Tuesday, February 03, 2009

This Funny Language

I started learning French in 1970. I think I may now be about half-way through.

Ken and I were innocently watching a nature show on t.v. last week when another language learning opportunity presented itself.

The host, Nicolas Hulot, and his spelunking friend were exploring a cave and remarking on the spectacular stalactites and stalagmites they encountered. Mr. Spelunker explained how the 'tites and 'mites formed, noting that there were many influences on the size and shape of each.

Among the influences he mentioned were the rate of water flow, the mineral content of the water, air currents (or lack thereof) in the cave, and weightlessness. Whoa.... weightlessness?

In French: l'apesanteur.

After letting this go by a couple of times, I asked Ken: why the heck is he talking about weightlessness in a cave? Certainly that can't be right. We used the remote to go back and listen again.

Ah, said Ken, he's not saying l'apesanteur, he's saying la pesanteur. Both of those things sound exactly alike, but that little space and apostrophe profoundly affect their meanings. And it's an interesting pair of words:

l'apesanteur = weightlessness
la pesanteur = gravity

Direct opposites!

Then it all became clear. Mr. Spelunker was saying that gravity was the primary force in the creation of stalactites and stalagmites. This is yet another example of how context is so very important in understanding what you hear.


  1. Hah! :) Well, the whole thing would have been lost on me, as I didn't know either of those words before reading your blog today, Walt :))

    Hey, I started French in about 1970, too... maybe '71. We were using that audio & filmstrip series, what about you? It had a little round-faced character named Jacques, who lived at the Place d'Italie (I remember being so excited when Aimee ended up living near the Place d'Italie metro!) I remember that he was an ingénieur, which quickly became my very favorite French word:))


  2. Yep, I use context every day to learn the meaning of new French words.

    Nicolas Hulot is a v. interesting person, isn't he? I think once we are in France I should become a member of his Foundation. I didn't realise he did telly, but I suppose I should have.

  3. Messieurs, les Anglais, tirez les premiers ( dead English soldiers)

    Messieurs les Anglais, tirez les premiers ( dead French soldiers)

  4. Years ago, my mother took some refresher classes in French, and she told me how puzzled she was, in one dictée test, by the discussion of someone's "Swiss ideas". Only on the way home did she realise that it was s'est suicidé.

    And decades before that, she had retained a phrase of infinite uselessness from her school book, all about the family Dupont, including the little dog, who disappeared one day. On his return, he was greeted by the bonne (it was that long ago): Ah! Te voilà déjà de retour, fripon!. I dare you to try that down the local café.

  5. Sigh. Makes me wonder if there's any hope of my French getting better, if even Walt mishears now and then. As I listen to French, a stream of letters speeds past my ear and I can't divide the stream into words. Mind you, I sometimes have the same problem in English. Born to read, I was.

  6. i did fairly well with French when I studied it in Junior high school. I regret I did not keep it going.

  7. Hi Cousine,
    What you're talking about is punctuation, which is so very important. In the first sentence, there should be a pause, even so slight, after Messieurs, when there is none in the second sentence.
    In important documents, the place of a coma can make a big difference, just as like night and day!

    When talking about stalactites and stalagmites, a way to remember which is which is to take the first letter of mites and tites. "Monter" for mites and "tomber" for tites.

    Stalagmites are not mites in a prison camp.

  8. Bonjour chm

    Just wanted to have some fun at the expense of Walt (wink)

    yes you are right about the coma business, I know of an in-house counsel of a big telecom service provider who lost her job. That company was dealing with an utility company in Quebec and somehow in the translation of a document from English to French a 'miscommunication' happened.

    That's the way I was taught to remember about les "mites" et les "tites" :-)

  9. CHM, we remember the difference between 'tites and 'mites because the stalactites "hold tight" to the ceiling.

  10. I used to get hooked on c'est pareil and séparé.

  11. You know, despite both my parents' being bilingual, I never learnt either of their native tongues. Which is something I regret now that I'm older.

  12. judy, back then I think I remember the place d'italie was a less desirable neighborhood than it is these days.

    susan, Hulot has been doing a program called Ushuaïa Nature for about 20 years now. And it's in reruns all the time on his channel, Ushuaïa TV.

    beaver, punctuation is our friend!

    autolycus, but that would have been ses idées suisses, non? ;)

    carolyn, I'm a very graphical thinker myself and I often mishear things. I actually see sentences go by in my imagination as I hear them. Often, very misspelled sentences. ;)

    chm, a comma without two "m's" is just a long dark sleep... And, like Ken, I learned that stalactites hang on tight, and stalagmites push up with all their might.

    rachael, I scratched my head, but when I said them out loud I got it!

    ingmar, which languages did they speak?

  13. urspo, you can always pick it back up again!

  14. OK that's weird. For some reason blogger posted my actual name - Ingmar - as opposed to my pseudonym when I commented last??

    I feel all naked and exposed now! o_0

    Anywho, my mum is Croatian and my dad is Latvian. They're both only children, and my grandparents all passed away while I was reasonably young, so there weren't many opportunities for me to pick up either language by osmosis unfortunately. I should have gone to language school like a lot of the other kids from migrant families in our neighborhood.

  15. Hmmm, why won't my comments link to my blog anymore? weird.....

  16. Oh dear– perhaps I wasn't so nicely brought up as the rest of you. For me the mnemonic is 'the mites look up the tites'.

    Thanks for the info about Hulot, Walt. Something to look forward to once we've got French TV.

  17. Walt

    No more Twitter ? To much clutter then :-)

  18. Hi Walt,
    You're exactly right. I was, probably, in a deep coma when I wrote this and couldn't check my dictionary for spelling. Shame on me!

  19. Regarding Newsiness: Twitter is gone; I noticed when I wanted to show it to a friend who was wondering what Twitter was all about.

    Regarding 'mites and 'tites: The ditty I learned is a bit impolite: "They're like ants in the pants: the 'mites go up and the 'tites go down."

    The verification word is "humpatic." My goodness.

  20. Congratulations for de-cluttering!

    Now it takes less than forever to open the precious comments! Thank you.

  21. ingmar, very interesting background!

    evol, that's strange, it says your profile is not available. I don't know why...

    susan, it must be the Australian in you!

    beaver, I'm still on twitter, it's just not on the blog.

    chm, zzzzzzzzzzzz. Glad to hear it's loading faster for you.

    chris, maybe you have some Australian in you, too?

  22. spelunker

    forget the French, I had to look up 'spelunker'!


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