Monday, April 18, 2011

Très étrange

I was startled to discover that French has no single word for seventy (or eighty or ninety). WHY? Seriously, why? It seems really strange, and I'm also surprised that I've gotten through this many years of life without having picked up on that fact. Counting is usually an early lesson (as it was here), but I guess both my childhood French enrichment class and my middle school French class only taught me the numbers as far as... well, I think eleven. (I knew fourteen and fifteen for French-king / art history reasons, though not, oddly, sixteen.)

The part of my mind that eagerly seizes on anything easy to do or think about wants to go off on tangents, like hypotheses about how having no word for seventy/eighty/ninety might affect concepts of numbers in people who speak French as a first language...

I haven't been so surprised since I discovered (sitting in a lanchonette in Sao Paulo, reading the daily specials for the week) that Portuguese has no words for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday. (They number those days--Monday is "second day" or "segunda-feira", and so on.) Why, when French and Spanish and Italian all have basically the same words for those days? Wouldn't you think the words would have migrated from Spain to Portugal, or vice versa?

How strange Portuguese-speakers must find it when they learn that English has words for those days that have no relationship to number placement.

(I remember being very, very young and deciding that "Tuesday" must be called that because it is the second day, twos-day; but logically, then, Thursday ought to come next, thirds-day, though Friday made a certain kind of sense, five-day.)

I wonder what other surprises French will have for me. During one summer in Italy I had an friend who was bilingual in English and French (American ex-pat family), with Spanish as a third language. He was irritated, and at first disbelieving, about the words "pomodoro", "cibo", and "birra" in Italian, which, he said, did not make any sense.

Je sais comment il se sentait.

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