Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Moments of Pause

Sometimes when I'm speaking or reading French, I have to stop and take a moment of pause.  I call it this, because I literally have to stop and turn my head like a confused dog.  Mostly it happens when I run into a word I don't know, which is unfortunately more often than I'd like to admit.  Like any language though, it's not always just words.  Sometimes it's an entire syntactical idea. 

The most common word when this happens is "déranger."  The word comes from an Old French word, "rengier," with the prefix "dis."  Obviously, at its base, it simply means to put out of order, but it's constantly used in French.  Most commonly it means to bother, and is often used to excuse oneself for bothering someone, most commonly said, "Je suis désolée de vous déranger, mais . . ." or "I'm sorry to bother you, but . . . ."  The first time I saw it, I had to laugh at the use.  The idea of someone becoming mentally unhinged because you asked them where the bathroom was.

The one thing that screws me up constantly is the negation system in France.  As most people who have studied the language know, most if not all Romance languages do what's called double negation.  It means you start with "ne" before what you're negating, and finish with pas immediately after.  Well, most of the time.  It is apparently exceedingly common, and was even done in English, but disappeared over time.  As a teacher explained it to me, it has origins in pas, as in a footstep.  However; I didn't understand it all that well, so I guess I'll leave it to the better equipped.

Just remembering "ne . . . pas." isn't all that difficult.  What complicates matters is the case of personne, which means either someone, or nobody depending on use.  When preceded by "la," it means somebody.  Without the indefinite article, it means no one.  When negating, it usually comes at the beginning of the sentence and works as single negation. 

The most difficult for me has always been the use of "jamais."  When you say it, you may mean "never" or "ever," depending on use.  Most commonly, it means never.  For example, if you wanted to say that you had never been to France, you would simply say, "Je ne suis jamais venu en France."  That makes perfect sense for the idea of double negation and with the general function of "jamais."  Conversely, when you want to say something like, "This is the best meal I ever had." you need to say "C'est le meilleur répas que j'ai jamais eu."  Until I figured out the use, I had to say this in a pretty roundabout manner.  Additionally, you may need double negation, but both seem to make sense.  One may be more formal than the other.

For now, that's what I can think of, but don't think this list won't grow.  Today has been the first real day of relaxation.  We'll probably have a nice lunch together, and then head to Alma for a bit to enjoy ourselves.  Hope you're all doing well!


  1. While teaching english to my mom, we came across the same problem to make her understand english negation... and use "any" with negative verbs and "no" with active verbs:

    I have no money. vs I don't have any money.

    and the contraction don't = do not!!!

    And the simple fact of using "do" in negative and interrogative statements. How many time she would say: Want you some milk? (Veux-tu du lait?) instead of "do you want..."

    So looks like it's hard both ways! ;)

    Double negation... c'est seulement pour mieux te déranger, mon ami! LOL!

  2. Vous êtes terrible, vous savez? :-)

    English can be downright evil of course, but like any language really. German is just as miserable with spontaneously changing gender markers based on case.

    Hope you're doing well!