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It's only a northern consonant - Which is not unduly obvious, as I am about to explain
It's only a northern consonant
One of the books I found interesting at work...

As I was cataloguing my books as usual, I took a bin of French books that had been sitting around for some time. It was marked as low-priority, and it felt like a good time to work on them. To my horror I found it was a pile of books that I had attempted to do back before Christmas, and had set aside out of frustration.

The books are still frustrating, but one of them was a book I had completely forgotten about and quite liked. And this is despite the fact that the title page and other opening pages had been lost, requiring me to dig through the book to guess at the title, author, etc.

I believe the name of the book is Traité de l'orthographe françoise. Essentially, a French spelling dictionary. This edition was published around 1762, making it one of the oldest books I've gotten to catalog.

What I find really fascinating about this book is that it captures a language still in the process of standardizing its spelling and alphabet. Here's a scan of two pages.

Now the first things you'll notice are the obvious - in the title, the name of the modern language (français) still had an "o" in it. And within the text itself, they're using those fancy "s" letters that look like "f"s.

The word "vu" (seen) has a note next to it explaining that it used to be spelt "veu", and the only place that hasn't given up the old form is the Louvre's printing shop.

In "vuide", it's explained that the "u" is not pronounced. The editor says that because of this, some people leave it out; a practice he disagrees with. The modern form? "Vide", empty.


"This letter is not a proper French letter; it is a letter of the people of the north, from which we have included several proper nouns. For the pronunciation, there is nothing in our language but the V-consonant."

Sure enough, it's all proper nouns. Even to this day, W is not a common letter in the French language. Picking up my modern dictionary, the W section is tiny, and all the words are imports. Watt. Week-end. Western. Whisky. Wagon. And wagon is pronounced with a "v".

Moving on, another curious thing is that X is introduced as the twenty-first letter of the alphabet. Y and Z bring the total to 23, so where are the missing three letters? Well, W is one of them. The other missing letters are J and V.

Interestingly, J and V are actually included in this dictionary. But they weren't considered separate letters! Even though the sounds and symbols for them were different from their counterparts (I and U), I/J and U/V were each thought of as one letter. Letters that had both a consonant and a vowel form. This may seem kind of weird, but it's not; think about the letter Y in English speech.

There's a neat little historical fact related to this. If you pick an old enough book, say 19th century, sometimes you'll see little letters on the bottom right-hand page. If you flip through the book, you'll notice they repeat at regular intervals, going through the alphabet - but they skip J, V, and W.

Those were included to help the printers make sure they were arranging the sections of the book in the correct order. And even after the alphabet became the 26 letters we use today, the book-printing industry continued to use a 23-letter alphabet, because it was what they were used to!

Ahh, cataloguing!

Current Mood: thoughtful thoughtful

7 comments or Leave a comment
From: pobig Date: May 26th, 2004 10:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
Man, totally cool. I CAN SEE THROUGH TIME.
dronon From: dronon Date: May 27th, 2004 12:06 am (UTC) (Link)
Hrm. As a follow-up to my journal entry, I just noticed that "vulcain" is described as "god of subterranean fires", while "vulcanisme" is described as "the state of he whose wife is unfaithful".
niall_ From: niall_ Date: May 27th, 2004 06:40 am (UTC) (Link)
I was about to remark on that Vulcanisme. That was quite interesting.

The "Vuide" coming from Italian "vuoto" is a classic, perfect example to explain to people why French has all these silent consonants that make no sense. Normal usage put them away (he makes no mention of distaste to the disappearing U in Vuidange, for example), until the Académe Française stopped and fixed the language.
zrath From: zrath Date: May 27th, 2004 11:29 am (UTC) (Link)
Well, as you can imagine, I find this terribly fascinating.
A few random thoughts:

- I used to get teased in school back in France because I used the English pronounciation of "W" (wah)
and I wouldn't use the "V" pronounciation instead. It would go something like this:
kid - "What does a locomotive pull?"
me - "Wagons?" (wah-gons)
kid - "Oh, so you go on wah-cation in the summer?" (vacances)
Stupid kids.
That didn't last long though, because people were actually starting to use the "wah" sound for "W".
Only French-Language extremists use the "W" pronounciation.

- I didn't know about the whole "vui" thing. Maybe I knew and forgot about it. Very interesting.

- Incidentally, "Françoise" is the birth name of Radical Edward from "Cowboy Bebop". I adore that show.

- If you haven't done so already, rent "Les Visiteurs" with Jean Reno and Christian Clavier.
Reno plays a French knight who accidentally kills his father-in-law-to-be, and he gets a magician's help
to go back in time to fix his mistake. Unfortunately, he goes forward in time to modern-day France.
The usual hijinks and shenanigans ensue, as Reno and his squire spout period-accurate French.
The first movie is the best, the second one is alright, and I haven't seen the third.
There was an Americanized version released, called "Just Visiting", which I haven't seen either,
but I bet that the original French release is much better, if only for the medieval French language use.
Knowing you, you've probably already seen "Les Visiteurs", but it helps to be thorough. (grin)

zrath From: zrath Date: May 27th, 2004 05:07 pm (UTC) (Link)

Only French-Language extremists use the "V" pronounciation, I mean.
Le duh.

dronon From: dronon Date: May 28th, 2004 12:11 am (UTC) (Link)
Nope, haven't seen either of those films you mentioned! My exposure to French-language cinema (at least, what I can remember offhand) consists of Les 400 coups, Jean de Florette, Manon des sources, Au revoir les enfants, Delicatessen, Amélie, La cité des enfants perdus, Nikita, Léon, Jésus de Montréal, and all of Jacques Tati's films up to Playtime.

And some comedy in the late 70s or early 80s with a sequence where a kid's parents leave him in their apartment with no dinner. So the kid borrows his dad's megaphone and complains out the window to the other apartments. They set up a rope and a basket and send the kid food. But aside from that bit I've forgotten every other detail of the film.

zrath From: zrath Date: May 28th, 2004 04:58 pm (UTC) (Link)

Well, golly, that's a pretty good start.
Here are some more for you to check out:

Wasabi (as mentioned in my LJ, a fun Jean Reno police-comedy-action thingy)

La Belle Et La Bete (by Jean Cocteau, made on a shoestring budget during Nazi Occupation)

anything with Louis De Funes, really (warning: contains physical humor)

Uranus (tension and payback in a small village post-WWII. Depardieu overacts all over)

CQ (it's not French, but it recreates Paris in '69. Lots of fun!)

Asterix Et Obelix (yeah, live-action with Depardieu and Clavier)

The Fifth Element (Besson, Mezzieres, Moebius, Gaultier, but of course it's a French film!!)

Le Magnifique (with Jean-Paul Belmondo, a demented spy spoof that's all over the place)

Hmmmmm, I can't think of anything else. I don't really watch much French cinema.
I saw a lot growing up but I don't care to revisit most of those movies.
There are only a few I really love, and "La Belle Et La Bete" tops the list.

7 comments or Leave a comment