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.