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language geekery


Friday fun with French

Since I’ve had some cycles free up now that Bone Walker and Victory of the Hawk are done, I’ve turned my attention to playing with translating my own prose. Specifically, I’m amusing myself writing that story I threatened to write some time ago, “The Dragonslayer of Chimay”, based on Le Vent du Nord’s song “Le dragon de Chimay”–and hey, I figure if it’s based on a song in French, I should try to write the prose in French!

Playing around with this yesterday, though, finally let me figure out the answer to a question I had come up doing the Trilingual Hobbit Reread: i.e., how quoting dialogue in French prose actually works.

I’d noticed in Bilbo le hobbit that some dialogue was bracketed by the familiar angle quotes, « and ». Some dialogue also involved m-dashes, and some actually mixed them in ways that didn’t seem obvious to me. To further complicate the matter, I noticed as well that within the same paragraph, dialogue was not separated from dialogue tags by closing quotes the same way an English sentence would do it.

So for example, an English sentence might look like this:

“I love that band,” she said. “Their tunes are awesome!”

But in French you’d get this:

« J’aime ce groupe, dit-elle. Leurs tounes sont fantastique! »

See how there’s no closing quote after “dit-elle”–which is “she said” here, what gets called a dialogue tag in writing–and no quote to reopen the spoken words after it?

BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE. The m-dash comes into play, it seems, to signify if there’s a change in speaker. And furthermore, the angle quotes are used less to signify “here is something a person says”, and more “a general area of conversation that can involve one or more people”–and so the starting and closing quotes bracket an entire section of dialogue, as large as possible in the context of the narrative.

Which suddenly makes large bits of Bilbo le hobbit make more sense to me!

Here’s an example:

« J’aime ce groupe, dit-elle. Leurs tounes sont fantastique! 

— Qu’est-que tu penses de leur violoneux? demande son ami. Il joue bien, oui?

— Absolument! Il est merveilleux! Je veux apprendre toutes ses chansons! »

So that’s fun, and something I look forward to practicing as I slowly work my way through not only writing “The Dragonslayer of Chimay”, but also translating it as I go!

Relatedly: I have also discovered that if you’re dealing with those angle quotes in French prose, you’re going to want to make non-breaking spaces to go between them and the words they’re surrounding–otherwise the text will wrap weirdly and that’s no fun. And there’s an easy way to do this on the Mac: Option + Space.

Not as easy to do if I’m on one of my iOS devices, but this is a problem that can be solved by my Bluetooth keyboard!

What fun things do you all know about in non-English prose? What tricks do you know to make non-English characters when you’re typing?


Are musicians better language learners?

I got into an interesting online discussion with Dara and our friend Rod, pertaining to recent research indicating that early musical instruction in childhood contributes to one’s language skills, by improving one’s ability to recognize meaningful sounds and reject noise.

As I am both a language geek and a music geek, you can imagine that this subject is of interest to me! So I went googling and found this article from back in February of this year, which talks a bit about this. According to this article, people who have early musical instruction have a better shot at learning languages even in adulthood.

Now me, I don’t know how well I match up to this, but it’s very interesting to consider nonetheless. I started playing flute in fourth grade, which would have been the year I turned ten. By age 12, I was in middle school band and I pretty quickly took over the first chair of the flute section, holding onto it until my eighth grade year when I was trumped by the girl who could play oboe.

I didn’t get to take language classes until high school, though. By then I’d had six years of school band, and it’s a very interesting question as to whether that musical instruction helped me out learning German. I had interest in German regardless–but it’s worth noting that I chose German partly because a) my dad had been stationed in Germany when he was in the Marines, and b) Elvis had been in Germany. He even had a bridge in one of his songs in German, and that was a not inconsiderable part of why I chose to take German instead of, say, Spanish. Even then, my language interest had a musical connection.

The language interest stayed with me into my adulthood and has certainly formed a significant part of my computer experience, since I do a lot of testing of stuff localized into other languages. A big part of that is pattern recognition, especially if the thing I’m testing is in Japanese–I have to rely on visual pattern matching just because Japanese characters don’t parse as ‘letters’ to me. So it’s a different kind of pattern matching than, say, on our German or French sites, where I know enough of the words that I can actually understand a good bit of what I see.

But that’s also visual pattern recognition. Part of what Dara and Rod and I talked about had to do with how this plays against aural pattern recognition in music–and whether the ability to learn patterns aurally in music affects your ability to match patterns visually, and vice versa. Does ability to read sheet music help you when you’re trying to learn to read a new language? Does ability to pick up on the structure of a song, or on a smaller scale certain repeated patterns of notes, help you identify recognizable patterns in spoken language? Do they all play well together in your brain?

I’m no researcher. But I can say this. It does all feel connected to me–I’ve absolutely noticed it all seeming to tie together as I’ve been studying French the last couple of years, as I’ve posted about before. Listening to a lot of Quebec trad improves my ability to aurally pattern-match words, and at the same time it’s got the song structure of the genre working in there too. Not only is Quebec trad heavily call-and-response driven, there are also distinct structures to songs, like the ones where you sing the last line of a verse and have that same line roll over to become the first line of the next verse.

And I’ve absolutely noticed that words or phrases I learn as part of a song have a much better chance at staying with me, too. They’re the ones most likely to pop out at me when I’m slowly stepping my way through reading something in French, or when I’m listening to a brand new song as well. Or if I’m reading the lyrics to a song, too.

Plus, I’ve been trying to use pattern recognition to learn to pick up tunes by ear in a session environment, too. It feels like a very similar skill to matching words–because there’s a definite grammar of how note patterns work in trad tunes, and I find myself slowly trying to learn that grammar and match it up with what I need to do on my flutes to make the correct noises. It feels exactly like trying to pick words that make sense out of spoken or sung French.

And I love the lot of it! Anybody else out there have similar experience?


I love it when this happens

In the genres I habitually read, it’s not often that I can pick up a book and have it throw me words I’d never seen before. It’s even rarer that a book will throw me more than one word I don’t know. Elizabeth George is one author who’s done this, with her Inspector Lynley mysteries.

And now Chaz Brenchley is another author. I just had the pleasure of finishing his House of Doors, and even aside from quite liking it (moody, atmospheric haunted-house type story, just the sort of haunted-house story I like), I was delighted to find nine words in it I’d never seen before.

Here, for your amusement and edification, I present them: blench, exeat, hurly, ukase, inutile, landaulet, bruit, pedicle, and inculcate!

Bruit was particularly amusing to me as I had recognized that as a word in the title of one of the albums in my Quebecois music collection, namely, Le Bruit court dans la ville.

Quebecois Music

And now: language geeking with De Temps Antan lyrics!

So, De Temps Antan, right? One of the cluster of fine Quebecois bands I’ve been a-swoon over this entire year, in no small part due to the excellent vocals and bouzouki of M. Éric Beaudry. These boys have a very handy PDF of lyrics posted on their site for their first album. There is not, however, an equivalent PDF for their second, current album, Les habits de papier!

Of the songs on this album, three have muscled their way onto my Francophone Favorites playlist: “La turlutte du rotoculteur”, “Pétipétan”, and “Grand amuseur de filles”. The first has no lyrics as it is a double firebomb of turlutte + bouzouki, fiddle, and harmonica action. <3 I found lyrics for the second, for which I am extremely grateful, given that the chorus is a machine-gun spray of syllables and I had to see them transcribed to begin to try to sing it!

You would know, however, that the one where M. Beaudry sings delicious lead, "Grand amuseur de filles", is the one I can't actually find any lyrics for at all! *^_^*;;

So, I told myself, here's a brilliant idea–let's see if I can listen hard to these lyrics and see if I can identify ANY WORDS IN THEM WHATSOEVER. And since I've gotten involved with other local fans of Quebecois music and we have our little Chanson et langue group going, we're seeing if we can transcribe the lyrics ourselves!

I played with this some today with the help of userinfovixyish and userinfoeeyorerin, who reported to me that the third verse was basically talking about the singer trying to cheer up his sad, sick friend by hauling him off to a strip club, quote, “as you do”. Erin then informed me, and I quote, “I feel this entire song needs to be punctuated with eyebrow waggles, ‘as you do’, or ‘that’s what he said!'” (Which appears to be a very apt description of most of the songs that have gotten onto my aforementioned Francophone Favorites playlist. I keep getting all of the bounciest, stomping-est songs onto this list and then I find out what they mean and I’m all O RLY? >:D )

And I’m amusing myself mightily with the help of Dejah of the Chanson et langue group, who has way more French than I do, though she’s flailing almost as hard as I am on the latter verses of the song.

Here are a random sampling of phrases I was rather stunned I actually heard correctly, based on comparing with Dejah’s much better transcription of at least the initial verses:

  • Chanter la chanson de ma jolie maîtresse (sing the song of my pretty mistress)
  • Deux ou trois amants (two or three lovers) (see previous commentary re: O RLY? >:D )
  • Allons-y donc, allons aux cabaret! (let’s get to the cabaret!)

And I got several scattered other bits of phrases, like “faut la quitter” and “avec un jeune garçon”, and I haven’t yet confirmed but am pretty sure of having heard “je ne fais que pleurer” and “la fleur de la maisson”. Man, trying to transcribe words in a language you barely know is HARD and FUN and Dejah is right–doing this with music is way more entertaining than out of a textbook!

Quebecois Music

Lessons in French lyrics

It’s probably not an academically approved way to learn a language, and the ultimate result will probably not be a working vocabulary I can use in everyday conversation, but I gotta say: it’s great fun trying to translate Quebecois trad lyrics word by word and phrase by phrase. It’s like the songs are in CODE, and I have to break the code!

And so far I have learned the following things:

One, like most Celtic music, Quebecois trad falls into the three general categories of Whiskey, Sex, and Death. And many songs will fall into all of these categories at once.

Two, there are a surprisingly large number of ducks in these songs. This is not so strange in a song about hunting, but in a song about a wedding night?! I pointed userinfoeeyorerin at the Charbonniers’ “Lundi Mardi Jour de Mai“, and she explained it was a song about a wedding, and then promptly went “buh?!” when she realized the happy couple had ducks right next to their bed. Quackez-vous, baby! Quackez-vous.

Three, French makes even not-work-safe phrases like ‘va te faire’ sound awesome in front of a 69-piece orchestra. Look it up, Internets! And then just imagine the English equivalent in front of an orchestra!

Four, some tiny bits of vocabulary I haven’t hung out with since college are suddenly trying to get back in touch. Why hello there, pronouns! How’s it going, conjugation of être? And you guys have brought me a few more verbs, too! How nice of you!

And now, Internets, I give you a sampling of critical verbs I am picking up from my study of the lyrics of Le Vent du Nord, Les Charbonniers de l’Enfer, and La Volée de Castors!

  • être: to be
  • avoir: to have
  • tuer: to kill (useful for all songs in the Death category)
  • aimer: to love (category Sex)
  • boire: to drink (category Whiskey)
  • jouer: to play
  • chanter: to sing
  • danser: to dance

So yeah. I’m still at the point of most of these lyrics parsing in my brain as ‘blah blah blah’ (only prettier than that, because, y’know, French), but comprehendible phrases are starting to pop out at me. Like ‘rejoindre mon bataillon’, or ‘ouvrez, ouvrez la porte, mon père, si vous m’aimez’.

(Which is also in a fun song about a girl who apparently thinks nothing of freeloading off a young captain who takes her to a fancy hotel in Paris and wines and dines her. And she fakes her own death, and after three days begs her father to let her out of the tomb.

Either that, or else she’s a zombie. I’m not sure which!)

So yeah. Maybe not a working vocabulary, but if you need somebody to sing about what an asshole the son of the king is for shooting a shepherdess’ white ducks? I’ll be your girl!