Sunday, July 4, 2021

Transformation by addition – The strange incident of French nouns that were mutated by an adjective


[Dog in moonlight*]

Meaning is contextual. In the case of words, the form, position and connected modifiers define their actual significance. As an example, a hot dog can refer to a panting canine  after a long walk in the heat but is a sausage when put in a bun. In some cases, an attached adjective affects a noun to the point of creating a meaning beyond the common, isolated sense of the words. French has several expressions that go beyond the inherent significance of the word.

[Coffee and croissant]
Very common adjectives can have this effect. The word droit means right, as in the direction, in French. However, tout droit, literally “all right”, means “straight”, also the physical direction. The difference is significant if you need to understand directions using the French version of the Waze application. Likewise, in France, a déjeuner is a lunch but a petit déjeuner is not a light lunch but instead breakfast. Given that traditionally lunch is the heavy meal in Paris, the choice of one or the other word affects food expectations. Another example is the term grande école, which is not a large school but instead one of the elite colleges preparing people for leadership positions in France. UC Berkeley, with some 70,000 students, is not a grande école but the École Normale Supérieure in Paris with 2300 students is. Literal translation can be deceiving.

For some reason, descriptions of women in French can be a bit obscure. For example, your beloved belle-mère, “mother-in-law” in English may not be so pretty. For that matter, your beau-père and belle-soeur, father-in-law and sister-in-law, respectively, are not always so good-looking either. The term femme forte can be used to describe your belle-mère if she is a matriarchal figure but generally is directed at any women that is noticeably overweight. Context and tact are quite important here. On a positive note, your belle-soeur may a sage-femme, which does not imply any great wisdom but merely that she is a midwife. Curiously, bonne femme food can also be prepared by not-so-good hearted women and even by men because it is simple, home-style cooking. The French language has many hidden linguistic minefields.

[3 fork roadsign]
When I tried to find similar phrases in Hebrew and English, two languages in which I have a good vocabulary, I was unable to identify any similar terms. It is possible that equivalent terms are escaping me at this moment. However, I strongly suspect the nature of the languages subtly affects its use of words. English has both an extensive vocabulary and tends to be direct and concrete, even labeling indirect terms somewhat derogatorily as euphemisms and politically correct. For example, any man that stated that he had an expanded forehead would be mocked for making an absurd attempt to avoid saying the word bald. By contrast, modern Hebrew, not biblical Hebrew, is a very young language with a relatively small lexicon, which means it has not had sufficient time for the meanings of words to evolve. The French are the exact opposite, relishing la belle phrase, the beautiful sentence, and willing to sacrifice directness and specificity for the sake of the aesthetics. It seems that the tendency in French is be obtuse creates the ideal environment for the development of abstract connections.

To paraphrase Dinah Washington, from these examples, we can see what a difference an adjective makes. In French at least, it can transform the meaning of its attached noun to the point that the connection becomes a true puzzler. On the bright side, what’s wrong with a good mystery?

* Picture captions expand the Internet to the blind. All images through Pixabay.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this post and I live with these strange French phrases everyday and this post made me smile. Thanks for sharing