France has a highly competitive education system. Your score on the high school exit exam–the baccalauréat général, usually referred to as the bac–does a lot to determine where you will go in your life afterwards. Odd career paths like mine would be even less likely in France than they are in the US.
The bac is not easy. Here are some example questions from the philosophy épreuve (see below), taken from this web page (and yes, philosophy is a required subject for high school students in France):
Is man condemned to create illusions about himself?
Can we prove a scientific hypothesis?
Does language betray thought?
Does historical objectivity presuppose an impartial historian?
As Nadeau and Barlow’s excellent book on France describes it: “The Bac exams in June are always covered by the media, starting with talk shows that invite guests to discuss and comment on the questions for the philosophy exam.”
Forget being able to pass the bac–thanks to Zipf’s Law, I have enough trouble just reading the analysis of the bac in the papers. Here are some words that I had to look up from today’s article:
le dessous: as a preposition, it can mean on the bottom, underneath, under, or below. As a noun, it has many meanings, including the downstairs apartment; bottom or underside; underwear; secrets, what lies behind something, hidden facts. The headline of today’s newspaper story is Les dessous d’une note–good luck figuring out which sense is intended without reading the whole article!
la note: a number of meanings, including “note,” but also rating, mark, or grade–presumably the intended meaning here.
une épreuve: many meanings–in this case, part of an exam. The article begins Après des épreuves de maths et de physique-chimie jugées trop dures, des consignes de clémence auraient été données aux correcteurs.
la consigne: a number of meanings. In this case, an order or instruction, but also a baggage-checking room, as well as a deposit, as in a deposit on something that has to be returned. When you get into verbal and adjectival forms, it gets even more amusingly diverse, but we’ll leave that for another time. (Addition: later in the day, I ran into this in an email from the director of the Institute regarding various and sundry things that people needed to do regarding the aménagement (layout, arrangement, set-up) of the new equipment room: Merci à tous de respecter ces consignes.)
There are, of course, many other words that Zipf’s Law brings us in the rest of the article, but at least now we can read the first sentence! Almost, at any rate: I can’t even figure out what tense auraient été is, let alone what it means!
One of the great things about my current neighborhood is the fruit and vegetable stand. Since the time that the proprietress chewed me out properly for picking up and sniffing the fruit, we’ve gotten along great, and I get a smile every day when I stop by to pick up my daily allotment of fresh fruit. As always, Zipf’s Law strikes:
la prune: plum. At the fruit stand this morning, I just had to point and grunt, because I didn’t know the word.
la framboise: rasperry. Some great-looking tarts à la framboise at the corner patisserie.
la tomate: tomato. Luckily, there was a sign by the tomatoes this morning, so I didn’t have to point-and-grunt.
mûr: ripe, mature. I actually learned this word before coming here, but it sounds just like the word mur (“wall”), and when she asked me if I wanted figs that were mûr, I thought, “what’s a wall-fig?”, until she asked me “are you going to eat them today?” and I figured out which word it was. So, I think that this word merits entry on my list of words that I didn’t know.
Zipf’s Law strikes as often in the office as it does anywhere else. Here are some random words from my day. Gaps are due to lunch or to me giving a talk.
11:00 AM le pinaillage: hair-splitting. This came up in an email exchange about the best name for a directory.
11:17 AM à propos de: regarding, about, concerning. Directory names again.
11:24 AM le fichier: a file–in this context, a computer file.
11:36 AM le répertoire: notebook, file; I got this in a UNIX error message about failure of the scp command.
12:30 PM le rappel: reminder, in which sense it was used in email the other day; today, it was used in the sense of the technical term “recall,” which is an important concept in evaluating systems in my field.
15:10 PM: saisir: many meanings relating to grasping or seizing things, but in informatics, it refers to entering or inputting data. The cue to put in your PIN on my cell phone uses the verb saisir. (It showed up half an hour later in the more general meaning of grabbing, in an advertising email urging me to saisir some travel deals rapidement.)
16:43 PM: si: I knew this one in theory, but didn’t recognize it in practice until, like, the 5th time in a row that my office mate said it to me. It means “yes,” but something like “on the contrary–yes.” I said that I could ssh from my desktop to a server, but couldn’t scp from the server to my desktop, at which she said si–if you can ssh, you can scp.
16:50 PM: le tableau blanc: whiteboard.
15:49 PM: sauvegarder: to back up, to save (data). My cell phone voice mail has an option to sauvegarder a message.
17:50 PM: la passerelle: a footbridge, gangway, or walkway. It was used in the sense of something that allows you to connect to a remote computer.
17:51 PM: rebondir: to bounce, bounce back. It was used in the sense of contacting a server and getting something back. (I ran into this word again in the evening in a book store, on a magazine cover, which asked the question “Can Japan bounce back?”)
17:52 PM: la mise en place: setting up, establishment of something.
17:53 PM: côté client: client-side. (If you don’t know what this means: it’s a geek thing. Not important.)
la chaleur: heat. Everyone talks about how the summer heat is just around the corner. No sign of it yet.
la myrtille: blueberry. The crêperie that I went to yesterday had myrtille crêpes. “Myrtle crepes?,” I thought…”Sounds horrible!” Nope–a false cognate.
le pot: a variety of meanings. I ran across two in three days. One is of a pot, tub, or jar–I ran into this sense when reading the jar of chestnut spread that I put on my morning tartine when I don’t feel like Nutella. The other sense is of a party with drinks–I ran into this sense when there was a pot at the end of the day of PhD student presentations of their research progress last Friday.
le ciron: the best word of the weekend–cheese mite! My latest cheese is Mimolette–specifically Mimolette jeune, a mimolette that has been aged less than six months. Take a look at the picture here–the holes on the crust are from cirons. If you are as curious about what a cheese mite is as I was, see here. Mimolette jeune is good, incidentally, and a good cheese for Americans–the flavor is pretty similar to a cheddar.
Going to a demonstration in a country where you’re not a citizen and don’t speak the language probably isn’t the brightest thing in the world, but last weekend there was an anti-Fascism demonstration (manifestation anti-fa) in Paris, and I feel strongly about anti-Fascism, so I went and marched. I couldn’t understand most of the chants, but Pas de fachos dans nos quartiers, pas de quartier pour les fachos (“no Fascists in our neighborhoods, no quarter for Fascists”–it sounds better in French than in English, as it plays on two meanings of the word quartier) is about the speed of my French, so I joined in when they chanted that one. (There’s a similar play on ambiguity in Face à l’extrême droite, pas un seul pas en arrière–“confronting the extreme right, not a single step backwards,” which plays on two meanings of the word pas.) There was a lot of smoke from flares, a little trash-burning, a little glass-smashing, and an awful lot of riot police, but other than that, things weren’t particularly hairy–the French are old hands at demonstrations, strikes, and the like.
As always, Zipf’s Law strikes, and I learned lots of new words. I thought that taking photos of people at a demonstration was probably a good way to get your phone taken away, get your ass kicked, or worse, so I didn’t take very many pictures at all, but of course much of the language is in the signs anyway. Stoppons was my favorite word of the day–“let’s stop,” as in stoppons la violence–“let’s stop the violence” (see picture below). Other useful words of the day:
manifestation: demonstration. This is such an important word in France that you learn it in French 101 in college. I include it here for the reader’s edification–it’s not a word that I didn’t know before, unlike every other word that you’ll read in this blog.
The forms of the quote vary, but de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces during the Second World War and occasional president of France, is alleged to have asked, “How can you govern a country with 200 cheeses?” One of my goals for this stay in France is to become knowledgeable about cheese. I definitely haven’t reached the point of being willing to eat cheese for dessert, but I’m motivated to become more familiar with the various cheeses, and to eat a lot of them. To that end, I’ve been picking up a new cheese every couple of days, and I purchased a copy of Guide de l’amateur de fromage, or “Cheese-lover’s guide.” (You would be amazed at how many books on cheese there are in a good French bookstore. I went to Gibert Joseph. I picked this one because it was ranked #2 among all cheese books on Amazon’s French web site. Strangely, I was unable to figure out which one was rated #1.)
Like everything else about France and the French language (or any other language, for that matter), Zipf’s Law comes into play, and I am constantly picking up new words. Some of these are very general, but even reading about a specific cheese, I’m constantly looking words up. More on that in some other post. Here are some general words for talking about cheese:
déguster: to taste, to savor.
disque: disc. The shape of many cheeses.
épais/épaisse: thick. Some cheeses are épais, some aren’t.
diamètre: diameter, as you might have guessed. But, if you don’t ask, you don’t know–sooooo many French words don’t mean what they look like in English (and vice versa).
fruité: fruity. I haven’t figured out what constitutes fruitiness in the context of cheese.
texture: texture, but also “weave,” and “structure.”
moelleux/moelleuse: soft, creamy, gooey.
forme: shape, form.
matière: matter, stuff, substance. Also urine, feces. Not in the context of cheese, I hope. Shows up in the context of matières grasses, which I believe means “fat content.”
I’ve got pages more of cheese-related words in my notebook, but this will do for now–there’s only so many words that you can absorb at once! There’s only so many words that I can absorb at once, at any rate.