Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Numerology (un petit rant)

I'm learning my French numbers now, and it seems that in order to learn to count in French you must utilize arithmetic — specifically, addition and multiplication. In most of the civilized world, children learn the numbers first, and then learn to use those numbers in mathematics, but in France you need to know some mathematics in order to learn the numbers! This is the Mobius strip of math, a numerical hall of mirrors. To count, you must multiply, to multiply you must count, to count you must multiply…

The fun begins at seventeen, which you construct by adding seven to ten: dix-sept. Eighteen is dix-huit, or ten-eight, nineteen dix-neuf.  Twenty is vingt, thirty is trente, and so forth, and you form these two-digit numbers above twenty the same way you do in English, with the root, a hyphen, and the next numeral. Thus twenty-two is vingt-deux

All is well, in fact, until soixante-neuf. If you don’t speak French and that number rings a bell, congratulations: you’ve read your Kama Sutra (or your Joy of Sex, which, to its credit, used the classy French numeral rather than the cruder English “sixty-nine”). Soixante-neuf is the last “easy” number in French. Should you want to turn your love-making up a notch to seventy, you’ll find out there is no “seventy” in French. Why would you need to waste a word on the decuplet from seventy to seventy-nine when you can simply add ten to sixty, and arrive at…soixante-dix? Likewise for next nine numbers: seventy-one is sixty-plus-eleven, right up through sixty-plus-nineteen. But nineteen, remember, is itself ten plus nine! So seventy-nine is sixty-plus-ten-plus nine: soixante-dix-neuf.

Whew! Thank goodness we’re up to eighty, and can stop adding.

And start multiplying. I kid you not. Eighty is quatre-vingt, literally “four twenties.” Guess what ninety is: quatre-vingt-dix. That is, 4 times 20, plus 10. You continue in this fashion until you hit 99: quatre-vingt-dix-neuf. So from 1 through 60, the French use from a base-10 (decimal) numerical system, after which they switch to a base-20 (vigesimal) system. There are other cultures, including the Mayans and the Basques, who use a vigesimal system, but to my knowledge, French is the only language that uses a mixture of decimal and vigesimal, most likely as a result of unification of several number systems in existence in France after the Revolution. It’s enough to make you fou!

Friday, May 18, 2012

A Refreshing Coffee Break

I've stumbled a wonderful French instructional podcast called Coffee Break French. Run on a shoestring, with only two full-time employees, from a small office and studio in the west of Scotland, this is the first really decent language podcast I've found -- and it's free! For a modest subscription fee the podcast can be supplemented by written materials delivered to your mobile device or computer, but the lessons assume you are only listening.

The concept behind it is as obvious as it is original: The twenty-minute (coffee-break-length) lessons feature an instructor, Mark, who is teaching introductory French to Anna, a university student, while we go along for the ride — and the lesson. What makes this work is that Mark is the French teacher you always wanted: patient, good-humored, but never condescending, although (and I suspect Mark knows this) the real star of the show is Anna. Playing both the hero and the foil of sorts, Anna has a sweet, shy voice and an endearing, girlish giggle that suggests she’s rather embarrassed about this whole podcast business and wonders how she let herself get talked into it.

I'm working up a full review, but in the meantime, check it out on your own. Plays well with iPhone, btw.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Provinces Bleu et Rouge

Imagine a country divided politically along geographical lines, causing polarization and bitterness, a country where presidential candidates just give up on most of those areas and choose a few critical battlegrounds. The United States? No, I'm speaking of France. Look at this map of how the departments (subdivisions of provinces) voted in the recent 2012 presidential elections. Red represents is the Socialist candidate (and victor) Hollande, Blue Sarkozy, who becomes the first one-term French president is a couple of decades. As with the US, one party has dominance on two ends of the nation (in this case the Socialists north and south) and the other the center (Sarkozy's centrist-right UMP party). The US press has totally missed this story of geographical polarization.

What's surprising about the election is how close it was. When I was France last year, just as Sarkozy was pushing his pension reform so that train conductors couldn't retire with full pensions at 58, he was the most unpopular man in France. The fact that a milquetoast like Hollande could get elected tells you how bad things are.

We'll see what happens with France, but you have to feel a little sorry for Sarkozy's wife, model Carla Bruni, who had that photo-opportunity baby for nothing. Wait... she just announced she's resuming her singing career. There goes the sympathy!