Fake French in Victorian novels

Du faux français dans un roman d’une auteure anglaise de l’ère victorienne, qui de toute façon emploie un curieux mélange d’anglais et d’allemand.

«Carlesse contente», c’est clair pour vous ?

Some time ago, on the occasion of doing other editing/proofreading work, I reconnected with Project Gutenberg, and in particular the excellent network of distributed proofreaders — the folks who bring you the wonderful Project Gutenberg eBooks. Poking around among the current projects, I came across a curious Victorian novel written by Jessie Fothergill and called The First Violin. It is set in Germany, the main characters are musicians, and much of the dialogue is in a mixture of German and English — obviously to add local colour, because you’d expect the characters to talk in German anyway, and their speech to be rendered in English in a book in English.

An even stranger kind of multilingualism is the use of fake French in this passage (emphasis mine):

Karl Linders gave his opinion freely upon the men in authority. He had nothing to do with them, nothing to hope or fear from them; he filled a quiet place among the violoncellists, and had attained his twenty-eighth year without displaying any violent talent or tendency to distinguish himself, otherwise than by getting as much mirth out of life as possible and living in a perpetual state of “carlesse contente.”

I’m quite sure a non-English-speaking French native speaker would have problems with carlesse (TLFi doesn’t know it either.) And content (fem.: contente) is supposed to be an adjective.

Jessie Fothergill, who was born in Manchester (England) in 1851 and died in Switzerland in 1891, was the daughter of one of the founders of a large English textile company. I don’t know much about her life, except that The First Violin was also published by various houses in the U.S., and that an 1898 Broadway play was based on this novel. There are also links between The First Violin and the now almost obscure German composer Joachim Raff’s fifth symphony.

French brand name gender

Une note sur le genre grammatical des noms de marque. Qui n’explique pas pourquoi le Nutella est masculin.

Here’s a scan of the top of a yoghurt I ate this morning:

Le Nature yoghurt brand

The noun nature, like nearly all feminine nouns that came directly from Latin, has feminine gender: la nature. But we aren’t talking about nature as such here, but about a product name (of the supermarket chain Casino’s house brand). In this case, gender assignment works differently: the brand or product name’s gender is the same as the gender of the noun that denotes the generic product category:

  • generic noun: voiture (car) — feminine; thus: la Jaguar, la Twingo, la Taurus (even though jaguar, the name of the animal, is masculine and the other two car makes have masculine-looking endings)
  • generic noun: montre (watch) — feminine; thus: la Swatch, la Rolex
  • generic noun: fromage (cheese) — masculine; thus: le brie (even though la Brie, the region where brie is made, is feminine)

Yaourt being masculine, we get le Nature. Though I imagine this might confuse some elementary school children, especially given the typesetting, which is reminiscent of the handwriting taught to young pupils.

(I should add that there is a double sense in there: used attributively, nature means something like unflavoured or unadulterated. So un yaourt nature means an unflavoured yoghurt, which actually should be free of added sugar as well. This doesn’t only apply to yoghurt. Une crêpe nature is a pancake without topping, une brioche nature isn’t covered in sugar or chocolate bits, des pommes de terre nature are simply potatoes, raw or cooked, without anything else, like sour cream or cottage cheese.)

The system isn’t perfect: I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything but le/un Snickers, le/un Kitkat, le/un Twix, despite the generic term, barre chocolatée, having feminine gender.

And none of this explains why Nutella is masculine.

The lack of recent posts on this blog is due me going through a rather deep low at the moment. I’m exhausted (from doing nothing in particular), my concentration is spotty, and so is my short-term memory. So I read half-paragraph by half-paragraph and write one sentence fragment a time.

Even though one characteristic point of these blue phases is that nothing, by itself, will provide a comprehensive cure, this is not a reason to abstain from small attempts to do something pleasant. Which means, in the easiest case, turning to chocolate and associated products.

So this Libération article comes at the right time. We learn from it not only that Ferrero’s annual production is large enough that you could cover the equator with all the Nutella jars lined up, but also that Nutella is … left-wing. In Italy, I mean. But apparently the neo-fascists are trying to even things out a bit, and the Forza Italia guys (Berlusconi’s crowd, in case you didn’t know) are holding “Nutella parties”.

Now, I’m in France, and haven’t noticed a particular political preference neither for the icon, nor in the actual consumption. But we have other problems here, about the gender. The grammatical gender, obviously.

In French, brand names usually get their gender from the underlying product type, even if they are not typically used as modifiers (which would have to agree with the noun they modify). Thus, car brands are all feminine (la voiture)#[1]: une Ford, une Porsche, and even une Mondeo (despite the -o that points to a masculine name) and une Golf (although the noun golf, the sport, is masculine). If this method isn’t applicable, a masculine default applies.

For Nutella, there are two reasons to expect it to be feminine: the suffix -ella, which every speaker of French would expect to create a feminine-gendered diminutive, and the underlying product la pâte (à tartiner), or la crème, maybe.

Yet, Google is very clear on this: 27,000 hits for “[le | du | au] nutella” vs only 865 for the feminine form.

I wasn’t totally convinced and conducted some field research while nipping out for a bottle of milk at the Moroccan grocery store that is open on Sunday evening, with a stop at the café next door#[2]. The result wasn’t quite as clearly in favour of le Nutella, but the preference is there. Strangely enough, if Nutella is used with a partitive determiner/preposition plus definite article to denote an unspecified quantity of a specific instance of Nutella, as in « Tu veux encore du / de la Nutella ? » (”Do you want some more Nutella?”), some speakers who otherwise opted for the masculine gender preferred the feminine form.

Let’s explore this a little further. In German, you have to choose between three genders. Neutral (or masculine) default could be assumed in the absence of other criteria, but German is divided into many dialects that often have their own rules about genders and cases of inanimate nouns.

Ferrero is (sortof) helpful by saying that since “nutella [lowercase in German, it seems, like on the labels] is a fantasy name that is registered as a brand name, it is used without article in general” and that everyone can decide for themselves which article to use in case one is needed.

Personally, I say die Nutella (can’t really bring myself to write it in lowercase letters right now). It is so obviously an Anglo-Italian hybrid, and for me the suffix should determin the gender. Car brands, by the way, are masculine in German (even those that are derived from Spanish female first names).

[1]: Automobile, which was an adjective before becoming a noun, used to be admissible in the masculine (due to un véhicule automobile). Nowadays, the only feminine form is considered correct. [2]: Note to researchers: don’t ask questions in a Parisian café right the moment when Monaco scores against Paris St. Germain.

Are women human?

Une longue diatribe contre un ami qui a osé critiquer ma traduction anglaise d’une citation de Térence.

The other day, Dr Dave at unknowngenius passionately disputed something I had said earlier. My crime? Having suggested that in Terence’s line Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto. the word homo should be translated as human being. I should, of course, know better than to reply to a post in which the term “PC” […]

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After last month’s dismal elections, the EU parliament’s (newly renamed) Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality is getting a new member from Britain, UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom. The Guardian tells us a little more about this champion of women’s rights. In his own words: I want to deal with women’s issues because […]

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