Life’s a Beechnut

Lesson thirteen brought such useful vocabulary as le verger (orchard), the difficult for me to pronounce yet slightly more likely to come up in conversation l’écureuil (squirrel), and the very unlikely term la faine (beechnut).

There were many sentences to write about squirrels gathering beechnuts in the autumn in this lesson, which was actually about quantity. Do they gather two beechnuts? Some beechnuts? A lot of beechnuts? (Ils rammasent deux faines, rammasent de faines, ou ramassent beaucoup de faines.)

Beechnut image by Magnus Hagdorn
no changes to the image have been made
Creative Commons

But it made me wonder about beechnuts. I remember eating them as a kid. Friends of my grandparents had a cabin in the middle of nowhere; if I were forced to find it today, I would be absolutely unable to do so. There was a dirt road that meandered along in front of the cabin under a canopy of Northeastern American forest. Part of that canopy was beech trees, and they dropped beechnuts. My grandmother would encourage my brother and me to gather the beechnuts like squirrels (rammasez les faines comme écureuils). She didn’t give a shit about beechnuts; she did give a shit about walking with her friends along a quiet dirt road and talking with them without being interrupted by my brother and I. We would open their burred casings, if they still had them, then crack open their little tripod shells to get at the meat. I don’t remember what it tasted like, but I liked opening the nuts, and I liked eating them. According to a forum run by the University of British Columbia’s botanical garden people, beechnuts are “safe, if not all that palatable.” They’re probably right.

Beech Reading

So the French squirrels and I must have beechnuts in common, non? No. Beech trees don’t really grow in France. They grow farther north in Europe and kind of mark the line between deciduous forests and evergreen forests. They’re found in places like Norway, not Normandy.

But the book I’m using, Shorter French Course, was written by professors at the University of Toronto. Since beech trees grow east of the Great Plains and mostly in the north in North America too, it made a bit more sense. I don’t know why anyone would need to talk about beech trees all that much, even in Toronto, but so be it.

Lo and behold, the word beech comes from old northern European languages. Makes sense the people who had the tree would also have a name for the tree. But here is where the humble beech gets to humble brag: it also gave us the word book.

Beech Books

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Grimms – yes, those Grimms, of fairy tale fame – postulated that the Old Norse word bok meant both beech tree and book. That’s because this population used wooden tablets to write on. So the word for the thing they wrote on because the word for the thing itself.

It’s happened before. The Latin word codex meant “tree trunk.” Then wood was used to make tablets for writing, and then a tablet was also called a codex. Then those tablets were collected together to create a written work, which was called a codex.

Still, the Grimms’ idea fell out of linguistic favor in the middle of the twentieth century. As people dove deep into these early languages with modern analytic tools, they found inconsistencies in the noun classes and the etymology. But in recent years, linguists have mostly come back around to Grimm’s original idea that the word for beech was the word for book because beechwood tablets became books.

Just to hit this nail with this hammer one more time, the Oxford English Dictionary also notes that the Sanskrit word for birch, bhurja, in the masculine means “birch tree” and in the feminine means “birch bark used for writing.” The Grimms were no joke.

I had to look up the word for beech in French. It obviously has a different etymology than the Germanic languages, because it’s hetre. For the record, the modern French word for book is livre, which comes pretty directly from the Latin liber.

100% That Beech

I’ve wandered pretty far from squirrels and beechnuts. But since I had to write:

Qu’est-ce que les écureuils ramassent en automne?

Ils ramassent beaucoup de faines.

I figured I might as well reward myself with a trip down the research rabbit hole. If you love research, here are some entry points, some of which are paid sites I use all the time:

The Book and the Beech Tree Revisited: The Life Cycle of a Germanic Etymology

Marc PierceHistorische Sprachforschung / Historical Linguistics Bd. 119 (2006), pp. 273-282 Published by: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht (GmbH & Co. KG)

University of British Columbia Botanical Gardens Forum

OED entry for book:

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.

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.

Lightning in a Throttle

Des Mots Gros et Petit

That title is “Words Big and Small,” if you were wondering, but I bet you figured it out.

I posted on Instagram (@kristen_hg) about my adventures in century-old French, and an online friend in France offered to help me “with the big words.” I told her that it’s not the big words that are the problem; it’s the little words that I can’t ever remember how to use.

Big words in French are often very similar to big words in English. Either English straight-up borrowed the word at some point in the past thousand years or so, or it comes from a Latin root and both languages use it to mean the same thing. So les mots gros ne sont pas la problème.

I’m now being reminded of the usage and placement of little words, like dans. It means “in,” but it really means “physically inside,” like being in a box. For a less location-based in, French uses en.

I admit, like a lot of English speakers learning a language with gendered nouns, I get tripped up. Why do I consistently think jardin should be feminine? It is not. I also think livre should be feminine. It also is not.

Each lesson is short and introduces a new set of grammar rules and a short vocabulary list. The exercises are long, however; it takes me thirty to forty-five minutes to write out each one. But I’m glad I chose to write rather than type. It’s etching every vocab word and sentence construction into my brain. Though I do feel a little like Bart Simpson at the chalkboard when I have to do a conjugation exercise.

Note, please, that that last conjugation is asking about having ink and pens. There are a lot of exercises about ink and pens, and I am still waiting for me ink refills and new pen to arrive. I’ve resorted to–shudder–a roller ball pen. Prior to having a fountain pen, this pen was perfectly acceptable, mais maintenant, non.

7. Où est votre encre?

Where is your ink?

8. Où est ton autre plume?

Where is your other pen?

Plume is an outdated word for pen; I learned stylo in high school. There are lots of old words in here. The people who learned French in 1913 apparently had different concerns than I do. I’ll dive into those in the next post.

Tools Old and New for Learning French

I’m using a book published in 1913 as my French refresher course, but I’m not against modern technology. I mean, I am creating blog posts as I learn, which are the height of internet fashion in 2019. I am writing these posts on a brand-new Microsoft Surface Pro. I even sprang for the fancy Alcantara keyboard.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I needed to learn how to type French characters. If I were in Word, which I use daily in my work as an editor and writer, I would just click on the insert button and choose the accented e or whatever. I know a couple of shortcut codes, but not many. In any case, the shortcuts I know require the number pad, which my laptop keyboard does not have. I just have the number row above the letters.

So I downloaded a French language keyboard. If you’d like to fancy up your laptop, language-wise, here’s how I did it on Windows 10:

  1. Hit that Windows button and type in “keyboard.”
  2. One of the options in the menu that pops up should be “Edit language and keyboard options.” Click that.
  3. In the window that appears, there’s a gray square with a plus in it and the words Add Language. This is exactly what you want to do. Cliquez là.
  4. There were a variety of French dialects to choose from; I went with France French. I may branch out someday. I also chose to only download the keyboard settings and not the language or handwriting parts. It’s easy enough to add those later if I want.
  5. I set my main language to English and French as the second choice. I may add a Spanish keyboard too.
  6. To switch back and forth–and this is the greatest–just hold down the Windows key and hit the space bar. A little menu will pop up with any languages you’ve installed. Hit space until the one you want to use is highlighted.

Et voila! C’est simple. J’écris maintenant avec le clavier AZERTY comme les français.

I’m not, however, doing the lessons on my laptop. I’m using crappy paper and the cheapest of the expensive pens for that.

The crappy paper is a college-ruled notebook. I pick these up for, like, a literal nickel apiece during back to school sales in August. There are cardboard bins of them at the store, and I grab a stack and pay about a dollar. I use these for everything: calculating estimates for projects, reminding myself of things to check in a manuscript, taking impromptu interview notes while I’m on the phone. My current notebook does have a little badge on the front saying that the paper is sustainably sourced, so that’s nice.

The pen is a LAMY in bright pink with blue ink. It’s my first fountain pen, and I am in love. I have written with nothing else since I bought it. I do my French lessons, I write birthday cards to my nephews, I keep to-do lists in my Bullet Journal, all with the LAMY. I don’t know from fountain pens, but if you’ve wanted to be a bit fancy about your pens, this one was less than $40 with ink. And it comes in soooooooo many colors. I may get another loaded with a different color ink. I think this is how obsessions start. I’m okay with that.

Diving into French c. 1913

I spent a couple of days on the intro of the Shorter French Course. It had the alphabet, a guide to accents, and an extensive pronunciation guide. It was a good reminder for how those nasal vowels are formed in the mouth, and now I’m less lazy about it. Or maybe more lazy, actually, in letting them remain vowels and not adding a more definite m or n sound to the end. I am the right amount of lazy for pronouncing French nasal vowels now.

Interestingly, SFC recommended using a kind of Spanish-style r, the one where the tip of your tongue touches the top of your mouth behind your front teeth. This is a “lingual” r, according to the book’s authors. The “uvular” r is the one most Americans probably associate with French; it’s formed with the tongue in the back of the throat and trills the uvula, which sounds dirty. “This r is usually more difficult for English-speaking people to acquire.” My uvular r is not great, but it’s the one I learned with in high school, so I’m sticking with it.

On to the lessons! They are short. Lesson I has the kind of vocabulary you’d expect in a teaching text: un crayon, une ecole, une table, un livre. I am realizing now that I’m going to need to find an easy way to do accented in blog posts. You can watch for that exciting development soon.

Anyway, there are a few grammar and usage rules too. In lesson I, we learn about genders for nouns and the indefinite article un/une. Then there are exercises translating English into French and vice versa. That’s the part I like. Lesson I gets as difficult as translating “a brother and a sister.” Un frere et une soeur. Nailed it.

Lesson II adds the definite articles le, la, and les, and some more school vocab, like la classe and le papier. More translations. There’s a real pattern here, and I like it. Next we pick up the “to have” and “to be” verbs, avoir and etre, and numbers up to three. By the end of lesson III, I can translate “The women have the keys”: Les femmes ont les clefs. Very handy for nunnery dungeons or what have you.

There are few notes in these early pages from my great-grandmother Velma Rose Smith. She notes homework assignments in French: Prenez vendredi lecon cinq (5). Traduise par ecrit la partie 3-7. Apparently this was not Grandma Smith’s first brush with French, as this vocabulary has not been introduced in the text yet. Her professor (professeur, according to lesson II) probably used these words and wrote them on the board, but Velma used both the vous form and the tu form of the verbs in this penciled note to herself.

I had to put a pretty heavy filter on this so the handwriting at the top of the page would be legible.

Velma: Twentieth-Century Student

I have spent more than a decade researching and writing and fact checking and editing, so you know I couldn’t just dive into French lessons from 1913 using my great-grandmother’s college textbook without looking some things up. Like, for example, the fact that she went to college during World War I.

I grew up one town over from Mansfield, so the university was always on my radar, even if I only visited it a handful of times. I was surprised to learn it had been founded as a seminary in 1857, but it quickly became a “normal,” or secular, school in 1862. In 1902, Mansfield started offering a three-year program like universities did instead of the two-year normal school program. In 1926, it was granted status to hand out college degrees, so in 1927 it became Mansfield State Teachers College.

That’s what my great-grandmother Velma Rose Smith was there for: a teaching degree. According to records I found on the internet, she graduated from the normal school in 1920. So she was attending school when my great-grandfather, Arnold, sent this postcard from Paris, where he was stationed in 1918.

On the back it reads,

Dear Friend,

Your letter rec’d about 10 days ago. Was sure glad to hear form you. I suppose you will be going back to school soon. Everything is going good over here. I am OK and hope this finds you the same.

Your friend, A. Smith

We are not a terribly sentimental people.

Velma graduated with a degree in education either in 1926, which is what her 1999 obituary said, or in 1925, which is what I found on the internet. Either way, she was edcuated and certified to teach.

There are little things tucked into the book; Grandma Smith always saved things she found pretty. As I work through the lessons and find them, I’ll post them. In the meantime, it’s on to the first lessons in articles: definite and indefinite!

Shorter French Course

For every plan or project I start, three more pop up. Same with books — while I’m reading one, I buy five more. And Netflix — every time I log in to watch one thing, I add two to My List. I am positive that I am not alone in any of these things.

One of the things that’s been hanging out on my list of plans and projects is brushing up on French. I minored in it in college, and I’ve kept my hand in via magazines, books, movies, and now podcasts. I translated Camus’s Les Justes last winter for funsies (it’s not out of copyright yet), and I met with a lot of translators at AWP in March 2019. Maybe I’ll get a master’s in translation, I thought. But maybe I should make sure my French is up to snuff before I even consider that.

Where to begin, though? I’m not looking to ask for a beer or a bathroom; I’m looking for something more formal without having to pay for a proper class.

That’s when I remembered: in 2002, my grandmother sent me my great-grandmother’s French book from when she was in college. In 1918.

Yup. That’s where to begin. Good ol’ Shorter French Course by Fraser and Squair, published in 1913 by D. C. Heath. Tres moderne.

The inside cover has not my great-grandmother’s name but her boyfriend’s, Arnold Smith. He’s my great-grandfather. Then there’s a stamp from the Mansfield Normal School, now Mansfield University of Pennsylvania. Below that is a week’s worth of lessons:

  • Lundi lecons 1-4
  • Mardi ” 5-7
  • Mercredi ” 8-10
  • Jeudi ” 12-14
  • Vendredi
  • Samedi
  • Dimanche
  • au haut at the top
  • au bas ” ” bottom

On the facing blank end paper is my great-grandfather’s address while he was in the army. On the verso of that page she wrote the names of the premier (Clemenceau), the former premier (Briand), the president (Poincare), and the Socialist leader, Sadoue. It’s only on the next verso, after a blank recto, that I found her own name written in pencil at the top of the page: Velma Rose.

This has already gotten long, and I’ve only made it through the endpapers at the front of the book. Next up: a little more history, and then diving into lessons.