French: la langue de l’amour?

In (belated) honor of Valentine’s Day, I present to you an hommage to the language of love.

(I really shouldn’t do this, and I feel guilty about it. As a linguist, I value all languages highly and respect them as monuments to human culture and innovation. On top of that, French really is a lovely language, both written and spoken. Its spelling system may be inefficient — the word eaux, for example, is pronounced “o” — but who cares about that? Beauty doesn’t have to be efficient. But… still… perhaps I may engage in the occasional guilty pleasure…)

13 responses to “French: la langue de l’amour?”

  1. Clever and funny – and I thought the article with excerpts from Professor Sergeant was also interesting. Is it possible that the French still chafe at the fact that the current, international lingua franca isn’t français, but anglais?

    Thanks to you, I’m starting to enjoy linguistic humor 🙂


  2. I love French as well… c’est formidable! I keep telling myself that it would be more practical to learn Spanish, but I just can’t work up the interest.


  3. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Bernulf. As for whether the French chafe, I couldn’t say; perhaps some francophilic visitors would comment?

    Erik: I almost sat down to learn Spanish just so I could read Jorge Borges’s La biblioteca de Babel in the original. I still intend to one day…


  4. Thanks for this. I’m quite the francophile. I think my parents knew it before I was born and named me Cosette. I’m Cuban so I’m fluid in Spanish, but I’m still working on French. As for the whether the French chafe about the current, international lingua franca, bien sur! Vexation is very French.


  5. This is totally unrelated, but here goes. I studied French in high school with a teacher who got a degree in French education at the University of West Virginia. Then, by some fluke I’ve never quite understood, I found myself a freshman at Johns Hopkins University, facing a mandatory year of French studies.

    The instructor, of course, was a graduate student from France named Leo Mazet. His English was better than my English, he sounded like Laurence Olivier.

    So we’re tootling along the first day of class, and he calls on me to say something in French. I said what he wanted me to say. There was a long, drawn-out pause as he stared at me. Then he said, “Say that again.”

    His mind was boggled, of course, by hearing his native tongue spoken with an Appalachian American accent. I just wish he could have laughed about it instead of looking like he’d just been stuck in the eyeball with a pin.


  6. Note to self: read hyperlinked text before commenting on blogs. I loved the hommage, brilliant, and since the French started it than that “should” make it okay.

    My love for the language still has not changed but I adored the article, thanks for sharing.



  7. Anne: That was a great story! What few people realize is that this cuts both ways. He would have sounded just as comical, if not more so, trying to sound like an authentic Appalacian. The only difference is that French is a langue prestigieuse, and Appalachian is not.

    And for all the francophiles who read the article with good humor: sometime soon I will have to do penance for this article by balancing it with a link to an article that really is a hommage to French.


  8. Sorry to jump into a conversation that was over several months ago, but I just found this post and had to comment!

    I laughed to read your critique of French, as the difficulties you mention were issues I struggled with in my eight years of studying the language. Their vocabulary lacks a bit. There’s also, by the way, so words to express that you have missed your lover while he was away. Or to ask him if he will miss you while you are away from him. However, I have to say, I always thought the spelling was brilliant.

    In English, if you see a vowel sound in a word, you have to guess, based on the locations of nearby vowels, whether that vowel is a strong, soft, or nasal vowel. But in French, they spell it out for you with compound-vowels. In English there’s “o”, “o”, and “o” and they all sound different based on context. But in France an “eau” will always be “eau” and never “ou” and there’s so much less confussion. I learned that if I took some of the more bizarre vowel combinations and ‘vowels plus consonants equals a new vowel’ (-ille, pronounced “E”), and I treated these combos as additional letters of the alphabet, then it became very easy to spell words I’d heard or pronounce words I’d seen.

    Then, the only hard part was getting my over-tired brain to remember basic words when I’d stayed up too late, studying, and forgotten the word for that thing . . . you know . . . it’s flat and tall and you use it to get out of the room . . . .DOOR! That’s what it is! and so in French it would be la porte.


  9. It’s interesting, Gia, what you say about French spelling. What you’re pointing out is that French spelling may not be simple, but at least it’s consistent — there are rules that’ll get you the right pronunciation, once you learn them. English is nastier in that way; I suspect it’s because English has borrowed so many words from so many languages, and each of these languages has its own spelling conventions… I’m certainly glad we have the borrowings, they enrich English so much — but my daughters, who are learning to spell, sure are asking lots of difficult questions. They seem to think that we adults, as caretakers of the mother tongue, have been awfully careless and slipshod about the job.


  10. Anne,
    His mind was boggled, of course, by hearing his native tongue spoken with an Appalachian American accent.

    My wife is a NC native; she took four years of French at Wake Forest. She once described a scene in her French III seminar – they had a new-to-the-area teacher, and he almost fell over his chair when he started going around the room to exchange greetings and was met with “Bon joor, mon sewer”…

    sometime soon I will have to do penance for this article by balancing it with a link to an article that really is a hommage to French.
    (Side note – wouldn’t that be “AN hommage”? Silent H and all that…)

    That would be cool too, but in the meantime here’s a link to what remains, over 100 years later, one of the funniest pokes at French ever written.


  11. Jeff – your daughters and you (perceiving the flaws in English spelling) may want to visit … the adults who run it agree with your daughters, and seem resolved to take matters in hand after 99 years of studying the situation.


  12. That’s a neat site, Kate, and a bold group of people! I very much doubt that anything will come of their efforts — after all, changing the spelling system of English — among all the countries who use it — would cost untold trillions; and the United States hasn’t even managed to switch over to the metric system of measurement. But someday it will have to be done: eventually the sounds and spellings of English will separate so widely that they’ll hardly have any connection at all. Of course, by that time I suspect that English will have split into dozens of mutually unintelligible dialects, with a single “standard” English that is spoken by almost no one, just as happened to Latin. Each of the mutually unintelligible dialects will have its own spelling system, and the old standard will gradually fall into disuse.


  13. j’aime bien cette langue. Je suis en amour avec le langue fraçaise.


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