Verbified nouns: Engaging with cultural cliché[é?]s through language study

Posted by Emma C. on 1/20/17 4:13 PM



A Confounding Caption

While meandering through a shopping mall last week, waiting for my husband to emerge from the battlefield that is the men’s dressing room, I stumbled upon a most curiously named store. To avoid incurring undue amounts of commercial ire and for the sheer purpose of explaining the flurry of ensuing reflections, let’s simply say that the store was called Beautéé. The French-inclined portion of my brain immediately seized upon this title. Granted, part of the store’s name is a cognate that most English speakers would grasp without too much prodding or hinting. On a purely visual level, Beautéé is indeed very close to beauty – and therefore in the eye of the beholder after all! The central cluster of letters b-e-a-u that is common to both words provides a strong foothold for our divining minds to clamber between one conclusion and the next.

However, what truly caught my eye was the ending of the word, for something here was gravely amiss. The successive alignment of two accented “é” letters, tacked on to the core word struck me as very odd. And this small detail is something that might not jump out to all passerby gazes. Namely, the word that is phonetically implied by the store title “Beautéé” is actually beauté, a noun. All this when in fact, according to French grammatical rules, it’s ending of “éé” would imply a verb form, a past participle. The title then, stands at a precarious crossroads between a noun and verb, at a dubious and murky space of collision that is true to neither grammatical element. This especially, since adding an extra “é” to the noun beauté “beautifies” it no more than adding an extra “-ed” suffix to a verb form in English. (Except in rare cases, a past participle in adjectival form would end in “-é” if agreeing with a masculine noun, or “ée” if agreeing with a feminine noun; the excessive “éé” in this case, is a fictitious addition that has no meaning whatsoever in French!) An equivalent gaffe in English might be to say “ageded”, or awakeneded”, or walkeded”. Does adding this extra suffix somehow render these verbs more strongly in the past? I think not, especially given that this erroneous past-participle ending is tacked on to what is ostensibly a noun (beauté)! Certainly, a thing can be seat-ed, or refridgerate-[e]d, or even grace-[e]d, but certainly not beauty-ed, in this case!

But…why bother with all this grammatical meticulousness?          

Following the sighting of this title (a curiosity that might throw any member of the Académie française into a fit of convulsions), I stopped to reflect on why a business owner might choose this word. Given the egregious confabulation that it presents to curious French speaking minds, might this “verbified noun” hold any significance? Perhaps the storeowner wishes to imply that his merchandise was doubly beautified, complete with an extra “é” for commercial emphasis. It is more likely, in my opinion, that the storeowner was, with the best of intentions, trying to tap into the essence of the French language and culture (it’s fabled elegance; it’s artistry; it’s refinement) without bothering to consult a dictionary. When blind to the actual grammatical nuances of a language that continue to constitute a major means of communication for millions of people across the world, we tend to return to stereotypes and clichés. (Or, dare I say, “clichéés”?!)

The heart of the matter

In order to combat this tendency which can lead to fallacious (if not humorous) outcomes, even on a small scale, I would urge readers to put more stock in their consideration of the languages that surround them. Being biased by personal experience, I would of course encourage you to learn French as part of this process! However, the exigency of thinking about the words which define our daily lives, which free us or limit our communicative scope in so many contexts merit careful attention, no matter what language we deal in. Interestingly enough, I have found that studying other foreign languages has instilled a deeper respect and curiosity for my native language, English. When one devotes concentrated effort and time to learning how to construct a coherent sentence in any other language (even if that language is not as closely related as French is to English), a certain appreciation for complexity and difference is cultivated in one’s mind. In fact, I have found that encountering stark differences within other languages forces me to step back and establish a point of comparison with what I do know, and thereby begin to value and reflect further upon linguistic usages and syntactic forms that I had otherwise taken for granted. After over a decade of studying French at an intensive level, I can confidently affirm that my writing in English has improved. This is notably because of the caution and attention I have developed in my approach to French, which then applies itself subtly to the words I string together in my mother tongue; like a filter applied to the way we see and write the world, the attentiveness and care which one is forced to employ in other languages can seep back into English. Beyond avoiding stepping on any grammatical toes with regard to the use of proper French, I would argue that knowing another language well helps us in turn to master our own native language, and thus to better know ourselves. Instead of falling back on perceived stereotypes in the hopes of evoking some cultural fantasma, zeitgeist, or ambiance, I would encourage us all to slow down and consider the complexity of the languages that bind us all to the varied details of life, spanning from the humdrum quotidian, to ideologies and paradigms, and to one another. Cambridge Coaching offers a unique experience to build upon and develop these language skills, and I for one would be enchantée (and NOT “enchantéé”!) to join you on that journey.

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Interested in reading more on the long and sometimes bumpy road to learning a language?  Read some of our previous blog posts below:

The Benefits of Studying Another Language

The ESL Tutor: Mastering the Perfect Tense

The Language Tutor: Doubt Not the Dictionary


Tags: language learning, ESL