or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

French Letters

I have recently tried to learn French with a signal lack of success. Part of it, possibly, is mere laziness, but more of it, I think, is that I just don't think in Romance. I studied German over twenty years ago without seriously pursuing it since, and yet I can remember more of it than I can of the French I studied not four months ago. German just seems more...logical to me. A large part of that, of course, is that English is a Germanic language, and the structures of the two languages are very similar.

Nevertheless, French vocabulary is still a major component of English, thanks in part to the Normans and their conquest of England, and I still take careful note of French in conjunction with English, because it's so interesting. I'm helped by the fact that in Canada, commercial packaging has to bear both languages, so we Canadians live in a world of simultaneous translation.


A tube of sunscreen in my bathroom says "Broad Spectrum" and, just below it, "À Large Spectre". Aside from the fact that this is French phrase is an English phrase (if you ignore the accent mark over the first "A") with an entirely different meaning, how fascinating that "spectrum" in English is "spectre" in French. It made me wonder just how "spectre" means "shadow" or "ghost" in English. As we might have guessed, its root is the Latin "specere", "to look at" (giving us such other words as "spectacle" and "specimen", both things we look at). And here is how the words are related: "spectrum" in Latin literally means "appearance", and came in English to mean "apparition" (something which has made an appearance), which is to say "ghost", after which it was gradually replaced by the French word while retaining its meaning. "Spectrum", having lost this sense, was free to concentrate on other areas, specifically those referring to a visual range of something (such as the colours fractionated out by a prism) and, later, to any range of anything, such a "a spectrum of political opinion".


A bag of frozen raspberries in my freezer sports a recipe which tells me that where in English we say "yolk", the French say "jaune". Perfectly sensible, that; the white of an egg, the yellow of an egg. So why is it that we say "yolk"? Because "yolk" in fact means "yellow". "Yellow", as I have noted before, is related to the German "gelb", with the same meaning. A simple change in sound from "g-" to "y-" speeds this change on its way: they're remarkably close to one another, as you will see if you pronounce a hard "ge-" and then push it out of your mouth with your tongue rather than stopping it. "Gelb" is also related to an Old English word, "geolca", which stems from "geolu", meaning, yes, "yellow". Using that same transition of "ge-" to "y-", we see that it's a very short route from "geolca" to "yolk", and so the yolk of an egg is, quite literally, its yellow.


I may not be able to speak French, but by god, I can spell it. (Well, I'm not so completely accurate with the accent marks, which we sensibly did away with in English a long time ago. I think I would have to hear French more accurately than I do in order to be able to reproduce the accent marks correctly.) There's a sign in the store in which I work that reads, in part, "Facilitatrice française disponsible", or "French(-speaking) facilitator available [for birthday parties]." Or that's what it would mean if it didn't have a typo in it, obviously made by someone who's used to such English words as "responsible". The correct word in question is "disponible", and I've complained about it but it's still up there, taunting any French-speaking person who should happen to see it. Most people don't care, I know, but typos piss me off and there has to be at least one Francophone who's irritated that we can't even spell their language correctly in a simple three-word phrase.

French does have words that end in "-sible", such as "sensible" (which means not what in means in English, but rather "sensitive"). However, "disponible" is not one of those words.


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