This week’s French lesson was inspired by two interviews I heard recently in French of two well-known English-speaking writers. The first was a Canadian author whose name I shall graciously omit. It was a rather dull affair, and I could feel the frustration in the person’s voice as he plodded through some shaky verb forms and simple vocabulary.
The other interview was with the American author Douglas Kennedy who speaks excellent French that he learned as an adult. If you look up the name in Youtube, you will see many videos of him speaking French.
Mr Kennedy did a much better job because he had obviously put a lot of effort and dedication into it. In his case, I should point out that he has a huge following in France, an apartment in Paris and was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French government in 2007.
In both cases I have to give the authors credit for making the effort to learn French and use it, even if it was a bit tedious for one of them. Of course, we all know that no author would pass up an opportunity for self-promotion. And if you can reach out to audiences in other languages, it can be worth the effort.
These examples illustrate once again the basic truth that many readers here already know. The ability to speak another language well, French or any other, is always an advantage. I know that the road can be long and very often frustrating. I know that most people give up along the way. But the prize is valuable precisely because so few people get there.
I’ve said it many times,and I’ll say it again: I’ve never met anybody who regrets learning to speak French, but I’ve met many people who wish they had paid more attention during French classes.
Why “The Moment” in English is “Cet instant-là” in French
Now for the French lesson of the week. The title of Douglas Kennedy’s latest novel is The Moment in English and Cet instant-là in French. But why not Le moment? Why The Moment became Cet instant-là and not Le moment is an interesting lesson in how both languages work.
First of all, and despite its appearance, the French noun “un moment” does not translate as “a moment.” In English, a moment is a short period of time. One says for example:
I’ll be with you in a moment.
One moment, please. (on the telephone)
In French on the other hand, un moment is a relatively long period of time, more like “a while.” One would say:
Il est parti depuis un moment. (He left some time ago.)
Il faudra attendre un moment. (You’ll have to wait a while)
Ça fait un petit moment qu’on ne s’est pas vus. (It’s been a while since we’ve seen each other.)
What then is the equivalent of a moment in French? You probably guessed it: it’s “un instant.” So, our examples above would become in French:
Je serai à vous dans un instant.
Un instant, s’il vous plait. (One could also say on the telephone: Ne quittez pas.)
This explains how The Moment became Cet instant. Now for the là that was tacked on to Cet instant.
Why the là in Cet instant-là?
If you’ve listened to the real-life examples in this blog, you will have certainly noticed how speakers sometimes add this little particle to nouns that nearly always have the article or determinant ce, cet, cette or ces in front. These determiners means this, that, these and those. You will hear things like:
Je ne voulais plus cet argent-là. (I no longer wanted that money.)
À cette époque-là, j’allais à l’école. (At that time, I was going to school.)
Comment réagir dans ces cas-là ? (How should one react in these cases?)
Cette nervosité-là, elle est compréhensible. (That nervousness is understandable.)
This là doesn’t seem to do much; if you read the examples above without the là, you probably wouldn’t see much of a difference. In reality, it simply emphasizes the distance in space or in time between the speaker and the event or thing named by the noun. In other words, the role of là is basically to reinforce the determiners ce, cet, cette and ces.
Why did the translator of The Moment tag on the là in Cet instant-là? Without having read the novel, I would guess that the moment or event being referred to is somewhat far or remote in time and very special.
I should also add that this word là has many other uses that are quite different from what we have just discussed. I’ll soon devote an entire post to the many uses of là.
Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician and language coach in French, English and Spanish. He likes to share his passion for languages and believes that anybody can learn to speak a foreign language well with the right methods and tools. He has also invented a cool visual learning tool called the Language Wall Chart Calendar that is based on his own learning experience. Reach him at email@example.com.