Thursday, October 21, 2010

La Rondelle

It must be obvious to anyone reading this blog that one of my myriad handicaps is that I don't speak French.

It isn't as if I haven't tried – sort of. I have spent quite a bit of money on lessons, and I have learned a certain amount of vocabulary, and verb conjugations and all that stuff one learns when taking language lessons. I have slogged through a significant portion of French One from Rosetta stone, and that, helped my pronunciation quite a bit (now that I have a new ThinkPad with 64 bit Windows 7 Professional I can't install Rosetta Stone and Rosetta Stone wants me to pay for a completely new license, there being no upgrade price. Since that isn't going to happen, any incidental, incremental and accidental improvement in my ability to communicate in French is pretty well stymied, since I am not taking lessons any more either. All that having been said, I believe that the real problem is that I am just too old.

(One of the things that still annoys me about MS Word, now that they have gotten rid of the talking paper clip, is that its grammar checker is constantly hounding me about being guilty of fragments. No one has more of a horror of being guilty of the grammatical sin of a fragment – if one has read Screen Saver one would remember that Sister Justitia planted that horror indelibly and irrevocably as a filter to all that I write – so being constantly accused of the sin is unnerving to the utmost. The annoying thing is that whoever is in charge of grammar for Microsoft doesn't know much. For example, the sentence above: "all that having been said, I believe that the real problem is that I am just too old" was flagged as a fragment. As always, I assumed that, horror notwithstanding, I probably had been guilty of letting a fragment creep into my writing. So I looked at the sentence, and as always, I ended up shouting to no-one in particular "no way that's a fragment." This time however I decided to spend a moment and see if I could imagine any way that the MS grammar checker could draw the conclusion. There is a screamingly obvious part of the sentence which probably drew the wrath of MS Grammar Checker: "all that having been said". So again I shouted to no-one in particular "it's a nominative absolute; Caesar used them all the time; I have been using them ever since Latin II; Sister Justitia thought they were polished grammar." So I decided to call my own bluff and did a Google search on "nominative absolute". Wikipedia has a good article on the subject. The examples they use are structurally identical to the one on offer here from me. The Greeks used the construction – genitive absolute, as did the Romans, ablative absolute. So what is the deal with Microsoft? By the way, I got no further that the word "annoys" before MS Grammar again found me guilty of a transgression. MS thinks that the verb should be "annoy". "Annoys" is the form of the verb used with a singular subject, "annoy" the form for a plural subject. The subject of that sentence is "one" which could not be more singular. For the verb to be "annoy" MS apparently thinks the subject is "things" which is clearly plural. The problem is that "things" is - hey, MS , in this case the referent, although a plural word, is a singular entity, so "is" is correct - the object of the prepositional phrase "of the things" which is a modifier to the subject, not THE subject.)

Anyway, not speaking French while living in France can be quite a pain in the ass. Or it can be looked upon as goad to personal creativity and a source of untold and unbridled continuous merriment. I have chosen to look upon my lack of French language capability from the latter, rather than the former, viewpoint. So rather than just speaking English and getting whatever it is that that approach to life in France might deliver, I constantly try to do that which I most obviously cannot do: speak French.

But sometimes I get away with it for a sentence or two.

Like this morning. I have been eating salmon that I buy from the poissonnerie and cook in the apartment – a previous post even had a picture of the finished product – roast chicken that I buy from the boucherie and don't have to do any preparation, cote de porc from Carrefour which I cook myself and quiches from the boulanger which can be eaten at room temperature or turned soggy warm in the microwave. I have enjoyed all of those, but I keep eying the whole filet wrapped in bacon at the boucherie - 38 euros le kilo. Beef is kind of important to me. It is less so when I am in France, but ultimately I need some rare beef.

To that end a couple of days ago I decided to spruce up my vocabulary for the word "piece". I thought that something that must sound a great deal like "piece" must be one word that I could mumble to cover my lack of knowing exactly what the word was, or how to pronounce it – after all lots of items are marked as priced by a word that looks as if it must mean and sound like what I hoped to be its English cousin "piece". But that seemed to me to be a kind of cognate copout, and a copout that probably had no basis in actual French vocabulary usage. I thought I that I remembered having had some success a few years back buying cheese employing the word "morceau" but I hadn't used that word in the interim and I thought that I had, in any case, gotten unexplainably mixed reactions for the same transaction, same word and same product being desired. So I looked in my dictionary. Top of the list was "morceau". "Great" thought I, "but isn't there something better?" Next in line was "parcelle" but that was for land.

But then there it was; it was a beautiful word: "Rondelle" to be used with round pieces. It was feminine so I could roll out "une Rondelle" following my less frequently used old standby "je voudrais" and finish the whole thing off with a thumb and forefinger gesture indicating a size of about an inch and a half and a resounding "comme ça".

So this morning I did just that. And it worked just as I had envisioned that it would work. In fact it was even more beautiful than it had been in my imaginings: after my "comme ça" the boucher grabbed the tenderloin, got his knife, looked at me, having placed the knife (another nominative absolute, but oddly placed in the sentence) and said "comme ça?" "Comme ça".

A three element exchange: what a linguistic windfall!

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