I was once told (and I believe it) that the most difficult thing to do in a foreign language is to swear properly. And the second most difficult thing is to tell a joke. Now I’m not going to devote a blog to telling you how to swear, but – having last night received an email with half a dozen jokes in French – I thought I might at least use one or two of them to illustrate the various points I’ve been making about language for the last couple of years.
The email I got was titled “L’Innocence des enfants”, and I surely don’t need to translate that. So here goes with the first one:
Je conduisais avec mes trois jeunes enfants un soir d’été chaud lorsqu’une femme dans une décapotable devant nous se lève et nous salue de la main.
> > > > Elle était complètement nue ! J’étais encore sous le choc quand mon petit garçon de 5 ans assis sur le siège arrière dit : Maman! La dame ne porte pas sa ceinture de sécurité !”
I know that the best way to destroy a joke is to explain it. What I don’t know is how much of this joke you understood. Obviously there is the issue of vocabulary. So if you didn’t know all the words, a “décapotable” is a convertible car, “saluer de la main” would be to give someone a wave, and “une ceinture” is a belt. I guess everyone now understands the joke. (I didn’t say it was hilarious, just amusing!)
So let’s look at it from a language learner’s point of view. First, the tenses. How many verbs can you spot here? I ask this because if you are new to a language it is so important to be able to spot the verbs in a sentence. I can see seven. To pick on the most important, “conduisais” is what tense? You may say that the “-ais” ending is shared by the imperfect and the conditional. But here the issue isn’t in doubt, and not only because this is a story about past events. Why? Well, as explained in the relevant post, the conditional adds the “-ais” ending to the “future stem”, which for most verbs is very close to the infinitive – for the verb “conduire” it would be “conduirait”. By contrast, the imperfect is formed on the basis of the “nous” form of the present tense (“conduisons”), and the “s” of “conduisait” makes it absolutely clear that this is the imperfect. This is the tense which indicates an unfinished action: the woman telling the story was driving along. We don’t know when that started, or finished; it was simply an ongoing action.
Don’t worry, it’s not going to be as long on all the bits! The other imperfects are forms of “être“: “était” (third person to describe the woman in the drop-head car) and “étais” (referring to the first-person teller of the story). The woman in the drop-head was naked (not suddenly naked, she had been so for some time), and the driver was already feeling shocked when her son came out with his little observation.
The most unusual tense, in one way, is the present. Odd simply because it is not what you expect when referring to the past. But when we tell jokes in English we often use the present to describe something that is supposed to have happened (“So this guy buys a parrot, and…”). The effect is to add immediacy (here, “[she] gets up and gives us a wave”). Of course, the present tense at the very end of the joke, as the child points out that the woman isn’t wearing her seat belt, is an entirely natural present tense – in the negative form, notice.
This leaves us with just one more verb (“dit”), and here there is an extra twist, in that this particular form can be either the present or the past historic of “dire” (to say). In a sense, it really doesn’t matter, but anyway, one would imagine that in a chatty story like this, with no great literary pretensions, it would hardly be the past historic – and in the previous paragraph of the story there’s already another example of an imperfect followed by the present, so we can imagine this translates as “my son says…” or “my son goes…”
Again, let me stress that you don’t have to be analysing tenses like this all the time you’re speaking or listening. I’m just showing how you would work things out if you were unsure.
Elsewhere, notice how the adjective “jeune” not only agrees with the noun that it qualifies (it adds an “s” because “enfants” is plural), but it also precedes that noun – it’s one of the small group which regularly do this. Contrast that with “chaud” which follows the word (in this case a phrase) to which it refers: a warm summer evening. Meanwhile, still with adjectives, you’ll have seen that the lady (as the little boy calls her) is “nue”, with a final “e” for feminine agreement. A man would have been “nu”.
There’s a nice adverb too. Can you see it? It illustrates the rule we looked at whereby you make an adverb by adding “-ment” to the feminine form of the corresponding adjective, So, because “complet” becomes “complète” in the feminine, the adverb is “complètement”.
There’s one other point to do with verbs, and it concerns the use of the word “assis”, to describe the boy sitting on the back seat. Notice here that whereas English uses the present participle, French uses the past participle (it’s from the verb “s’asseoir””, to sit down – and you can see where we get the word Assizes). The idea isn’t difficult to grasp. If French were to use the present participle it would mean that the boy was gently or visibly in the act of sitting down. Clearly that’s not we understand: he is seated (or as we sometimes say in English, “sat”) in the back. The action has already taken place, and we are describing a state (of being seated), so the past participle of French is entirely logical, I hope you’ll agree.
Finally, I recall pointing out the uses of the word “lorsque” to equate to “quand” (= when). In this joke, as I received it, both words are used, and are basically interchangeable. There is no particular rule about this, and it’s a stylistic choice. (If that sounds a bit puzzling, or odd, just think of how speakers of English will vary between “because”, “since”, “for”, or “as”.) It’s not difficult – it’s just the way living languages live.
By now we have perhaps extracted any last drop of humour from the joke, in the way that we have squeezed it dry linguistically. But it’s still good to have looked at some idiomatic French, to show that the things we’ve covered in the blog really do crop in actual usage. Oh, and there were a few more jokes in that email – prepare for a few more!