In my experience, it is true that languages expand your thinking and expose you to not only new ideas but also new ways of communicating.
This journal will reflect the French language and culture as I continue my studies in French III at The University of South Florida.
To begin this endeavor of weekly updates with Francophone facts, history and imagery — I will include all of that; from French idioms to slam poetry.
As an International Studies major, I expect to provide information on relevant French politics and affairs as well as linguistic and sociological aspects of French as a global language.
My research has already proven to be endless in my attempt to entitle this journal but my little finger finally told me what it should be…
After reading many common French phrases and historical proverbs, I learned more about French culture than from my 7 years in French class.
For example, many English idioms are similar to French proverbs though they do have slight differences.
In the case of, “Mon petit doigt me l’a dit,” from which the title of this page derives;
Mon petit doigt me l’a dit (proverb)
Literal translation; “My little finger told me.”
English equivalent; “A little birdie told me.”
Expression: Mon petit doigt m’a dit (alt.)
Pronunciation: [ mo(n) peu tee dwah ma dee ]
Meaning: a little bird told me, a little birdie told me
Literal translation: my pinky / little finger told me
Notes: The French expression mon petit doigt m’a dit is a playful way of announcing that you know something without naming the person who told you. Even more so than its English equivalent, mon petit doigt m’a dit tends to be reserved for talking to children.
Mon petit doigt m’a dit que tu n’as pas fait tes devoirs.
A little birdie told me that you didn’t do your homework.
– Comment sais-tu ?
– Mon petit doigt me l’a dit.
– How do you know?
– A little birdie told me.
There is an obvious similarity between the wise little finger and little birdie of the French and English idioms, respectively. The suggested cause of this difference is in the historical origin of the phrases
This small intermediary who carries a secret to me and that is at hand, it is of course a finger, the one that is preferred by parents when you have to say something to the kids, something they hid [from] us .
The expression is already in Molière: ” Something [my little finger] tells me you saw something you did not tell me . ” The origin of this phrase has been much ink… [They] who went looking for explanations that eliminated this charming little finger, the only finger that enters the ear, the ear…
A good father, bringing to his by reason of any itching, and, being a small reprimand liar, pretends that his little finger reveals the truth. This trait, repeated, has been imitated by others, and will be passed into the language . ”
Adding for good measure that the pinky finger represent the sacred symbol of knowledge and divination.
The little finger is featured in the French language, the rest was the choice of attitudes: “Do not lift a finger,” does not lift, as saying shamefully do nothing while others are activated. An attitude obviously very different from those “little fingers…” [of the ear]
Here are some other ways you might understand the saying;
Mon petit doigt me dit qu’on commence là-bas à sentir l’odeur de l’argent. My little finger tells me that they’ve started to smell money.
Et mon petit doigt me dit que certains fantômes que vous avez éliminés devaient garder les lieux. And something tells me that some ofthe creatures you have killed used to guard the place.
Mon petit doigt me l’a dit:
idiom. a little bird told me; somebody told me
[lit.: my little finger told me]
There is also an example of the phrase in contemporary commerce through a French company that Google results included in my research;
Mon Petit Doigt Me La Dit
Bague unique 10 euros
So you understand what I mean about the interesting aspects of French culture revealed by their different proverbs and popular phrases, here are a few more examples;
1. “Avoir le cafard”
The French have a funny way of showing sympathy. The phrase literally translates to – have the cockroach. And all we wanted to imply was to- be down in the dumps or have the blues!
2. “Casser les oreilles”
Breaking the ears is what it literally means. We use this commonly with reference to loud or harsh noise, bad singers or a nagging people. To make the picture clearer we mean highly irritating.
3. “C’est la fin des haricots”
When translated this simply means, the end of the beans. Yes, you guessed correctly. We do want to say the last straw in English or that’s the end of it. Don’t judge us, we take our love for beans very seriously!
4. “Donner sa langue au chat”
This means to give your tongue to the cat although we mean to give up guessing an answer. Honestly, don’t give your tongue to the cat to understand the logic behind this one.
5. “Boire comme un trou”
This phrase means to drink like a hole and is supposed to mean to drink a lot, like a bottomless well. We, the French probably were drinking like a hole when we came up with the phrase.
6. “Devenir chêvre”
On a serious note, this stands for to become a goat. However, in plain English we mean to be driven mad and this phrase is said to have derived inspiration from goats and their short fuse.
7. “Les carottes sont cuites”
It literally means the carrots are cooked, but we say run simply because the speaker means that the outcome of the situation cannot be changed!
8. “Arrête ton char!”
You could feel really royal if you took this one for its literal meaning which is to stop your chariots. However, you are basically being told to stop bluffing. Nothing royal about that one.
The hard statistics of French as a language are just as interesting as their semasiology and culture. A French Diplomacy website explains the status of French in the world;
A language spoken on all five continents
French is one of the very few languages spoken all over the world, ranked the sixth most widely spoken language after Mandarin Chinese (over a billion speakers), English, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic.
There are currently over 220 million French speakers worldwide, including 72 million so-called partial French speakers. (…)
As a result of population growth, the OIF estimates that the number of French speakers will rise to over 700 million by 2050, 80% of whom will be in Africa.
This would take the proportion of French speakers in the world population from 3% to 8%.
French is unusual in that it often exists alongside other languages in multilingual contexts.
In Europe (excluding France), the largest populations of French speakers are essentially to be found in Belgium (45% of the population), Switzerland (20% of the population) and Luxembourg.
French is Europe’s second most widely spoken mother tongue with over 77 million speakers, after Germany (around 100 million) but ahead of English (around 61 million).
Demographers forecast that France’s birth rate will make French the most widely spoken mother tongue in Europe, ousting German, by 2025.
French is an official language of 29 countries, second only to English in this category.
Although I knew French was a popular language, of course — I did not realize it was second only to English as an official language of 29 countries! However, that did not surprise me as much as what follows.
I never knew why I was so drawn to French as language — even though I grew up in Spanish-dominated South Florida and being born in Miami, I even spoke Spanish as my first language (sadly, long gone).
I only now realize how important my French could be as I seek a career in International Relations and Diplomacy. Despite my degree and years of French study, I had no idea that French was the language of diplomacy.
This title is, however, argued today as English policy grows in dominance but the history is quite interesting!
The language of French was popularized in the 13th century as a way to transcend a limited social hierarchy; speakers of French as a second language symbolized class and suggested elitism.
This European custom and French colonialism quickly spread the language.
French became a transnational language that could be used in current affairs across cultures and tongues.
An International Language of Reference
French is one of the working languages of the United Nations alongside English, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Chinese.
French is one of the three procedural languages of the European Union, along with English and German, and the sole language used for the deliberations of the Court of Justice of the European Union.
French is the sole official language of the Universal Postal Union (UPU).
French plays a special role in international sporting life as an official language of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and hence of the Olympic Games.
The inauguration in 1989 of the Francophone Games has underscored the existence of a real international French-speaking sports community.
France and the French-speaking countries play an active part in the world economy, accounting for some 20% of world trade in goods.
A study entitled “The global economic importance of the French language” conducted by the Foundation for International Development Study and Research (FERDI) in 2012 shed useful light on the positive correlation between a country’s membership of the French-speaking community and its trading position.
Sharing a common language would appear to boost trade flows by some 33% on average, mainly by bringing down export costs, making it easier for businesses to penetrate a new export market and helping to sustain existing flows.
It is rather amazing that French was once the official language of the largest international sports competition and French speaking countries still account for some 20% of world trade in goods.
I’m grateful for these affirmations of my choice to study French even without realizing its historical pertinence to my esteemed profession and relevance in major global affairs.
However, here are some alternatives as to whether French truly thrives today,
Along with English, French does remain the only world language with solid roots on five continents.
But with 80m native practitioners, it is the 11th most spoken first language in the world, and it has a mere 180m secondary speakers, whereas the British government reckons around a quarter of the world’s population, helped by the ubiquity of Anglophone popular culture and the internet, speak English with some degree of competence. It’s hardly surprising we’re nervous.
And if we’re losing the diplomatic battle as well, things are even more serious.
It seems we are: as recently as 1986, 60% of European commission documents were originally published in French; these days its less than 30%.
Much of that is down to the union’s enlargement: the 10 new, mainly eastern European entrants that joined in 2004 are obviously more anglophone than francophone (and their accession made theoretically possible more than 420 linguistic combinations).
So why shouldn’t everyone just give up and speak English? Would we really all be worse off if international diplomacy was carried out in English? We would.
First, as the previous French president showed through his heroic (a word I never thought I’d be applying to Jacques Chirac) if ultimately unsuccessful “non” at the United Nations in the run-up to the US-inspired, British-backed invasion of Iraq, the world can sometimes use an independent, non-anglophone voice.
“La francophonie”, as France calls the community of French-speaking nations, serves as a bridge of sorts between Europe, Africa and several Arab nations, and can usually be relied upon to furnish an occasionally salutary counterpoint to the prevailing Anglo-Saxon world view.”
This alternative, “La Francophonie,” provides pertinent background to my upcoming journal post regarding the French language and French affairs of the domestic Muslim population and Middle Eastern-French history up to today.
Until then, more on the history of French, which was the most widely-spoken language in Europe by the 14th century and its origins as a language of diplomacy;
The French language was the most widely-spoken language in Europe by the 14th Century, and in 1539 the French Court declared French to be the official language of its government.
This sparked a high-water mark for French as it became absolutely necessary for anyone with an interest in world matters to learn French.
French thus became the language of diplomacy for the simple reason that France was involved in just about every diplomatic effort around the world.
At the same time, France was building a huge empire that spread French everywhere, from North America to Africa.
As a result, anyone who wished to appear worldly and well-bred learned French.
Even in a time when women were not expected to be educated or trained for any particular work, ladies of high birth or rich background learned French solely so they could converse with foreign guests at parties.
French was the de facto language of the world at large.
The Villers-Dotterets Ordinance of 1539 declared that all administrative documents of France be in French.
This made it the official language and it later became a lingua franca, going beyond its state borders to unite speakers of many other native tongues.
Also, read to understand how the dominance of French as an international language was challenged by the rise of English;
The Worldwide Language of Diplomacy
The Villers-Cotterêts Ordinance, passed in 1539, decreed that all French administrative documents must be in the French language. This ordinance made French an official language — a turning point for the country.
As France became a world leader throughout the next few centuries, people throughout the world began to learn French. French was becoming a lingua franca — a language that goes beyond the boundaries of its community of speakers and becomes a language for communication between groups not sharing a common tongue.
By the 17th century, French was known as the language of diplomacy and international relations throughout the world.”
The Rise of English
The growing popularity of the English language in recent times means that French may no longer have the “language of diplomacy” designation that it used to.
Political officials and French nationalists have fought to keep French as the international language of diplomacy, but many argue that English has taken over that role.
Despite the popularity of English, the French language still continues to play an integral part in international relations.
Institutions like the United Nations still use French regularly, and the French language is the official language of many countries and still appears on passports throughout the world.
Though French may not technically be the language of diplomacy any longer, the effects of its wide use over several centuries are still seen in many places today.
Despite the decline of French as the singular diplomatic language, I am already encountering opportunities in my field of study to apply my [limited] French-English bilingualism.
About two weeks ago, my Tunisian Professor of the Middle East, a political history course, explained why French was indeed the language of diplomacy for centuries.
To my surprise, he said French arose as a transnational language due to its efficiency for it was most concise and accurate. Alas, I could not find a source for this explanation but I can believe it.
He studied literature and international law in France and England before teaching for many years in the Government International Affairs Department at USF. As a Tunisian, he speaks Arabic, French and English.
After his explanation of French as the language of diplomacy he relaid a rather relevant instance that reflects the importance of language in law and overall.
This was in regard to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 of November, 1967, which followed the [Israeli] Six Day War.
There is much debate over the simple semantic-based differences between the English translation of this originally French-written resolution. It is a grammatical omission of what may seem to be merely an article, yet [literally] may mean much more;
Professor Rostow continues and describes:
“Five-and-a-half months of vehement public diplomacy in 1967 made it perfectly clear what the missing definite article in Resolution 242 means.
Ingeniously drafted resolutions calling for withdrawals from ‘all’ the territories were defeated in the Security Council and the General Assembly.
Speaker after speaker made it explicit that Israel was not to be forced back to the ‘fragile’ and ‘vulnerable’ Armistice Demarcation Lines [‘Green Line’], but should retire once peace was made to what Resolution 242 called ‘secure and recognized’ boundaries …”5
Lord Caradon, then the United Kingdom Ambassador to the UN and the key drafter of the resolution, said several years later:
“We knew that the boundaries of ’67 were not drawn as permanent frontiers; they were a cease-fire line of a couple decades earlier.
We did not say the ’67 boundaries must be forever.”
Referring to Resolution 242, Lord Caradon added:
“The essential phrase which is not sufficiently recognized is that withdrawal should take place to secure and recognized boundaries, and these words were very carefully chosen: they have to be secure and they have to be recognized.
They will not be secure unless they are recognized.
And that is why one has to work for agreement. This is essential. I would defend absolutely what we did.
It was not for us to lay down exactly where the border should be. I know the 1967 border very well.
It is not a satisfactory border, it is where troops had to stop in 1947, just where they happened to be that night, that is not a permanent boundary … “6
In a 1974 statement he said:
“It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of 4 June
… That’s why we didn’t demand that the Israelis return to them and I think we were right not to.”7
It is true, as Arab leaders correctly note, that certain suggested drafts of
Resolution 242 exist that contain that tiny controversial “the” in reference to territories.
Arab leaders say this proves that Israel must withdraw from all territories captured in 1967.
However, those versions of the resolution are in French.
Under international law, English-language versions are followed and accepted as the conclusive reference point, and French versions are not.
Arthur J. Goldberg,8 the U.S. Ambassador to the UN in 1967 and a key draftee of
Resolution 242, stated:
“The notable omissions in language used to refer to withdrawal are the words the, all, and the June 5, 1967 lines.
I refer to the English text of the resolution. The French and Soviet texts differ from the English in this respect, but the English text was voted on by the Security Council, and thus it is determinative.
In other words, there is lacking a declaration requiring Israel to withdraw from the (or all the) territories occupied by it on and after June 5, 1967.
Instead, the resolution stipulates withdrawal from occupied territories without defining the extent of withdrawal.
And it can be inferred from the incorporation of the words secure and recognized boundaries that the territorial adjustments to be made by the parties in their peace settlements could encompass less than a complete
withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied territories.”9
My professor’s claim of the linguistic importance regarding Resolution 242 is supported in an abundance of scholarly resources.
It is amazing to apply my French comprehension and understand the distinct difference in the French-English transcription of this resolution.
Before I’ve even begun my international career, my French study benefits me — not only in French III (wish me luck) in a political history course on the Middle East for an upcoming assignment in grammatical regards to this French article included in the 1960’s UN Resolution 242.
Of course, the legacy of the French Language is not only in diplomacy but also great literature, culture and art.
Victor Hugo is of the most renowned French writers and poets although English translations are still difficult to find. Enjoy the few I found;
Viens! ‑ une flûte invisible
Viens! – une flûte invisible
Soupire dans les vergers. –
La chanson la plus paisible
Est la chanson des bergers.
Le vent ride, sous l’yeuse,
Le sombre miroir des eaux. –
La chanson la plus joyeuse
Est la chanson des oiseaux.
Que nul soin ne te tourmente.
Aimons-nous! aimons toujours! –
La chanson la plus charmante
Est la chanson des amours.”
Come! An invisible flute…:
XIII. Viens! – une flûte invisible…
Translation by Geoffrey Barto
Come! An invisible flute
Sighs across the orchards. –
The most peaceful song
Is the song of the shepherds.
The wind ripples, beneath the holly,
The dark mirror of the waters. –
The most joyful song
Is the song of the birds.
May no care torment you.
Let’s love one another! Always let’s love! –
The most charming song
Is the song of lovers.
Copyright Geoffrey Barto, 2003
Another English translation;
My arm squeezed your fragile waist…:
Mon bras pressait ta taille frêle…
Translation by Geoffrey Barto
My arm squeezed your fragile waist,
Supple as a reed;
Your heart was beating like the wings
Of a baby bird.
Long quiet, we contemplated
The sky as the dawn fell away.
What was happening in our souls?
Like an angel revealing itself,
You looked at me, in my night,
With your lovely star-gaze,
Which shone on me.
Copyright Geoffrey Barto, 2003
I so look forward to continuing my discoveries of the French language, culture and history and hope others might enjoy this journal.
I have always loved modern Francophone culture as much as its origins in civil revolution, women’s rights and high society.
For a taste of the language in today’s culture, I checked out some French slam poetry and spoken word spotlighted on YouTube;
Watch for a review of Slam Poetry’s popularity in France;
An awesome French spittin’ poet in NYC;
As a writer, poet, diplomatic student with hopes to live abroad (particularly — in a French speaking country), I love that there is infinite information available about this most beautiful language.
I will be posting here, several times a month, with little things my finger told me about the language of French and its many dimensions.
My journal assignment for class requires weekly entries with 10 bits of new French information throughout the semester.
From this first post, I anticipate that I will discover much, much more and I look forward to it!
Check back very soon for my post on French affairs in the Middle East and domestic Islamic populations as well as the global range of French speaking Muslims.
I will relay resources in regards to;
> The French commitment to the coalition against ISIS
> The influx of Europeans [particularly, French girls] to join in Jihad
> The National Front of France in regards to Nationalism and suggested Islamophobia.
Sidenote: Several the above topics that I’ve been heavily researching for the next journal entry happened to be featured in Section A of the New York Times today — if you just can’t wait. 😉
Thanks for reading…
Feel free to leave any comments, questions or Francophone suggestions for me!