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.
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.
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 i 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