French keyboards

Is France’s unloved AZERTY keyboard heading for the scrapheap?

1. I was taught that capital letters in French don’t have to be accented. I assume from reading this article that this “rule” stemmed from the fact that French typewriters have been unable to do accented capitals. But given that this situation has existed for so long (many decades, despite the article’s expressed “growing disuse of accented capitals” – in fact, accented capitals seem to be becoming more common again, in response to a combination of autocorrect and peevology), people are used to it, it’s become convenient and it creates no barrier to understanding, the calls for accented capitals on keyboards seems rather backward-looking, puristic and unwilling to accept change. Even worse is the laughable lament at the absence of ligatures on the keyboard. It’s a shame that the article doesn’t canvass any opinions on these matters from members of the public.

2. It hadn’t occurred to me that is the only use of u-grave in the language. I guess it’s used to avoid “confusion” with ou meaning or, but there are plenty of homonyms in French so it’s not clear why this one requires such an over-the-top “solution”. I’d just get rid of the distinguishing accent.

More on French gender trouble

Recently I was surprised by the shock some people were professing that French people might have some problems getting the gender of nouns right. The other day I found a copy of Mauger’s “Grammaire pratique du français d’aujourd’hui” (Hachette, Paris, 1968) and the noun chapter includes an interesting section “Cas particuliers”, which I reproduce here. Section 26 is “nouns whose gender varies according to number”; 27 “nouns whose gender varies according to sense”; 28 “nouns whose gender the French don’t always agree on.”

para 26a
para 26bpara 27apara 27bpara 27c
para 28

An obvious point is that most of this latter group start with a vowel. I turned to Google to see whether any agreement has been reached, with results as follows:

après-midi: un 927k, une 435k; cet 1.75M, cette 488k.


automne: un 109k, une 1160; cet 721k, cette 20.7k; dernier 207k, dernière 623.

Overwhelmingly masculine.

effluves: grands 21*, grandes 33*; doux 65*; douces 89*.


interview: un 130k, une 1.53M, cet 52.6k, cette 290k.

Rather feminine, by analogy with entrevue.

entrecôte: un 115*, une 796*. (French pages only)

Feminine. “Quel adepte des normes orthographiques oserait défendre aujourd’hui de manger “un entrecote” ?”

orge: un 317*, une 236*. (French sites); mondé 464*, mondée 223*; blanc 78*, blanche 187*.

Confusion reigns, among the layperson** at least.

palabres: longs 288*, longues 365*


steppe: le 1390/253*, la 77,100/852*. (French sites)

Largely or overwhelmingly feminine, depending on which stat you favour, but there are still plenty of masculists out there.

Unsurprisingly, people make mistakes with even the most obvious genders. “le table”, for example, turns up on 870 French-language webpages and 467 .fr pages.

*Starred returns have been stripped. For example, if you use Google to search French-language pages for “le table” it announces that there are 37,700 matches. But if you click through the pages you find that there are in fact only 870 unique hits. I call this ghit-stripping.

 **Although I spotted this error right away, I decided to leave it in. That makes 6 examples on the Web. 🙂

“French speakers make mistakes” shock

Here’s an edited version of the introduction to Heidi Harley’s latest LL post:

“Last week Dalila Ayoun gave a talk in which she dropped a bombshell: native French speakers don’t know the genders of French nouns! Ok, that’s not quite right. It would be more appropriate to say that native French speakers don’t agree on the genders of French nouns. They really don’t agree. Fifty-six native French speakers, asked to assign the gender of 93 masculine words, uniformly agreed on only 17 of them. Asked to assign the gender of 50 feminine words, they uniformly agreed only 1 of them. Some of the words had been anecdotally identified as tricky cases, but others were plain old common nouns. Like nearly everyone in the field, and with good reason, she had assumed that native speakers behave fairly uniformly with respect to the grammar of their native language.” (my emphasis)

Language Hat is also “astonished”. Hmm. Here I am, a humble teacher of French, and I get a whiff of sensationalism. A French linguist who didn’t know that French people find gender difficult sometimes? Surely some examples are well-known, and the evidence is rather more than “anecdotal”. Indeed, here’s one recent thread that identifies and quantifies several examples: Mots dont le genre pose un problème.

If Ms Ayoun’s ignorance is genuine, maybe this ostrich effect can be put down to the prescriptivism of the French language. Gens is the only word I can think of where my dictionary allows both m and f. In German the difficulties and disagreements are more apparent. Nothing is inhibiting the fluidity of gender, case, etc. and dictionaries give many examples of words with more than one gender.

“To her great surprise, Ayoun found a great deal of disagreement among her native-speaker controls! There is always a normatively ‘correct’ answer — French dictionaries and textbooks all agree on what the genders of nouns are, and how gender agreement in sentences should turn out.  Native speakers would be expected to perform close to ceiling on this grammatical task, as on others. But, surprisingly, they don’t.”

Well, Laurent Camus suggests that “Il existe toutefois des noms qui peuvent être employés au féminin comme au masculin, certains d’entre eux ne changeant alors pas de sens (par exemple : un oasis, une oasis).”

“According to Ayoun, the last study in which anyone systematically tested native speakers’ deployment of grammatical gender in French was Tucker et al. (1977).”

Another unlikely story. Although it would confirm my ostrich theory, I really don’t believe that no-one has investigated French gender usage in the last thirty years.

Here are the Google hitcounts for six of the words in Ayoun’s study:
crypte (crypt)  une 846  un 255  3.3:1
sentinelle (sentry)  une 855  un 290  2.9:1
alcove (alcove)   une 384  un 190  2.0:1
primeur (first)    une 804  un 444  1.8:1
equivoque (ambiguity)  une 874  un 515  1.7:1
oasis (oasis)  une 817  un 861  0.9:1

The numbers are raw, but even if the bad hits were weeded out the evidence would still be strong that native speakers have gender trouble. “Oasis” has switched gender despite the best efforts of the prescriptivists, so which dictionary will be brave enough to print “oasis nf ou nm“? And it’s not as if some of these difficulties can’t be predicted. First of all, a lot of gender learning comes through use in context. Therefore it’s more difficult to learn the gender of words that start with a vowel (eg. alcove, oasis) where the word for “the” is the same for both genders. Also, you’re more likely to be fuzzy about rarer nouns (eg. alcove, superbe) and (if you’re a teenager) more formal ones (eg. primeur, equivoque). 89% of French nouns ending in -r are masculine, so le primeur isn’t too surprising a mistake. In fact, nouns ending in a consonant are overwhelmingly masculine.

87% of nouns ending in -lle are feminine, but I’m sure that at least 87% of sentries are male, so saying “un sentinelle” is natural. The fact that it’s wrong was being discussed and debated 170 years ago, according to Google Books. Idole has some historical masculinity. Molière has “un idole d’époux”. Superbe is surely masculine when it means “superb”, and that has bled into the dictionary word that means brilliance or vanity.

Circulez. Il n’y a rien à voir.