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I learned this from my Maid of Honour Girl long after I needed to conjugate French verbs anymore. But I've always thought it was way nifty and kept wanting to write it down again for archiving. I've had a really tough time finding stuff on the internet.

But I think I got it. Here it is, because it's just so damned cool. =)

Some verbs take être instead of avoir (French) or essere instead of avere (Italian) to form the past tense. Nutty little mnemonics like "Mrs. D. R. Vandertramp" may or may not be effective, but for me, there's really no substitute for understanding the true reasons as to why things are the way they are.

First:

  • The agent of a verb is the person/place/thing/idea that is performing the action that the verb is expressing.

  • The theme of a verb is the person/place/thing/idea that is undergoing change related to the verb. It could be a physical change or some kind of state change.

  • The recipient of a verb is the person/place/thing/idea that is receiving the action that the verb is describing.

These are not the same as the subject, direct/indirect objects and verb complements. Those can be different depending on how you craft your sentence. For example, these two sentences:

      subject     verb     d.object     i.object  
      Mary     gave     the gift     to Bob.  

      subject     verb     i.object     complement  
      The gift     was given     to Bob    by Mary.  

But in both of those examples, the verb is "to give", the agent is "Mary", the theme is "the gift", the recipient is "Bob". No matter how you rephrase it and rearrange the different components, the agent, theme and recipient will always be the same. The syntactic roles are different from the semantic roles. We have the ability to express things any which way.

Now, then:

If the agent, theme and recipient of a verb are either unclear or two of them are the same, then the past tense is formed by using the verb "to be" as the auxiliary plus the past participle.

That's it. That's all there is to it. This is true for French and Italian. I'm betting it's true for many Romance languages.

This is why verbs that express movement are in this category (leaving, coming, going, dying, etc.); the agent and the theme are the same. This is why intransitive and reflexive verbs will always take "to be" to form the past tense.

I'm not sure why this is not formally taught... maybe it was just my luck of the draw with the teachers I had. I would have had an infinitely easier time remembering if I knew WHY those verbs always took être/essere to form the past tenses. It's much harder to forget and harder to get it wrong when you derive it from the original principles like that.


Comments

( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
serennig
Feb. 21st, 2006 04:34 am (UTC)
Strangely....
I am in awe of this. Language is amazing -- how does it evolve along these patterns? Languages are the property of the uneducated first; they are molded most often by the ones least likely to try to impose rules upon them. So how do they end up following rules in the end?

But at the same time, I can't fully appreciate it.

Despite having a genuine interest in the evolution and innate/learned construction of language, I have a mental block when it comes to certain elements in grammar. In particular, indirect/direct objects, subjects, etc. Even the names of tenses. I still don't get it. Despite 2 years of Latin, 1 year of Italian, and a total of 11 formal years in French (if you count french immersion years), and a relatively high degree of formal english grammar education compared to most people, I just don't get it. I can't classify my words beyond "adverb" and "adjective". If, on tests or assignments, I was asked sraight-up to identify the indirect object of a sentence, or to provide the "plus-parfait" conjugation without any guidance as to which tense that was, I would simply resort to guessing. My mental block on this was so complete I was actually failing grade 8 non-immersion french because the curriculum relied so heavily on grammatical structure. That would have been the end of languages for me if my mother hadn't known me well enough to advocate for leniency. Since they couldn't change the way grade 8 french was scored, I stopped taking it, and did grade 10 french instead, which focused more on a "whole" language "comprehension" than working with pieces.

It frustrates me because it prevents me from grasping the full wonder of how a language forms -- how can I marvel at the patterns if I can't see the patterns? And I can't. Neither mnemonics or logical reasonings like you have here seem to register in my brain. It likes to be left to just come up with things by itself. I would have to acquaint myself with the conjugation of new words with the trusty Becherelle but it would not take mnemonics or logic, I would just ... know. Which is great, and all, but annoying for someone who actually wants to know *how* too.
bride
Feb. 21st, 2006 06:44 am (UTC)
Re: Strangely....
Languages are the property of the uneducated first; they are molded most often by the ones least likely to try to impose rules upon them. So how do they end up following rules in the end?

My theory is they needed a way to spread religious teachings. They had to write it down (ie. The Bible). And in order for anyone to understand, there had to be a standardized system. And I'm thinking that religious folks in those days, _would_ have loved to impose rules on anything and everything they could. Some still do =}

it would not take mnemonics or logic, I would just ... know.

And that's the way it _should_ be. =) I know that doesn't test well, but I'm willing to bet native French speakers couldn't explain all the tenses either. They "just know" =)
bokane
Feb. 21st, 2006 04:20 pm (UTC)
Re: Strangely....
(This is partly why Chinese pedagogy sucks so bad: the majority of teachers are native speakers who just know and can't explain...)

One thing that's cool is that if you look at a lot of old religious teachings, they rhyme. Often used as a mnemonic device in pre-literate societies.
bride
Feb. 21st, 2006 04:37 pm (UTC)
Re: Strangely....
Yes. Old Chinese texts are like that too. Original TCM manuals come to mind =) They're written in a way that promotes memorization because literacy rates were near 0.
bokane
Feb. 21st, 2006 04:44 pm (UTC)
Re: Strangely....
Or at 0, depending. The Laozi is largely verse - it's actually a great way of dating things.

I find too that when I try to memorize poems, ones that rhyme go much easier. There's one especially long one about Saint Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland -- lots of it only rhymes in Belfast dialect...

(An' he says 'til the snay-ak,
"Listen, legless: you'd better just tay-ak yerself aff.
If yer thinkin' that thaw-at trick will work wi' Say-ant Paw-atrick
Yeh mus' be nor worser nor daw-aft...)
pne
Feb. 21st, 2006 09:12 am (UTC)
It's funny sometimes to compare with German, which also uses both "to be" and "to have" to form the past, but not in the same cases -- for example, reflexive verbs use "haben" if the base verb does (Er hat die Kleider gewaschen, er hat sich gewaschen), and "to have" and "to be" each use themselves in the past (er hat gehabt, er ist gewesen), whereas French uses "to have" for both of them (il a eu, il a été).
bride
Feb. 21st, 2006 04:10 pm (UTC)
Yeah, there are slight differences in each language... probably attributed to how the culture views certain concepts. "To remember" is reflexive in French - I remember me a thought =)
pne
Feb. 21st, 2006 06:23 pm (UTC)
I remember me of a thought, no? ("Se souvenir de qch.")

In German, it's also reflexive! Though with a different preposition -- to remind oneself onto something ("sich an etwas erinnern"). So it's the reflexive form of the verb "to remind (someone about something) [literally in German, to remind someone onto something]".

Not sure what "remind" is in French, though... is it "souvenir qq. à qch."?
ugly_boy
Feb. 21st, 2006 04:35 pm (UTC)
Interesting, thank you very much for sharing.
bride
Feb. 21st, 2006 04:39 pm (UTC)
No problem =)
compscilin
Feb. 21st, 2006 08:49 pm (UTC)
+1, informative
(...not that I actually read Slashdot any more.)

That makes more sense than any sort of 'knowing which sounds right' method.

I'm trying to remember what adjectives take avoir instead of être in French. The first one that comes to mind is "j'ai faim", which might mean I should eat before hitting LJ. :->

Back in French immersion, I think our teacher might have started docking points when people would say "je suis fini" instead of "j'ai fini" when they finished quizzes. Because, you know, they weren't really dead, as they were inadvertently saying.
bride
Feb. 21st, 2006 10:08 pm (UTC)
Re: +1, informative
+1, informative

Ha! Cool =)
jenny_rambles
Feb. 22nd, 2006 02:21 am (UTC)
I wish I had gone further in learning languages then I did - but it was stuff like that (not that I ever tackled French mind you) that just confused the crap out of me. It took me awhile to catch on that the way you structure something in English isn't the way you do it in Spanish.
If Alex does this Border Patrol he has some kind of 5 month language crash course - I wish it was something I could do too.
(Deleted comment)
bride
Feb. 16th, 2007 04:35 pm (UTC)
Absolutely. Native speakers are sometimes _the_worst_ teachers of their own language that way =) We say things that we just _know_ are right and can't explain why.

This was only something we came across in the Computational Linguistics context. It's only useful if you need an algorithmic representation of the grammar for parsing purposes. But I still think it's one of the niftiest things I've ever known. =)

And it's something that I've internalized in learning languages. Translating back to your native language is useful for the first little while, but after that, you have to learn to purely _feel_ what sounds right.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

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