So, I took another break from “jotting,” or at least online jotting. I’ve jotted other things in the “time away.” Like lists of stuff that needs to be done, etc. Boo. Anyway, I think I will take a bit of *liberty* with today’s word, because I had an interesting French class today. Every two weeks we have a “conversation” class, where someone chooses an article or something and we discuss it. Of course, each subject comes complete with its own set of vocabulary!
Today’s topic had to do with the fact that the new school programs for grammar in France are only teaching a limited bit about what might be called the “literary past tense” in French. It is called the “passé simple” in French, although it is really not simple at all. The term simply means that it is a way to form a past tense from French verbs without using an auxiliary verb (thus making it a “compound” tense). That really just boils down to using one word instead of two to form the past tense. I imagine that’s why it is often used in literature – it is more elegant to write with. It is not used at all in spoken French that I know of, unless one is reading aloud.
As an English speaker, my first thought was that they shouldn’t care! Nobody uses it, it’s hard to learn, hard to pronounce…no wonder it is becoming obsolete. But the grammar nerd in me cried out that it is like losing a piece of their soul. The first book I read in French was “Le Petit Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I think that is many people’s first encounter with “real” French literature. I started off happily enough, looking up quite a few words along the way, but overall understanding what I was reading. Then..
tout d’un coup… I started running into verbs with somewhat odd endings, but I still understood what verbs they were. Like “répéta” and “rappelai.” Odd, I thought, but sure, those had to be some form of “répeter” (to repeat) and “rappeler” (to remind). Then, I read a sentence that began like this: “Et je fus stupéfait…” Ironically enough, I was also stupefied. Je…what? Fus? What was this word? And not too much further, “Il me fallut…” “Oui, fis-je…” I did manage to figure out, thanks to a grammar book, that this was yet a third type of past tense. As if I weren’t having trouble enough with the other two!
So that whole story was just to explain that French literature, even current literature, is chock-full of this tense, and to dismiss it in schools could be the beginning of an era in the French language where we will observe first-hand a major change in the language. It could mean that in a mere three generations, there will be children who will need a translation of “Le Petit Prince” from Saint-Exupéry’s French to “Today’s Modern French.” Much in the same way, there is a translation of John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” in Bunyan’s original words to this one in “Today’s Modern English”.
Is this a “translation,” in fact? From English to English? Are we already unable to understand the language of a book written in 1678? Would we, were we to go back in time, find ourselves unable to communicate with the people of John Bunyan’s time? Is the eradication of “le passé simple” an observable definitive evolutionary event in the French language? Is it inevitable, or will the Académie Française, whose job it is to safeguard the French language, slow this evolution?
Don’t even get me started on the fact that there are already kids who can’t read cursive writing and think it’s a foreign language when they see it…
What do you think, chers lecteurs? In your opinion, how does language evolve? Is a rendering of a piece of literature into “Modern English” indeed a “translation?”
(Please click on the following link to find out about Linda G Hill and her wonderful prompt called “Just Jot It January“!)