There’s room for us all under the Big Red Maple Leaf, but the weather is iffy

Clouds over Montreal. Picture from
Clouds over Montreal. Picture from

Due to my poor command of the French language, I scared the heck out of my cousin.

I’m in Montréal for a family wedding.  Riding from the airport to the hotel, the cab driver was listening to the radio.  I heard this (if it’s in italics, it happened in French): 3 degrees tonight, 0 in the suburbs, chance of freezing.  Snow likely tomorrow. 

This wasn’t good news–lots of family coming into town for the wedding.  Really?, I asked the taxi driver.  Snow?  Tomorrow?  Yep, he answered.

Arriving at the hotel, I called my cousin, whose daughter is getting married this weekend.  “How’s the weather where you came from today, as opposed to here?”, he asked me.  (If it’s not in italics, it happened in English.)  “About like here,” I said–it’s quite nice here in Montreal today–“but I understand there might be snow tomorrow.”  “No.  No.  You’re kidding.  Snow?  It can’t,” says my cousin.  You see, several years ago, he had another occasion here.  It was April.  With all of the family in town, it snowed 12 inches, and no one could get out of town the next day.  “Well, maybe I misunderstood,” I said.  “My French isn’t that great.”

After we hung up, I looked up the word that I had heard on the radio that described what the weather was going to be like the next day.  Crap!  I always mistake these two words:

  • la neige: snow.
  • le nuage: cloud.

Indeed, it’s going to be cloudy tomorrow, not snowy–no need to panic.  I won’t soon be forgiven for the 5 years that I probably took off of my cousin’s life with that mistake, though!

Daughter of the King in a personals ad

“Arrival of the Brides,” a painting of the Filles du Roi by English artist Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale.

When I started studying French last winter, I fell in love with a song from Quebec called Petite annonce amoureuse (“Personals ad”–for those of you who are too young to remember, personals ads were the precedents of; they were short advertisements that ran in newspapers, from people looking for love).  The song was originally recorded by Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and recently re-recorded by Chloé Sainte-Marie.  The song begins with these words:

Je cherche un homme qui a cinq pieds trois I’m looking for a man who is 5 foot three
Moi, je ne suis pas fille du roi Me, I’m not a daughter of the king

In French, trois (“three”) and roi (“king”) rhyme–no big deal.  Just a quirky line in a song, right?

Fast forward two years, and I’m now reading The story of French, a book about the history of the French language by the always-interesting Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlowe. The book tells the story of the population of French Canada. While the population of the English colonies was booming in the 1600s, the French Canadian population most definitely was not, with a ratio of six men to every female. The administration tried to address the situation by sending marriageable young women, mostly from orphanages, from France to the New World. These women were accompanied by dowries provided by the Crown, and were known as filles du roi (filles du roy, in the orthography of the time)–“daughters of the King.”  The King’s Daughters feature strongly in the creation myth of Canada, and various and sundry people of whom you would have heard are descended from filles du roi, including Hillary Clinton, Angelina Jolie, and Madonna, according to Wikipedia.  Here are some words related to the filles du roi:

  • l’orphelin, l’orpheline: orphan
  • l’orphelinat (masc.): orphanage
  • le foyer de l’enfance: orphanage (more current term, according to the French Wikipedia entry)

Irregular IR-class verbs, or why I’m not losing weight

Exploring group III French verbs through my failure to lose weight.

So embarrassing–I had a great opportunity to use an obscure IR-class verb (mincir, meaning to lose weight or to make you look thin) yesterday, but in the first person singular present tense, not the third person plural present tense that we worked on last time–and I blew it.  Attempting to explain the connection between the delicious French-Canadian dish called poutine–fries covered with cheese curds and gravy–and why I’m not losing weight, I conjugated it as an ER verb, not IR.  !@#$%$!  I guess I just gotta work on those IR-class verbs some more.  So, for the moment let’s just point out that there’s a Montréal restaurant, La Banquise, that serves 25 different kinds of poutine, agree amongst ourselves that I’ll go there this week when I visit our neighbors under the Big Red Maple Leaf, and focus on irregular IR verbs.

In that spirit, let’s look at the present tense of some irregular IR verbs.  In the singular forms, the final written consonant is the same, but where the regular IR verbs have the vowel i in front of that consonant, the irregular IR verbs do not. We’ll use finir (to finish) as our prototype of a regular IR verb–all of the other verbs in these tables are irregular IR verbs:

finir courir dormir partir sortir
je finis cours dors pars sors
tu finis cours dors pars sors
on finit court dort part sort

In the plural forms, the regular IR verbs (like finir) and the irregular verbs (all of the other verbs in this post) are quite different, and actually look a lot like ER verbs:

finir courir dormir partir sortir
nous finissons courons dormons partons sors
vous finissez courez dormez partez sortez
ils/elles finissent courent dorment partent sortent

Similar verbs include mentir (to lie), sentir (to smell), and compounds of all of these.

How many verbs like this are there? It’s surprisingly difficult to say. It’s even unclear what exactly “this” means. The traditional answer would be “the set of third-conjugation verbs,” but “third-conjugation verbs” include a number of verbs of entirely different classes. Just looking at the example verbs on this page, there’s a clear difference between verbs like courir and verbs like dormir–they share the same endings, sure, but the stem of the verbs like dormir lose a consonant in the singular forms.  Would you count mourir?  The endings are the same, but there’s a change in the stem vowel.  How about démentir (to deny)?  It’s conjugated like mentir,  but while the past participle menti is invariable, the past participle of démentir can be inflected for gender, and be démenti or démentie.  Does it count as like “this”?  And, there are words related to the words that I’ve used as examples here.  For example, related to courir (to run), we have (from the web site L’Obs–la conjugaison):


Counting word types is always an ugly business–this shows you one thing that contributes to that kind of ugliness.  Mincir (to lose weight) is totally regular, by the way, although at this point in my life, for me to lose weight would, unfortunately, be quite irregular.

3rd person plural present tense of regular IR-class verbs: anonymous sex in the Tuileries Garden

The Tuileries Garden today. Source:
The Tuileries Garden today. Source: “Tuileries gardenview” by User:Munford – Own work (Taken by me). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

There’s good evidence that men have been jumping the walls of the Tuileries Garden (built in 1564) to have sex with each other at night since at least the 17th century.  We know about this because although France has no laws forbidding sex or marriage between consenting adults today, it wasn’t always so enlightened.  At one time, the police paid men called mouches (flies) to entrap gay men into making sexual propositions and then have them arrested.  The police reports of the mouches give quite a bit of insight into gay cruising culture in the decades before the French Revolution (1789).  In 1791, the new French penal code decriminalized homosexuality.

Now that I’ve got your attention, it’s time to get back to the basics.  I’m preparing for a French certification test (see this post for a description of the oral comprehension portion), and I am realizing that I am woefully out of practice with the conjugations of some verb classes.  About 20% of French verbs end with -ir.  The 3rd person plural present tense of these verbs (they walk, they are walking, etc.) is a weakness for me, so humor me and let’s work on it.

For the 80% or so of French verbs that belong to the ER class, the 3rd person plural present tense is pronounced the same as the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person singular.  For the IR verbs, the stem is pronounced the same as the 1st and 2nd person plurals.  (It’s always written differently from all of the others.)  The ending for the 3rd person plural present tense of regular IR verbs is -issent:

je finis nous finissons
tu finis vous finissez
on finit ils finissent

With that reference in hand, let’s practice. A list of sentences follows. Change the highlighted pronoun and verb to ils, and give the appropriate verb form.

  1. Nous ne choisissons pas notre orientation sexuelle.  We don’t choose our sexual orientation.
  2. Je vomis les “mouches.”  I loathe the “mouches.”
  3. Je suis ravi qu’il abolit les lois contre l’homosexualité.  I’m delighted that he is abolishing the laws against homosexuality.
  4. Est-ce que tu rougis quand je parle de ces affaires?  Do you blush when I talk about these things?
  5. Réfléchissez-vous à ce que j’ai dit?  Are you thinking about what I said?


  1. Ils ne choisissent pas leur orientation sexuelle.
  2. Ils vomissent les mouches.  They loathe the mouches.
  3. Je suis ravi que qu’ils abolissent les lois contre l’homosexualité.
  4. Est-ce que ils rougissent quand je parle de ces affaires?
  5. Réfléchissent-ils à ce que j’ai dit?

I love a good monosyllable

A picture that I took in a locksmith shop that I happened to wander into the other day. Incidentally, a recent poll revealed a broad consensus that the most difficult French word for Americans to pronounce is "locksmith shop:" serrurerie.
A picture that I took in a locksmith shop that I happened to wander into the other day. Incidentally, a recent poll revealed a broad consensus that the most difficult French word for Americans to pronounce is “locksmith shop:” serrurerie.

Most of what you know about your native language, you already knew by the time you were a child. Phonology (sound patterns), syntax (sentence structure), the intricacies of things like plurals, possessives, when to use definite articles (e.g. “the”) versus indefinite articles (e.g. “a”)–if your language has them, you knew how to use them pretty early, and you don’t learn much more about these kinds of structural patterns in your language after childhood.  Remembering that you had problems pronouncing r or something until you were seven doesn’t change the fact that there is an astounding amount that you did know.

Your lexicon, or the set of words that you know, is different from all other components of your language in this respect.  You continue to learn new words, probably throughout your life. So, I’m never surprised to learn a new vocabulary item in my native language, even though I scored in the 99th percentile on the language section of the GRE (the test that you take when you apply to graduate programs)–Zipf’s Law applies to your native language just as much as it does to any language that you might try to learn later in life.

However, if your native language is English, it’s uncommon to come across a novel monosyllable (single-syllable word) late in life. I find it so exciting when I do that for years, I have written to my siblings whenever I learnt a new one. Thanks to the wonder of blogs, I can now share the wonder of an obscure English monosyllable with the world! One that I came across just the other day is “rose.” Yes, we all know this word, but I came across a new (to me) meaning for it the other day. Go look for a door handle. See the round thing at the base, where the handle goes into the mortise (also spelt mortice)–the hole that the handle goes into the door through. See the round thing at the base? That’s called a rose.

The rose window in the cathedral at Strasbourgh.  Source: “Rosace cathedrale strasbourg” by Clostridium – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

The French word for this round thing at the base of your doorknob is rosace.  It’s an interesting word, because its meanings include “rose window”–the round stained glass window that you see on the east-facing window of a Gothic church.  What’s interesting (to me) about that is that now realize that I’ve been misinterpreting the word vitrail, which I thought was a rose window, but turns out to be a stained glass window or stained glass in general, but not necessarily a rose window.

  • le vitrail (plural vitraux) (IPA [vitʀaj]): stained glass; stained glass window.
  • la rosace: rose window.

Dancing with puzzled, half-lame dogs

Val Resia in Italy, near the Slovenian border.
Val Resia in Italy, near the Slovenian border.

When my mother was in her late teens, she was sort of informally adopted by a man who had been a machine gunner in the Allied liberation of Italy during the war.  He came back with a cute wife and the ability to make amazing spaghetti with anchovy sauce.  It became my mother’s favorite dish, and it is one of my all-time favorite comfort foods.  My mother is long gone, and no one left on earth can stand the smell of garlic sauteed in anchovy guck but my father and I, so we make it whenever we get together.  We feel that it goes best with music from the Val Resia on the Italian-Slovenian border (scroll below to see what that hears like); imagine two aging men dancing with a puzzled, half-lame Golden Retriever while two cans of anchovy fillets dissolve in olive oil and a pot of spaghetti overflows and you’ve pretty much got the picture of a Saturday night in our part of the Pacific Northwest.

The French Wikipedia article on the Val Resia brings up some useful words—scroll down past the video to see them.

  • la commune: town, municipality, or village.  Resia est une commune de la province d’Udine dans la région Frioul-Vénétie julienne en Italie.   The commune is an important organizational unit in France.  A commune can have a number of sizes.  As Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julia Barlow explain it in their excellent (if oddly named) book 60 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong, “The commune refers to any municipality: a village, town, or city.   Paris is a commune, and so is Fresnes.  Many communes are ancient parishes.  They became communes during the French Revolution to break the influence of the clergy.  One of the most striking features of France’s political landscape is the high number of communes: 36,851, with an average of 1,650 inhabitants each.  France has more communes than Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Italy combined.  The biggest is Paris, with two million inhabitants, followed by Lyon and Marseilles, with about a million each.  Toulouse, Dijon, Bordeaux, and Strasbourg make up the third tier, with between one-quarter and half a million inhabitants.  Only 52 French communes have more than 100,000 inhabitants.  So France is basically a country of small towns.”

Think carefully before you ask for the recipe for spaghetti with anchovy sauce–once smelled, it cannot be forgotten!

Where the hell is Oregon, and what the hell were the French doing there?

The Pacific Northwest. It includes parts of Northern California, Washingto State, Idaho, and Canada. Map from
The Pacific Northwest. It includes parts of Northern California, Washington State, Idaho, and Canada. Map from

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest–an obscure, but special, part of the United States. You can tell that you’re someplace different as soon as you get off the plane here—the pine trees covering the sides of the valleys; the rivers and their wide variety of bridges; the blackberries growing by the side of the road everyplace that they’re not actively suppressed. Driving through the area, there’s something else that marks this part of the country as different: the Native American place names. Many of the tribally-derived place names here are immediately identifiable as being from the Pacific Northwest by their consonant clusters—Chilkat, Klamath, Clackamas, Klickitat—reflexes of the articulatorily complex consonants of many of the Native American languages from which they come. The Pacific Northwest native cultures were very different from the stereotypical Plains Indian culture that you probably know from cowboy movies—no teepees, no horses, no buffalo.  Many of the Pacific Northwest tribes lived primarily from the rivers and the sea.  Their art featured very distinctively stylistic forms from nature—fish, birds, animals—often carved. The famous “totem poles” are from here.

Pacific Northwest Native American mask, from the Namgis tribe of the Kwakwaka’wakw ethnic group. 19th century. Brooklyn Museum. Licensed under “No restrictions” via Commons –

Everyone knows about the American explorers Lewis and Clark coming through here. What people are less aware of is that there was once a heavy French presence in this part of the country—not settlers, but traders. From the 1500s to the 1800s, animal furs were one of the major exports of the North American continent, and the French were in it from the beginning.  Europeans typically traded for their furs from Native hunters.  In the American educational system, we typically mention very briefly the role of the French in exploring the Mississippi River valley, then move on to other things, and we completely ignore the connections between some of the best-loved figures of our early history and France. The famous frontiersman Davy Crockett (what American schoolchild cannot sing “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier”?) was from the de Crocketagne family. The mythical giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan’s name is thought to have come from Canadian French. In the Pacific Northwest, we still see remnants of the French role in our settlement in place names, and in the name of the occasional Native American tribe. Let’s see what some of those mean:

  • la chute: a fall, a drop—or a waterfall. In the “waterfall” sense, this word shows up in many place names in the Pacific Northwest. The Deschutes River in Oregon was originally called the Rivière des Chutes, due to the Celilo Falls. Deschutes County, the Deschutes National Forest, and other places in Oregon and Washington State take their names from it.
  • la cascade: a waterfall.  This is the source of the name of the Cascade Mountain Range, a long chain of mountains that goes through much of the Pacific Northwest.
  • la dalle: various meanings, including a slab or flagstone of rock. In the time of the fur trade, French-Canadians used it to refer to rapids. The Dalles is a small city in Oregon named for some nearby rapids on the Columbia River. (In a bit of bizarreness, in 1984, 751 people in The Dalles came down with food poisoning after some Rajneeshees put salmonella bacteria in the salad bars of 10 restaurants there, hoping to knock out lots of voters so that Rajneeshee candidates would win the local elections.)
  • le malheur: misfortune, tragedy. The Malheur River in Oregon, along with Malheur Lake and Malheur County, was named by French Canadians during the fur trade.
  • percer: to pierce, and a lot of related meanings, such as to penetrate. The Nez Perce tribe, which covered parts of the Pacific Northwest, Idaho, and Montana, was originally referred to as the Nez Percé (“pierced nose”) people by French Canadian fur traders. (According to Wikipedia, the real “pierced nose” people were the Chinook tribe, but the name has stuck.)