or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Me Talk Stressful

I have, once again, decided to try to learn French. In fact, I have a class in half an hour.

In an essay called "Make Mine a Double" in his book Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris wrote, about the grammatical gender in that language:

Because it is female and lays eggs, a chicken is masculine. "Vagina" is masculine as well, while the word "masculinity" is feminine....[I]t bothers me to make the same mistakes over and over again. I wind up exhausting the listener before I even get to the verb. My confidence hit a new low when my friend Adeline told me that French children often make mistakes, but never with the sex of their nouns. "It's just something we grow up with," she said. "We hear the gender once, and then think of it as part of the word. There's nothing to it." It's a pretty grim world when I can't even feel superior to a toddler.

I was discussing this with my new French instructor last week and eventually realized that we have exactly the same sort of thing in English, but in a different direction. In French, the gender is simply part of the word; in English, the stress pattern is likewise: something built in, something which we get automatically but which learners must laboriously memorize, or guess about based on rules which are usually but not always correct, or simply get wrong.

French doesn't really have stress patterns, which is one of the reasons stereotypical French-accented English invariably includes such pronunciations as "in-TER-es-ting" and "par-ti-CIP-le". There are stresses in French, but they usually denote the end of a clause or sentence; they don't appear within the words themselves. French, like English, can stress a particular word within a sentence--"I didn't tell HER (but I told someone else!)" versus "I DIDN'T tell her (I really really didn't!)"--but usually doesn't, preferring to add a word to express this kind of stress, as with the first word in "Me, I just like it".

So Mr. Sedaris needn't feel too inferior to the toddlers of France. He may not know whether that dictionary is masculine or feminine (it's a boy), but at least he doesn't say "dic-shun-uh-REE".


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