5 things I will never get about French

Because I respect my elders, I am willing to accept that thousands-of-years-old French has a rhyme and reason to it that my relatively infantile self fails to grasp. Still, you cannot blame me for getting frustrated with certain facets of the language that seem objectively insane if you’re a non-native speaker. To wit:

1. Numbers above 69

I have stated this before but it bears repeating:

It’s like they let the village idiot come up with the French numerical system at his daughter’s wedding. He did pretty well for himself up to 69 – echoing the Roman decimal system by counting in tens… but then he got shit-faced and started adding and multiplying random numbers together to come up with everything from 70 to 99. What else could account for soixante-dix (sixty-ten, i.e. 70), or quatre-vingt-dix-neuf (four-twenty-ten-nine, i.e. 99… because, of course, four times twenty plus ten plus nine is 99)?

I have recently learned that Belgians, Swiss, and Congolese use a more logical numbering system in which seventy is septante, eighty is huitante or octante, and ninety is nonante, and I have further learned that the weird French way may be a Celtic leftover. I tend to think that when your leftovers have gotten rotten it’s time to throw them out, but who am I to argue with the Académie française?

2. Reflexive verbs that are not actually reflexive

Here is the definition for reflexive. Pretty simple, right? And yet, French reflexive verbs are not bounded at all by that definition. While I can acknowledge that French reflexive verbs consist of more than simply verbs in which the action is performed on oneself (when the subject is singular) or each other (when the subject is plural), I cannot intuitively grasp it because I see absolutely no logic in it. I completely understand why you would say, “Je me habille” or “Nous nous marions”- because you dress yourself and you marry each other. But why do people say, “Je me souviens?” as though they are remembering themselves and not the memory? And why is it, “Je me promene,” as though you are a dog walking yourself, but it’s also “Je marche” and not, “Je me marche,” when marcher and promener both mean “to walk”?

By the way, I’m asking these questions rhetorically here, but I do realize there are answers to them all… And that sometimes the answer is just, “Because.” Languages are funky ever-evolving things with a million exceptions to every rule, and I know that English is as funky as the rest of them.

Regardless, I will continue to vent. Moving on…

3. Gender

Setting aside for a moment the difference between gender and sex… Chairs have neither vaginas nor penises, so why assign them a gender? Especially when considering the following:

– Certain synonyms have different genders. For example, un vélo (masculine) and une bicyclette (feminine) are the same thing, a bicycle. A river can be une rivière (feminine) or un fleuve (masculine). How can the same object have a different gender depending on what you choose to call it?

– Then there’s the ridiculousness of a word like bébé (baby) being masculine whether the baby in question is a girl or a boy. So if you were referring to Baby Jane, you could say, “Elle est mignonne” if you wanted to say that she is cute, or you could technically say, “Le [not la] bébé est mignon” and be referencing the same damn baby. Actually, I am unsure whether you would agree the adjective, mignon, with the noun, bébé, or with the actual gender of the baby, female, in which case it would be “Le bébé est mignonne.” Anyone French care to tell me which is correct?

Regardless, the quagmire itself is as good an argument as any for the ridiculousness of gender both in language and as a biological construct. How about we all go genderqueer in life and language and just call everything and everyone ze from now on? (This would work in French as well as it does in English and would play right in to cute stereotypes about French accents to boot.)

Here’s a lengthy but interesting article on the subject of French genders (much of which makes a mockery of my silly complaints).

4. Swallowed letters

French must have more homophones (words that sound alike, but have different meanings and spellings) than any other language, because only like half their letters are actually pronounced, reducing the possible sound combinations significantly. This is especially true of end letters, which it seems like you are supposed to ignore about 70% of the time.

Take for instance: cent, sang, sens and sans. Thanks to the French distaste for sounding end letters out, these words are all pronounced the same (unless they come before a vowel that starts the next word, but let’s not even get into that).

Why bother adding all those extra letters to words when you’re not going to actually pronounce them? If sans and sang are pronounced the same why not just make them both “san”?

Then there’s the silent h, and the silent “ent” verb ending. As in, mangent is pronounced the same way as mange. Seriously, that is an entire syllable that’s just ignored. All I can do is shake my head (and be grateful that at least when I conjugate my verbs incorrectly, half the time no one knows because it’s all pronounced the same).

5. Possessive pronouns agree with the thing possessed and not with the possessor…

…So what is the point? Constructing sentences this way is often redundant, and it also eliminates the possibility to minimize confusion about who the possessor is.

For example, let’s say John and Mary are standing in a room. The only other thing in there is Mary’s chair. I walk into the room with my friend and, don’t ask me why, I feel the need to tell her:

It’s her chair.

In English, since Mary is female, the pronoun is feminine. Because the pronoun is feminine, my friend now knows that the chair is Mary’s and not John’s.

But in French:

Il est son fauteuil.

The chair is masculine, and that is indicated three separate ways: with “il”, with “son” and with the gendered noun itself. Yet my friend still has no idea whose chair it is, Mary’s or John’s.


And for good measure, a sixth, very specific thing:

The similarity in the meaning of almost every pouvoir conjugation is a total brain twister for me. To wit:

Passé composé: J’ai pu (I could)

Passe Imparfait: Je pouvais (I could)

Plus-que-parfait: J’avais pu (I could)

Futur simple: Je pourrai (I will be able to…. aka I could)

Futur antérieur: J’aurai pu (I could have)

Conditionnel Présent: Je pourrais (I could)

Conditionnel Passé: J’aurais pu (I could have)

Seven different French conjugations, but only two different English translations. Yes, I know that there are subtleties within the French that I could have better indicated in the English, and I also know that rules of common usage dictate when to use which conjugation even if there’s not a one-to-one French to English formula to follow, but… it still boggles my brain to think about the fact that there are seven possible ways to say what we only really say two different ways in English.

But… brain boggling seems to be the name of the game when it comes to learning a foreign language, so all is forgiven, and onward and upward! I’ll just keep telling myself: the more fried, the more French.

[Photo: Sarah Tarno]

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