Nouns, articles and adjectives, oh my! Hour 2 of Alpha Teach Yourself French in 24 Hours (ATYF) is intimidating in scope, but I think did a good job of not burying the reader. That is, if the reader takes it slow, writing and verbalizing as they go. The individual who reads this chapter in an hour, having never studied the language before, will find a brick wall before them. It’s a lot to absorb.
Hour 2 continues to illuminate the sound system and the way sounds interact with one another. But the aims of Hour 2 go far beyond pronunciation. What were these lofty summons? Learning how to determine gender, recognizing the subject pronouns, being able to use articles properly – both definite and indefinite, an in-depth look at noun-adjective agreement, and more numbers.
Jumping right in, the book wants to stress that French nouns have “gender”, a concept fairly unfamiliar to English-only speakers. As every language text that discusses “gender” seems to have to do, ATYF quickly puts to rest the idea that “gender” is equivalent to physical gender. “Things” are still either masculine or feminine in the French language (the examples un arbre “a tree” and une voiture “a car” provide examples of this), and some things that we might expect to be neuter, or even masculine, are feminine always – such as the general class nouns une personne (“a person”, regardless of actual gender) and une bête (“an animal”, regardless of gender).
There are some ways to guess at the gender of an unknown noun. The following endings help:
- The endings -on, -isme, -age, -eau, -(consonants) all are indicative of masculine nouns.
- The endings -aison, -ière, -tte, -lle, -é, -tion all are indicative of feminine nouns
- Geographic names that don’t end in -e are usually masculine. Conversely, those ending in -e are usually feminine, with a notable exception, le Mexique.
Nouns that describe professions can be problematic, to say the least. Many have a fixed masculine grammatical gender, regardless of the physical gender of the person. Un professeur “teacher” and un auteur “author” are examples of this. Obviously, a lot of cultural change is underway that is changing this feature of the language, and the French of some regions outside France (such as Canada) are more likely to use une professeure for a female teacher, or une autere for a female author.
There remain some landmines to be navigated however, as some words, like those for president, ambassador, or general, can take a feminine ending. At one time this would imply a wife of that titled individual. It is more likely, even in the French of France, for these feminine endings to now be used of females in those roles – especially among the younger generation. Just the kind of thing that makes learning languages a moving target.
Many words do not change based on gender, and thus the article (when provided) will be the only way to tell the difference. Un/une gosse “male/female child” is one example (note the difference between this and une personne, which is always feminine regardless of physical gender). Many other words have small variations between masculine and feminine forms, yet are still clearly related; consider un fils “son” and une fille “daughter”. Then there are nouns that sound the same but are completely unrelated, distinguishable only by gender; un/une mode (“a mode” v. “a fashion”, le/la vase (“the vase” v. “the mud”), le/la poste (“the job” v. “the mail”), and un/une livre (“book” v. “pound”) are examples of such nouns.
There are some general rules to convert from a masculine noun to a feminine noun (when it logically makes sense to have such pairs):
- Nouns ending in -eur have feminines in -euse or -trice.
- Nouns ending in -er have feminines in -ère.
- Nouns ending in consonants need only add an -e to create the feminine partner.
The discussion of subject pronouns is very minimal, and not really intended to explain subject pronouns at all. Its only merit is to point out that the third person forms, which do vary by gender, must agree in gender with the noun they replace in the sentence or phrase.
French makes use of both definite and indefinite articles, just as English does, though there is some difference about what situations require use of an article. The article agrees in gender with the noun it attaches to, and precedes the noun (possibly separated by adjectives). For the definite article, singular masculine nouns take le while singular feminine nouns take la. When the following word begins with a vowel or an unaspirated h, these contract to l’, as in l’homme, “the man”. The plural definite article is les for both genders. For the indefinite article, singular masculine nouns take un, and singular feminines take une, and it is worth pointing out that this is the same as the number 1 in masculine and feminine forms. The indefinite plural article (“some…”) of both genders is des, but that requires clarification, so hold up.
The definite article will contract with some prepositions. De “of” or “from” and à “to” or “for” have contracted forms that should be taken note of:
- de + le = du
- de + les = des
- de with la and l’ requires no contraction.
- à + le = au
- à + les = aux
- à with la and l’ also requires no contraction.
So you can see that the form des, described as the plural indefinite article, is roughly “of the Xs”, or more fluidly, “(some) of the Xs”.
I almost struggle to agree that there is an “indefinite plural article”. Wouldn’t it just be easier to see it as a prepositional phrase with a partitive meaning?
But the book also says there is a “partitive” article, which is really just the preposition de combined with the forms of the definite article! I would rather just skip both these names and have them instead discuss the usage of prepositional phrases in de. This would have reduced the amount of duplication and unnecessary confusion and terminology. In short, de has usage describing possession, but also has a partitive usage (either of quality or of quantity), and in either instance contracts with definite articles. See; simple, non?
There is one difference in the partitive usage of des described as an “indefinite plural article” and the partitive usage described as a “partitive article”. The indefinite plural is always plural, thus “some of”, and connected to a plural noun. The “partitive article” is used of both singular – often non-countable – items (as in du pain “some bread”) and plural items (the book’s example is des oranges “some [of the] oranges”). This “article” would have to agree in number and gender with the noun it is attached to. As for the partitive plural article, I find little difference between it and the indefinite plural article.
The idea of an aspirated h deserves some thought, before moving on. Whether aspirated or unaspirated, the h is silent, so to speak. But some nouns are described as aspirated, which means that when combined with le they do not contract, and that when combined with les there is no liaison. This was briefly noted on Day 2. Though the book does not use this terminology, this sounds to me like a glottal stop, especially if you try to articulate the sounds of the provided examples. Anyone who would like to confirm or deny this is welcome to comment thus; in fact, please do!
Having described formation and modification of these articles, it is reasonable to discuss (if not well past due) usage of these articles, which is not necessarily the same as for English.
- Use the definite article with abstractions; l’amour “love”, la liberté “liberty”
- Use the definite article with geographic names other than cities; la France, les Alps
- some major cities do have the article, and notably the article has leading capitalization just like the name of the city in these cases; La Haye “Hague”, La Caire “Cairo”
- Use the definite article with days of the week when talking about regular occurrences, i.e. “(every) Monday…”
- Use the definite article before titles modified by adjectives
- but, do not use before Monsieur, Madame, or Mademoiselle
- Use the definite article when describing the price of a quantity; vingt-cinq francs le kilo, “25 francs per kilogram”
- Use the definite article with body parts; The book’s example is Elle s’est coupe la main. “She cut her hand.”
- Use the indefinite article where English would use “a[n]”.
There is one caveat to the last point. When speaking of profession, title or nationality, and not modifying it by an adjective, and using the verb être, do not use the indefinite article. If you are modifying with an adjective, using the verb être and describing title, nationality or profession, this necessitates a change in the subject (use ce instead of il, for example) of the sentence, so be wary:
- Il est français. “He is (a) frenchman/French.”
- C’est un bon français. “He is a good frenchman.”, or more woodenly, “This is a good frenchman.”
One should rightly be a little disturbed that ce has not yet been discussed in this book, since it important for this last point. Luckily, since it is addressed early in Essential French, I was covered.
That does it for gender, subject pronoun and the array of articles presented in this Hour. Yet to be discussed are adjectives and a continuation of the numbers presented. But that will have to wait for another post. À bientôt.