Bienvenue à Burlington!

church street

Last week’s blog was inspired by an enlightening encounter during a trip to Burlington, Vermont, on the shores of Lake Champlain. This wasn’t the first time that Burlington has provided the backdrop for the scenarios presented on our blog – we’ve written about the lively Bosnian community in the city and its environs as well as the bilingual French heritage of the Green Mountain State.

The French-speaking ancestors of many Northern Vermonters immigrated to the area at a time when Quebec was a poor province and the factories of New England offered the prospect of steady work. The tables have slowly turned and Vermonters are now used to seeing Québécois as relatively wealthy tourists on par with the New Yorkers and Bostonians who seem to have been vacationing in the region since the Republic of Vermont became the 14th of the United States.

I was particularly struck by this change as I strolled down Burlington’s charming downtown marketplace, Church Street. Many of the restaurants, cafés and boutiques lining the pedestrian street make it clear that they happily welcome the new foreign clientele with a little blue sticker which reads “Bienvenue Québécois.”

The simple blue stickers are a small change to Church Street’s quaint aesthetic, but they represent a big change to its mentality. Issued in 2011, the Bienvenue stickers were joined in 2013 by over 700 bilingual signs on parking meters, courtesy of the Alliance Française of the Lake Champlain Region, adding to a concerted effort to capitalize on Vermont’s proximity to Canada’s French-speaking province. After all, tourists come from New York and Boston, which are 300 and 215 miles away, respectively; why shouldn’t they come from Montreal, which is at a relatively short distance of 95 miles?

The fact the signs are written directly in French means that store and restaurant personnel on Church Street are ready to welcome not only the Northern tourists, but their language as well. In order to help the downtown merchants with this task, the Alliance Francaise offers them affordable French language courses under the auspices of a program called “Bilingual Burlington.”

Curious to know how much salespeople and waiters actually use French with customers, I stopped in to Jess Boutique to ask a few questions. General Manager Erin Brennan explains:

“I believe I am the only one who speaks any French in the store right now. I took about 6 years of French in high school and at Concordia University when I was living in Montreal. My conversational skills are basic, but I have used them some with customers in the store. I find it’s mostly helpful in understanding what people are saying and less helpful when I am trying to converse. I tend to get a bit nervous and forget my vocab and verb conjugation skills! Most Quebecois tourists speak both English and French, or have someone with them who does.”

As a foreign language teacher, I know that when someone has studied a language for several years but gets nervous when she has to speak, what she needs is a little practice! After my quick visit to Burlington, it seems to me that Erin is in a great position to get just that – Church Street has opened its arms to its northern neighbors and has created an environment where their language is well-received. I heard echoes of French all around town, and over time I wouldn’t be surprised to see Church Street merchants acquire more confidence in their language skills. I’m looking forward to hearing a few more bienvenue‘s the next time I come to visit!

Gender in the Romance Languages

man and woman gender

Last week we saw how Ernest Hemingway addressed the interpretative possibilities of linguistic gender in his seminal novel The Old Man and the Sea. As Hemingway showed, identifying the gender of nouns is not always a straightforward task in Spanish, and the same can be said for the other Romance languages as well.

In most Romance languages the masculine or feminine gender of a noun may be denoted by the article which precedes it, be it the definite article (“the sea” may be el mar or la mar) or the indefinite article (“a cat” may be un gato or una gata). In Romanian the definite article is added at the end of the word, so while “a man” is un om and “a woman” is o femeie, “the man” is omul, and “the woman” is femeia. Considering that Romanian also has a neuter gender, it should be clear that its grammar is remarkably different from that of its Western cousins. We’ll limit today’s discussion to Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian.

A further distinction can be made between Spanish, Portuguese and Italian on the one hand and French on the other. Gender is often reflected in the ending of the noun, as shown in the example of the cat (el gato, la gata). Spanish, Italian and Portuguese frequently use -o for masculine nouns and -a for feminine nouns; however there are many exceptions to this paradigm. Nouns of Greek origin which end in -ma or -ta are masculine; so system is el sistema in Spanish and planet is o planeta in Portuguese. Some other Greek nouns ending in -a are masculine as well. It is often confusing to visitors to Italy to find men named Andrea, Luca, and Nicola; however, these names derive from the historical Greek names Ανδρεας (Andreas), Λουκάς (Loukas), and Νικολαος (Nikolaos). “The hand” is feminine in all three languages (la mano in Spanish and Italian and a mão in Portuguese) and many other Portuguese words which end in -ão are feminine, such as a nação (the nation).

It is therefore impossible to establish the gender of a noun using a simple -o vs. -a criterion, especially considering that there are many nouns which end in consonants or in other vowels: -e can indicate a masculine noun such as il cuore (heart) or a feminine one such la decisione (decision) in Italian. “Crisis” – another word of Greek origin – is feminine across the board despite the fact that it ends with a different letter in each of the three languages: a crise in Portuguse, la crisi in Italian, and la crisis in Spanish.

“The crisis” is la crise In French, falling into the typical French paradigm wherein masculine nouns end in a consonant while feminine nouns end in -e. Thus a male cat is le chat while a female one is la chatte; however exceptions – such as la mer and l’homme – abound.

Gender, therefore, is a fundamental characteristic of a noun which may or may not be deducible from the noun’s ending; it is more properly understood through an etymological study of a word’s origin. As shown, the gender of nouns in Greek has often dictated their gender in the modern Romance languages; Latin has had an even greater influence. The nouns “hand” and “nation” are feminine in all of the Romance languages because the Latin nouns manus and natio are feminine.

Language is much more than a cold study of letters on a paper; it is an organic complex which has resulted from millennia of culture and history. The Old Man and the Sea shows us how gender opens up expressive possibilities. The brief review of nouns that we’ve gone through today should show how the student of a modern language can benefit from learning about the history behind the language he or she is studying.

Napoleon: The Foreigner

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821). Engraved by D.J.Pound and publis

Last week we looked at the little-discussed fact that Christopher Columbus was a successful navigator as much of foreign languages as of the uncharted expanses of the Atlantic. Today we’re going to take a look at a man who tackled the difficulties of a second language on his way to commanding one of the most important nations in the world and conquering half of Europe.

To his fellow Corsicans, Napoleon Bonaparte would have been known as Napolione Buonaparte. Though the name would later be francized, its “foreign” origin could never be completely concealed. When Napoleon was born on the island in 1769, it had been under French dominion for only a few short months. In the Treaty of Versailles of 1768, the Republic of Genoa had ceded the rights to the island to the Kingdom of France, but it was only in May of the following year that the French made good on their newly acquired rights by forcibly taking control of the island. This put an end to the Repubblica Corsa which since 1755 had been acting as a sovereign nation in defiance of its Genoese lords. This short-lived democracy was perhaps the first state formed under Enlightenment principles, emanating a modern constitution decades before the American and French revolutions. The language of this constitution? Italian.

Italian was considered the language of culture by Corsicans, and in fact the language that they spoke at that time and to a lesser extent still speak today is a dialect of Italian closely related to the Tuscan dialect. The Buonaparte family descended from Tuscan nobility, and like most other educated Corsicans Napoleon spoke both Corsican and Italian, the latter of which continued to be the official language of the island until it was banned in 1869 by none other than his nephew Napoleon III.

The fact that it was the son of a Corsican (just like his brother, the father of Napoleon’s heir was born in the Corsican capital of Ajaccio) to ban the use of Italian on the island demonstrates the complexity of the relationship which Corsicans had with language and the role it played in their position as French subjects. We know that Napoleon himself spoke with a heavy Corsican accent and had difficulties writing in French, and thus, Emperor or not, was probably perpetually considered a “foreigner.”

The French emperor was a foreigner in his own land as well; although during the French Revolution he had returned to his island home to combat alongside the Corsican nationalists (who were fighting neither for the French monarchy nor for the democracy which was to replace it, but rather for their own sovereignty), his return to the French Army later pitted him directly against another Corsican revolt. Nor was any love lost for Napoleon on foreign shores; English propaganda depicted the Emperor as being unusually short despite the fact that he stood at 5’6″, slightly taller than the average French man at the time, who came in at just under 5’5″. This propaganda has been effective over time; we still attribute the unusually aggressive behavior of men and women of short stature to the so-called Napoleonic complex.

No matter how tall he may have been, Napoleon was certainly graced with a strong, belligerent character which carried him far beyond the coasts of his remote island home. Along with any small-town complacency which he may have had growing up, Napoleon left both the Corsican and Italian languages behind in his quest for power. It is highly probable that he vigorously pursued fluency in the French language in the same way as he did all of his political and military goals, and even if he did speak with a thick accent it would be hard to argue that he didn’t achieve the basic goal of effective communication in his acquired language.