Global warming: At least I’m messing up a better class of verbs

Pride comes before a fall, and sometimes the fall is worse than others.


Most mornings, I sit with my first cup of coffee and a stack of index cards and look up all of the words that I ran into the day before and didn’t know.  My 15 minutes or so of vocabulary every morning is a given–I typically learn about 10 new words a day, which means that despite having grammar that makes my French tutor shudder and an accent like fingernails on a blackboard, I know three ways to say “unremittingly.”

Everything else–conjugation, grammar, pronunciation–I rotate between.  Which is to say: I try to make sure that every week I spend a day on some new verb form, a new tense I don’t know, the order of double pronominal preverbal objects (my current bugaboo–il me le rend? Il le me rend?  FUCK), or something of that ilk.  Hence, I know lots of obscure things to say–but, I don’t necessarily know how to say them, if that makes any sense.

The other morning my plane landed in Paris after a long weekend in the US.  (A work thing, and then I surprised my father for his birthday.  We made fried matzah with schmaltz, which is to say: rendered chicken fat.)  On your first day in Europe, the challenge is to stay awake–fall asleep when you get off the plane and you’ll find yourself in a cycle of décalage horaire-induced sleep cycle disturbance that you won’t work your way out of for a week.  Sundays and Wednesdays it’s easy–there’s a market under the Metro tracks down the block, and getting out in the fresh air and sunshine is a good way to keep yourself moving and conscious.

On market days, I actually start not at the market, but at the fromagerie at the Dupleix metro station.  (Right outside the station was the spot where you were most likely to get taken to face the firing squad, at least as recently as 1871, the last date of which I’m sure.)  Although as an American, I had no clue about this ’til I got here, it turns out that cheeses have seasons; the first thing that I do when I get to Laurent Dubois is check the ardoise in the window to see what’s just come in.

This week: 3 “rare” cheeses.  Bleu du Nil, an obscure tomme, and something even more obscure that had already sold out.  Now, you’ll hear numbers about how many cheeses France has, but in truth, no one really knows how many cheeses France has.  Like the apocryphal Eskimo words for snow (that’s bullshit, by the way), some say 200, some say 300, some say 350…  In truth, there’s no way to know, because it’s not clear how to define “a cheese.”  In the limiting case, since every farmwife who still makes her own cheese is making a cheese unlike any other, the cheeses of France are essentially uncountable. (That’s not to say that there’s an infinite number–uncountable and infinite are different things.  I remember well being baffled by the idea of being countably infinite versus uncountably infinite as a graduate student.  As my wife of the moment said to me: Kevin, if you can’t wrap your head around this, you just can’t take any more math classes.  I thought that that was adorable, since I haven’t taken a math course since the obligatory algebra and trig course in college, and in fact am completely innumerate.)

But, back to the fromagerie.  My copy of Marie-Anne Cantin’s Guide de l’amateur de fromages (“”Cheese-lover’s guide”) lists somewhere around 200 or so French cheeses, but it doesn’t list any of the cheeses that had come in this week, so I asked the adorable pixie-cut saleslady to tell me about them.  It developed that the name of one of them comes from the valley where the cows from whose milk it is made graze.  Except…she didn’t use the word graze, and I didn’t catch the word that she did use.  No problem–I recently learnt the verb to graze.  “Where they paissent?” …I asked, using the verb paître–a favorite of mine, because I love circumflex accents.  Seulement voilà, the only thing is: I’d never had the opportunity to use this delightful lexical item before, and I screwed it up.  I should have said paissent–but, my mind wandered off into the delights of that circumflex, and instead I said paîtent.  Which sounds like pètent…  Which means that I had just asked the nice lady if she were referring to where the cows fart.  Damn it.  Pride before a fall, and all that.  She had the good grace not to laugh.  At least, I think she didn’t–I was too embarrassed to look at anything but the floor.

In the English notes, we talk about the little-known English subjunctive.  The French notes are, of course, devoted to the verb paître.  The bleu du Nil comes from exactly one farm, in Brittany–see the picture above.  It’s delicious–as creamy as butter, with little bits of fenugreek.

English notes

Anglophones complain constantly about the French subjunctive.  Even French teachers get into it, commiserating with us about its chiant existence and teaching us ways to avoid it.  In reality, this most charming of the conjugations of the French language is not one that is completely foreign to us.  Although it’s not widespread, my dialect still has a subjunctive.  It’s easiest to say in the case of the verb to be.  Here’s how it showed up in this post:

I had just asked the nice lady if she were referring to where the cows fart.  

The subjunctive here is were.  You would expect was:

I had just asked the nice lady if she was referring to where the cows fart.

…and indeed, (a) you most certainly could say that, and (b) I would guess that most Americans would say that.  (I hate to guess, but I don’t have any statistics on this–sorry.)  You can find some exercises on the use of the subjunctive in English here, if you’d like to pursue this.  Be aware that there are some differences between American and British English in the use of the subjunctive–the Wikipedia page on the English subjunctive goes into them at some length.

French notes

Paître is the kind of delightfully irregular verb that I just adore.  Along with repaître, native speakers don’t seem to agree on whether either, both, or neither of them can be used for humans, or just for cows and the like; whether either, both, or neither of them can be transitive only, intransitive only, or both; or in which tenses the gets its little chapeau chinois.  (From what I can tell, the Academy’s decision on this has not always been gracefully accepted.)  My Bescherelle maintains that (a) it doesn’t have any of the compound tenses, and (b) le participe passé pu, invariable, n’est utilisé qu’en termes de fauconnerie…. and if you can find a verb that’s cooler than that, I will buy you a beer–and if you’re a woman, I’ll marry you.

Three ways to say unremittingly: 

  • sans trêve
  • sans répit
  • sans cesse

14 thoughts on “Global warming: At least I’m messing up a better class of verbs”

  1. My experience with the subjunctive in English is that if your work–ahem–were to be copy edited and you used “were” in your example, the copy editor would change it to “was.” If you used “was,” the copy editor would change it to “were.” I can’t come up with a rule for that–unless, of course, it’s “you’re doomed.”

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  2. The chapeau chinois only appears before a letter “t” to answer your question . The conjugation of paître is irregular but it is exactly like the conjugation of “paraître” if this can help .
    Paître is intransitive, and “se repaître de” is indirect transitive and always pronominal . Se repaître can be used for humans, it means eating a lot to be full up, and it can be figurative ” Il se repaît de romans policiers” . The past participle is quite common, “repu” is well known in the full up physical sense . I didn’t know the past participle of paître, “pu”, and as it is like the one of “pouvoir” it’s normal it disappeared .
    The cheese lady maybe used “brouter”, more usual than paître, meaning browsing for eating animals . Or she may have used “paturer”, a synonym of paître .

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  3. I forgot : paître is used for humans too, but only colloquially and only in this expression” envoyer quelqu’un paître” . When someone asks or begs someone else a favour or something of this kind, if the answer is an abrupt refusal we say so : ” Elle m’a envoyé paître”, “Ils les ont envoyés paître”, etc.. .

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    1. By the way, the use of se repaître to refer to gorging on something is super-counter-intuitive to a native speaker of English. Brouter or se repaître in English is the opposite, if used for a human–it means something more like to nibble a bit here and there. For example, if you went to a social function in the evening and they served appetizers and you ate a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and then later someone asked you if you wanted to get some dinner, you might say “I’m not really hungry–I grazed at the reception.”

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      1. Yes but “brouter” in French doesn’t mean grazing like that . It is only used for herbivorous animals, cows, sheep, it is the verb to say they eat, in their stupid habit of eating grass, which can be all day long . Paître or paturer implies this of course, since they do this non-stop instead of playing chess, but they mean you left the cattle in some pasture, they are all day there doing their stupid things . In repaître I guess this “re-” shows it is more, maybe too much .
        Grazing like in your reception is “picorer” – this time it is the verb for how little birds eat .
        Colloquially when someone refuses to help you he sends you “paître” in your meadow like an animal . We also say “Il m’a envoyé me faire voir chez les Grecs”, same meaning for a clear and rather brutal “No !”
        An interesting thing about this cool verb “paître” is it belong to the family of pastor . The ancient and still poetic word for “berger”(shephard) is “un pâtre” . Ex : “Il avait un visage de pâtre grec”. So pâtre, pasture, pasteur, paître, same family .

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      2. Oh, to balance the counter-intuitive aspect you see in “repaître”, be aware that it is the root of “repas” . Eh oui, repas is the modern form of repast, that came from past, meaning animal or human food . This”past” came from the Latin “pastus”, past participle of “pascere”, a verb meaning make your cattle “paître” . From an animal affair it was transfered to humans, interesting evolution of a word in human consciousness . I also find very funny that the religious idea of pastor is etymologically only related to gross physical food, even to animal eating . Ha ha
        See, this is why I’m interested in words, I mean words of real languages that transmit millenia of human consciousness, including human fundamental tendencies, for the best and for the worst .

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  4. And I thought I could understand the subjunctive tense thinking just of the words would and could.
    The diagonalization proof of the uncountability of the set of Real numbers is fantastic. I would believe you could grok that quite well.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you. I have been feeling as blue as the cheese always referred to simply as bleu in my ‘home’ area (Auvergne) recently and you lifted my spirits and had me spit my coffee with laughter at your little faux pas. By the way, my father-in-law, Patrick Rance wrote ‘The French Cheese Book’ in 1990 or so. An Opus Magni from a true aficionado and passionate man, he found far more than a meagre 200 or so cheeses. He is here 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m happy to have brought a little sunshine into someone’s day. As I always tell my students: learn from my mistakes–it’ll be a hell of a lot less painful to you than learning from your own.

      Your father-in-law’s book has been on my Amazon wish list for ages.

      Liked by 1 person

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