My relationship with grammar
I love grammar. I hate grammar. My relationship with grammar is like my love-hate relationship with Lagos. I love it - the people, the vibrancy - yet I hate the noise; I hate the fact that everyone wants you to share in their smells, their sweats and their spits. For grammar, I like it because of the formulas, its rules, just like mathematics which I still struggle with. Yet I hate the fact that these rules can be very restrictive. I cannot play around with them. Not much creativity around rules.
Generally, language is just some arbitrary god. You cannot really question its rules, not for the English language nor for Yoruba nor French. Grammar is one of its executors, one of its messengers. And we the speakers or learners are merely stooges, obedient servants to the gods of language.
Studying French as an adult makes me understand this relationship better. I love the reading bit, trying to imagine what each word sounds like, forming it out in my head and on my tongue simultaneously. It’s a small victory for a helpless stooge. Since the speakers of languages are nothing but playthings in the hands of the gods, I am glad for my reading victory.
It’s important to know that every noun, pronoun and adjective in French has a gender. Places. Things. Ideas. People. Names. Countries. They are all either masculine or feminine. Nothing in between. No homosexual or heterosexual. Many times, it does not matter who is speaking or what is being addressed. For instance, I wonder who or what determines that some countries should be masculine or feminine: the smoothness or roughness of the pronunciation on a French tongue? Whether it’s smooth like okro with pounded yam or has to be washed down with water like eba with watery egusi stuck to the walls of the throat? Many countries with names ending in ‘e’ are feminine, like France and Chine (that’s China). And of course, Nigeria is masculine. It’s the preceding article that tells you which is which. Many times, you just have to memorise. There are no fast rules to spot these things. Mexique (Mexico) is an exception: ends with ‘e’ yet is a masculine country. Some words have a masculine and feminine version. For instance, a masculine actor is un acteur while the feminine is une actrice, very similar to the English ‘actor and actress’ but with the gender indicative articles.
La conjugaison, a major part of grammar or one of the big god’s lesser messengers, was not my friend. We never saw eye to eye. I like to see it as a man has to be studied, to be ‘crammed’ - you either know it or not. First, I had to get a conjugation book. I refused to get Becherelles, the one written entirely in French, so I settled for the Collins equivalent on grammar that had English translations and verb tables behind. This became my companion to understanding this unyielding man.
Conjugation seeks to find out what verb goes with what noun, why the adjective takes on a plural form if the noun is plural. The French are some pluralisation junkies. For instance, they would say, “Les romans sont tres interressants,” which translates to “The novels are very interesting.” In Yoruba, the same phrase would read: awon iwe itan na dun. Unlike English and Yoruba speakers, the French pluralise everything: the verb and the adjective.
Conjugation also deals with what kind of verb goes with the ‘persons’: je, tu, il/elle/on, nous, vous and ils/ells. They have different endings depending on what verb is used. I will not bore you with each of them. They have strict rules that accompany them, everywhere you see them. And anytime, there is an exception, just know that the big G - grammar - is trying to show you he is still in charge.
This is a brief on the gods that I had to bow to, to pour tiny drops of oil at their altars in obeisance everyday towards my goal of speaking French the French way. Someday soon, we should talk about some exceptions and some stronghead heterosexual words. We should also talk about the way I make the gods less bossy and a bit friendly.