Does the Carriage Driver Have Your Cane?

My great-grandmother Velma was not a rich person. She lived all her life in small communities in northern Pennsylvania, teaching in tiny schools, raising a bunch of kids, and running a small farm with my great-grandfather. Not fancy, but educated for sure.

The first few lessons in the Shorter Course focused on classroom vocabulary: pens, pencils, ink, chalk, chairs, tables, teachers, students. There were also family words: mama, papa, tante, oncle, soeur, frère.

But already by lesson five, I’ve learned to translate:

Avez-vous la canne du professeur?

Do you have the professor’s cane?

For a while, I thought the professor maybe had a limp and needed assistance. But not long after that, still in lesson five, I had to ask:

Qui a les gants de la dame?

Who has the lady’s gloves?

Maybe it’s chilly? It does get snowy in Pennsylvania, and the book’s authors were professors in Toronto, so sure. Gloves.

Class Consciousness

Soon enough, though, I’m conjugating “Aren’t I rich? Aren’t you rich?…” and “Don’t I have a big house? Don’t you have a big house?…” I am learning to be incredulous in French on learning that someone is not rich. It’s a super snob move. In the next lesson, though, I learn to write, “Les femmes sont très pauvres.” That’s “The women are very poor.” Lesson ten also taught me “I work a lot.”

It became very obvious that college in the 1910s was a different affair by lesson nine. For one thing, voiture still meant “carriage” then, rather than “car” like it does today. And that car needed a driver, which for the record was cocher in this book, not the chauffeur that you might expect. In lesson eleven, la bonne for “maid” is introduced.

It’s not all learning about who’s rich and how big our houses are. I was working on these early lessons during the 2019 Women’s World Cup, and I got to translate:

Je suis grande et forte.

Tu es grande et forte.

Elle est grande et forte.

Nous sommes grandes et fortes.

Vous etes grandes et fortes.

Elles sont grandes et fortes.

Who knows what my great-grandmother thought of learning about drivers and maids. I do know that she had specific vocabulary requests, because there are a couple of handwritten sentences at the tops of pages: “Fermez la fenetre,” and “Les chiens sont des animaux.” That’s “Close the window” and “Dogs are animals.” Only fenetre is in the vocab lists so far.