Monday, 10 September 2018

Frites or crêpes? Who cares?

A few days ago the usually unruffled calm of French grammar was rudely disturbed by a pair of teachers in Belgium, who wanted a change:
Currently, the rule is that the past participle of a verb does not agree with the direct object of a sentence if it comes after it, but it does when the object comes before the participle.

So for instance, in the sentence j'ai mangé des frites (I ate chips), mangé remains the same. But in the sentence les frites que j'ai mangées (the chips that I have eaten), the participle agrees with the word chips, which is feminine and plural.

...The rule was imported from Italy by pedants in the 16th Century and is being dropped in everyday use, the pair argue.

BBC source

There are three things about the original Libération article  that struck me:
  • Those Italian pedants in the 16th Century had a name, and it started with only one:
    Au XVIe siècle, Clément Marot, constatant le même phénomène en italien, en fait la promotion à l’aide d’un joli poème, ce qui fera dire à Voltaire : «Il a ramené deux choses d’Italie : la vérole [HD: smallpox] et l’accord du participe passé. Je pense que c’est le deuxième qui a fait le plus de ravages [HD: I think the latter did the most damage]».
    This is reminiscent of the history of English, which is littered with pedantic attempts at "tidying up" by introducing rules that cause more trouble than they solve.
  • The "80 hours of teaching time" claim looks very odd, not to say iffy. I suspect some strange extrapolation of Wallonia's version of OFSTED accounting methods. Before anyone believes this, or worse still acts on it, I recommend a closer inspection of this figure. (On a related topic, I wonder what proof there is of the "being dropped in everyday usage" claim. It seems credible, and should be easy enough to prove, but I'd be happier not relying on what a couple of Belgian teachers ARGUE [I wonder what universe the BBC plucked that verb out of]).

  • The example has changed. This is not a serious counter argument; indeed, it's just not a counter-argument – simply an object of passing interest. The writer of the BBC article seems to have decided that frites was a more telling example than crêpes:
    «Employé avec l’auxiliaire avoir, le participe passé s’accorde en genre et en nombre avec le complément d’objet direct quand celui-ci le précède (les crêpes que j’ai mangées). Mais si le complément suit le participe, il reste invariable (j’ai mangé les crêpes).» [HD: my underline, just to make navigation a bit easier.]
This sparked off an irrelevant memory:
<autobiographical_note date="1968">
After my O-levels [HD: fore-runner of GCSEs] I went hitch-hiking around Europe with a friend. When we arrived outside Paris (at the Auberge de Jeunesse in the unpromisingly-named Châtenay-Malabry [surely bon abri would have been a more attractive-sounding name]), we ate from a stall that sold crêpes. The crêperie was set up a bit like a fish-and chip stall. But this apparent similarity was  a faux-ami. The bottle on the counter, tipped with a pouring spout, was not for free use of the customer.

While I'm on the subect of "false friends", an ongoing cycle repair has alerted me to fact that rubber solution is not solution de caoutchouc but dissolution de caoutchouc; not exactly a false friend, but something that's just not friendly at all.
I ordered and paid for a crêpe and reached for a bottle of Grand Marnier, standing on the counter like a vinegar bottle in a fish and chip stall. The stall-holder was not amused, and gave me an earful. She no doubt agreed with de Gaulle, who for some years had remained obdurate about keeping la perfide Albion out of the EEC.
I'm glad that the English have avoided this sort of wrangling by the simple expedient of not having a supreme arbiter of correctness. If the rule is being used in practice less and less, that will be it. The Académie (or some more relevant body, as the Académie doesn't really do syntax) can keep its finger in the dyke if it likes, but it won't have much bearing on the linguistic facts.  We are left with a twale twold by a twidiot:
The BBC article translates this: "why not also drop the offside rule in football? That way ... schoolchildren will be able to spell phonetically and football players will be able to play with their hands.

I'm not sure about the "that way", but la règle du hors-jeu will make a useful new entry in my Vocab. Book.


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