Taken from Gloria’s Steinem’s NPR interview this morning.
Today I mourn. Tomorrow, I redouble the fight.
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…
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]
What are you up to this weekend? I plan to lay low in an effort to relax away my growing anxiety about the American election. Maybe I’ll spend a day sitting by the pool at Hotel Savana, above, sipping a (recently mentioned) jus de bouye. Or maybe I’ll just hide under the covers for five days / forever, depending on the outcome.
Here are some interesting reads I’ve gathered for you over the past couple weeks, to keep you distracted if you’re as stressed as I am:
I follow a blog called “About Words,” which every week describes new English words in circulation. Last week’s were fascinating. Can you guess what a bobu or a midult is?
And do you know which country is the world’s most generous to strangers?
Speaking of maps, here is a new world map that looks bizarre but is way more accurate than the one you’re used to. (Now I understand why getting from Senegal to Ethiopia took me ten hours.)
I love this woman and I am envious of the adventure she’s on. (Though I realize I’m on a pretty awesome one of my own.)
Every Italian who turns 18 next year is eligible for 500 Euros from the government on their birthday, to spend on cultural items and experiences. Fitting for one of the most culturally spectacular places on Earth.
I’ve been meaning to write a post about certain things that struck me while I was in Liberia months ago. These “things” are all fairly nuanced and a certain amount of research is required to delve deeper into the whats and hows and whys in order to write intelligently about them. I started the research but never finished it, and at this point it doesn’t seem like I ever will. The problem is that I still want to write about the things that struck me.
So what I’m going to do is throw them all out there half-formed, like conversation starters as it were, and I’ll let you do further research yourself, should you be so inclined. I’ve even provided links for you! But I make no claims as to the veracity of the information within those links. So basically I’m not very helpful at all…
1. There is a dual currency system.
In Cuba there are two official forms of currency: one tied to the American dollar and used mostly by tourists (the CUC), and one subject to crazy inflation and used mostly by everyday Cubans (the CUP).
In Liberia, it goes one step further: the actual American dollar is one of the two forms of legal tender. For example, my ATM in Monrovia spit out my money in US dollars. I was able to use it throughout Monrovia, though it wasn’t widely accepted in the countryside. Also, the value of Liberian currency is tied to the value of the American dollar somehow. I find that fascinating, and yet meaningless because I never took an econ class in my life and have no idea of the implications.
2. Its origin as a colony for former American slaves is fascinating in itself, but the way in which that origin has impacted its history up until the present day, is also intriguing. (For example, ethnic tensions rooted in colonization at least partially influenced the Liberian Civil War that wracked the country for fourteen years from 1989 – 2003.)
I’m going to link to Wikipedia here and let you do further digging if you so choose.
3. It has an interesting (to use the most neutral term possible) relationship with several countries.
The United States: because of aforementioned history and close political ties.
China: because the Chinese are building roads and who knows what else across the country in exchange for… well, I’ll leave that up to you to decide.
Lebanon, or rather the Lebanese: Because there is a huge Lebanese diaspora in Liberia (and throughout West Africa). In Senegal, the Lebanese, as former French subjects in a former French colony, did well for themselves. They are full-fledged Senegalese citizens who own a large proportion of the wealth and businesses here. But in Liberia, where citizenship requires you to be of black African origin (yet another fascinating subject), the Lebanese are barred from owning businesses, because there’s another law that says only citizens can do that. So the Lebanese apparently have shadow partnerships with Liberians, who officially own the businesses while the Lebanese manage them.
More on American-Liberian relations here.
There’s also a fairly new book about the Lebanese in West Africa that I’d like to read.
4. Liberia has some exceptionally strong and politically powerful women, most notably the President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and the leader of a women’s group that was integral to ending the civil war, Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee.
And yet, levels of sexual and domestic violence in the country are off the charts, and laws to protect women and punish perpetrators are fairly new (and often weak), or nonexistent. For example, spousal rape was only criminalized in 2006.
I find this contrast really thought-provoking.
5. This is a small thing, but I found it fascinating that almost every shop in Liberia was called a “business center.” I guess my larger fascination is with the evolution of Liberian English and with its particularities and distinctions from American and British English. For example, I loved that they don’t use the word “pregnant” there – they say that the woman “got big belly.” And diarrhea is known as “runny stomach.” (These are the things you notice when you’re working on a video about public health.)
More on distinctive Liberian vocabulary / speech here.
A few hours ago, I stopped to take a picture of this amazing truck only to discover more amazingness inside…
It was a baguette van making its early evening deliveries! When I got closer I could smell the scent of freshly baked loaves wafting out the windows. I wished Robert Doisneau were around to properly capture the magic. But alas, just me and my iPhone.
I bought a newspaper-wrapped baguette at an appropriately circa 1950s price – about 30 cents – and whistled my way home. (Sadly, my gluten-intolerant self can’t actually eat the baguette but someone in my household will!)
A roundup of some of the delicious and new-to-me fruits I’ve sampled since being in Senegal:
Madd is a seasonal fruit, available during the summer months, that seems to be most popular simmered with sugar and pepper down to a compote of small chunks of flesh in a sweet, sour, and spicy syrup.
You suck on the mouth-puckering pulp until you get to the stone-like seed.
I knew the baobab tree was important to Senegal symbolically but I didn’t realize it is also important nutritionally. Baobab fruit (also known here as bouye) is a superfood, packed with vitamins and nutrients.
When I tasted it fresh from the tree, it was powdery yet sticky, and like madd, both sweet and sour. I’ve also had it in biscuit, jelly, and juice/smoothie form.
I find the biscuit form rather weird, but the latter two are delicious – though sometimes far too sweet depending on how much sugar is added. It’s a strange paradox to me: Rather than gorge on all the French pastries available to them, the Senegalese usually opt for fruit as their go-to dessert. This would seem to indicate a rather weak sweet tooth… And yet they pour sugar into their juice. Perhaps this is like the middle way?
Bissap, known as hibiscus in English, is ubiquitous here. It’s made into jelly and into juice that tastes so much better than the hibiscus tea I’ve had in the States. To make the juice, the dried leaves are boiled and strained, and sugar – and sometimes fresh mint leaves – are added.
Also, since discovering orange blossom water a few months ago at a Lebanese cafe where they added it to my limeade and BLEW MY MIND, we’ve been putting it into bissap juice, which similarly takes it to next-level wonderful.
I’ve also had bissap in ice cream form. Above, a scoop of bissap and a scoop of ginger, both quite tasty.
Ditakh is a kiwi-like fruit that is made into fresh juice. I forgot to take a picture of the homemade version I tried, but here it is in bottled form. (Zena Exotic Fruits is a Lebanese-Senegalese business that turns all of these West-Africa-only fruits into delicious juices and jellies.)
And my favorite local juice that I suppose is not actually from a fruit but whatever: jus de gingembre. Consisting of nothing but fresh ginger and water sometimes mixed with pineapple juice, it’s a potent and delightful drink that burns your throat all the way down.
This post has left me thirsty…
Oh, and I wrote before about the only fruit I’ve tried here that I found absolutely abhorrent: the sour unripe mango.
Sweet and sour seems to be a thing here, but in this case the sour goes way, way too far.
After eight months of living without many of my most familiar, beloved and/or regularly eaten foods, I finally visited the American Food Store in Almadies. I had been holding out as a point of pride, but also because I was never in the immediate vicinity and didn’t expect to find much there that I’d really want. There’s no way to not sound like a snob saying this, but most American food exports are not the kind of thing I ate in the United States anyway, whether because of dietary restrictions, nutritional preferences, or personal taste.
Anyway, a couple of weeks ago on my way to drop off my absentee ballot at the American Embassy, I passed the American Food Store and felt it was time to stop in and see what they had to offer.
Surprisingly, the answer was: the entire range of human emotion. Browsing through the aisles of the American Food Store, I swung widely from one strong feeling to another. There was the joy of cultural recognition when I saw the jumbo-sized canisters of Heinz ketchup, yellow mustard and relish. There was amusement when I spotted the section devoted to beef jerky. There was deep (misplaced) nostalgia at the Jiffy-Pop stove-top popcorn. It was misplaced since when I was a kid we used to make popcorn with a machine, but something about the Americana of it got to me. There was deep (real this time) nostalgia in the candy aisle, with its Mounds and Mars and Three Musketeers and Baby Ruths.
There was delight when I spotted Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups among the chocolate offerings. (Ten minutes later, there was disappointment when I realized that my palate has changed after months abroad, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups now taste more like sucking on a packet of sugar than eating deliciously sweetened peanut butter.)
There was relief when I saw that they sell cans of cranberry sauce, which means that I can attempt to recreate Thanksgiving here in Dakar. There was detachment when I spied Starbucks coffee, a newly stocked item, next to the Café Bustelo and resigned myself to sharing this city with the empire I hate most. There was gratitude when I found gluten-free pasta, and anger when I noted the 300% markup of gluten-free pasta (and everything else).
But mostly there was revulsion. Not to make a mountain out of a molehill… but the United States has really lost its way when it comes to sustenance of both the body (and, I would add, the soul). I already knew that while I was living there, but “dropping in” from somewhere else makes it stand out in sharp relief.
On the tail end of my Ethiopia trip in August, I met my two decades-long friend, Randy, to begin a Tanzanian safari-Zanzibar adventure. We met up in the Addis airport. She was coming from DC, and we flew together to Kilimanjaro Airport, where we were picked up by our safari company. It was too cloudy to see Mount Kilimanjaro on the hour-long drive to Arusha, which was disappointing for reasons best left not explicitly stated for fear of being Toto-shamed. Continue reading