. . . est sur le bureau de mon oncle. This famous, grammatically interesting but practically useless phrase started many of us off on our journey into learning French. The reverse equivalent is “my tailor is rich” which is supposed to reassure French learners that they already understand more than they think of the impenetrable English language, (tailor/tailleur and rich/riche). Once again it is an improbable phrase of extremely limited use, but the biscuit has to be taken by the opening sentence for study in my German book: “Mein Bruder hat die gleiche Harpune wie du” My brother has the same harpoon as you! Oh yes?
We both remember our school French teachers. Mine was Miss Downer, a dedicated middle aged lady who drove herself to school sitting very upright in her duck egg blue Morris Oxford. She was a grammarian and a stickler for correct pronunciation, but also guided us through the intricacies of the poetry of Rimbaud and the overwrought alexandrines of Racine’s Phèdre. Markus cannot recall the name of his French master but describes him as an “extraordinary vehicle” with a fondness for the films of Jacques Tati, which is honour enough in itself!
At all events these two must be considered as having had a major influence on our life choices – from where we live to the fact that we ever met at all. So thank you to both!
So it was with school-time memories and trusting to our earlier grounding that we decided to try our hands at the Dictée à l’Ancienne held in Arlebosc last Saturday.
Dictation tests are still used in French primary schools and, predictably enough, there was an article in the paper recently bemoaning a decline in standards. For the same short text, 10 year olds scored 10.6 errors in 1987, 14.3 in 2007 and 17.8 in 2015, most of the mistakes being grammatical faults.
The chief difficulty in a French Dictée is not so much the spelling, as it would be in English, but more the agreements, plurals and grammatical traps, many of which cannot be heard but need to be applied according to the rules. For example, qu’il soit poli and qu’elles soient polies.
However the linguistics professor writing the article did make the point that children nowadays are confronted with so many new subjects that there is not sufficient time available to drum grammatical rules into their heads. She went on to raise the question, do we want to produce proficient little grammarians or children who can function effectively in society?
Anyway back to our Dictée. This was an altogether less stressful affair and around 45 of us, all adults, gathered at the Mairie to be issued with a blotter, a dip pen, an ink bottle and a page of that infuriating squared writing paper that the French (and Swiss) know how to use and I don’t!
The atmosphere was good humoured with us all trying out our nibs and remembering blots, scratches and ink monitors from our primary school days. There were to be prizes for anyone scoring fewer than ten mistakes and hot drinks and crêpes (we’re just past la Chandeleur) to cheer us up whilst marking was in progress.
In fact outside the schoolroom la Dictée has been a favourite French pastime since the 19th century. The most famous is the fiendish text dreamed up by Prosper Mérimée in 1857 at the request of Empress Eugénie to amuse the court of Napoleon III. Results: the Emperor 75 errors, Eugénie 62 and ….. the punctilious Austrian Ambassador, Metternich junior, THREE!
More recently the cultural TV host, Bernard Pivot, organised regular televised dictation tests up to 2005 and it is still possible to take part in the annual Dictée organsied by the Rotary Club.
We all settled down and listened attentively. It must be said that there were frequent calls to repeat certain tricky phrases and a great deal more chattering and comparing of notes than I remember from my school days. A collective drawing in of breath and exclamations of Aïe aïe aïe! helpfully signalled the more fiendish traps to the otherwise unwary. When it came to the results, the well deserving winner had made only 4 errors and a further three or four people came in under 10. The rest of us lagged way behind but, as the only non native speakers there, we felt we had acquitted ourselves fairly well with 19 and 22 ¼ mistakes, which was far from being the worst score.
Even in these dreary dark days of winter there is always something going on in the village. It could be a fête du boudin (black pudding) boiled up on the village square, competitions of the card game belotte or a matinée dansante – a sort of tea dance. Spring won’t be here for a while but there’s enough to keep us all busy.