue, as I like to go to cafés philo.  (I can barely tell you what the other topic was about–something related to the value of the individual versus the community–there isn’t enough time to go through both sets of documents, so as soon as I realized that I could handle the philosophie grand public one, I dove into it.  Note that once the tests are given, the topics are no longer secret–you can download the exams.)
You get an hour to read the documents and put together your presentation.  You’re allowed to take notes on the documents, but you cannot just read those notes.  For the presentation, you have a jury–in this case, two people.  You talk for 10-15 minutes, and then have a débat with the jury–they question your evidence, conclusions, whatever.
Jigoro Kano, the Japanese educator who invented judo. Picture source:

I had structured my presentation along the lines of a French thesis/antithesis/synthesis essay, and in my synthesis, I proposed that each of the two opposing articles made some untested assumptions, but that actually, each article provided the justification of the assumptions for the other.  So, in the débat portion of the test, the jury questioned my assumptions.  I love that kind of shit, so I have to admit: as perverse as this sounds, I enjoyed the oral production test.  If I failed the C1 exams… it’s like Jigoro Kano, the inventor of judo, said about the mutually beneficial (自他共栄) aspects of competitions: the guy who wins gets positive feedback on his hard work, and the guy who loses gets valuable feedback about what he needs to work on more.  I’ll have useful feedback to use in preparing to take it again, and I do appreciate useful feedback.  Good thing, since my judo win-loss record is 4-54!

English notes

plus as a noun: Merriam-Webster defines it as something that is useful or helpful; a positive factor or quality.  How it appears in the post: …for someone like me who really likes to talk about language, that’s a big plus.

don’t bother (to…): The Urban Dictionary describes it as used when telling a person to stop trying something that you know won’t work.  It comes from this meaning of the verb to bother: to take the time to do something : to make an effort to do something (from Merriam-Webster).  Note that it’s intransitive: this is different from the meaning of bother in don’t bother me or don’t bother the cat.  Typically you would tell the person what to not bother doing, as I did in the post: Don’t bother looking it up on Wikipedia–the entry is incomprehensible.  However, you can also use it without that–in this case, it can sound insulting or very angry, so be careful.  In this case, it would be used when someone has offered to do something; you’re saying that there’s no reason to do it, whether because it wouldn’t improve the situation, or because you don’t need it, generally because you took care of the problem yourself, or are capable of doing so without the other person’s help.  Scroll down for a few examples.

You can have a present participle, as in “don’t bother knocking,” or an infinitive, as in the title of this movie. The meaning is the same, either way. Picture source:
This is the angry use. The speaker is refusing something that the listener has offered to do. Picture source:
This is what I’ve called the “angry” version. The implication: don’t bother talking to me, because you’re an idiot, so I won’t respond. Picture source:


8 thoughts on “Some periphrasis allowed”

  1. Paris! There is no substitute of course and here I am rolling in the damn things being quite close to a bog in Massachusetts! If you were being examined on the joy you give to expatriated English Birds who have had to further expatriate from their home in France you will pass with flying colours. So there.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You seem to enjoy using your intellect as a source of pleasure and for this game France is a place where you can commonly find partners to play with .
    A périphrase can be used to soften a shock (“Il nous a quittés” instead of Il est mort), in an artistic intention (“l’astre d’argent” instead of la lune) in this French love for abstractions (” le septième art” instead of le cinéma), or through this humorous and ubiquitous impulsion French low classes have always fed (“s’en jeter un derrière la cravate” instead of boire un verre) .
    Plus as a noun is OK in modern French too : “Cela apporte un plus à notre maison” . I’m sure if you do one of your mysterious magical tricks that you do with your computers you’ll find plenty examples .

    Liked by 1 person

  3. British English tends toward the two-word comparatives: more loud instead of louder. I’m not sure whether that’s true across the board or just with some words, and I have no idea what its history is, but to my American ear it sounds like a lot of unnecessary work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In theory the comparative is “-er” with monosyllables (loud/louder, big/bigger, strong/stronger) and “more” with disyllabic and longer words (colorful/more colorful, ebullient/more ebullient), but I think that’s a tendency, not an absolute–angry/angrier and hungry/hungrier are totally natural, as far as I know.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s