For everybody around the world who struggles to speak French correctly, by which they tend to mean “accurately”, hope is out there. And no, I am not selling a piece of code that magically helps you jump through the hoops, twists, turns, quirks and exceptions of French.
What I have found out, upon my return to la belle France, is how much French people struggle with their own language. Many a time have I witnessed French people starting a sentence, pausing in the middle, and rephrasing it all over again in order to follow grammar rules, sometimes thinking aloud, as if to share their workings out.
The agreement of the past participle in the passé composé (La vaisselle, je l’ai mis… mise… non mis… à tremper. “The dishes, I have put them to soak”) is a known bête noire of both French learners abroad and French school children. So if you get it wrong, well… you are no better than a native!
But it isn’t just grammar. Oh no. A simple word can make people stumble. Take “covid”, for example. Is it le covid or la covid? When the word first arose to French people’s consciousness, some time in January or February 2020, it “felt” masculine, so everyone said le covid.
It is difficult to explain a feeling, especially a collective one. Perhaps the word reminded people of le Cid, the famous play by Corneille, a sacred monster of French literary Pantheon. It also looks like le caïd (slang for “street bully”. The word is Arabic in origin). It rhymes with other masculine nouns in -ide like liquide, bolide, homicide and féminicide (the latter one being prominent in the news recently, as French society grapples with violence against women). I can’t think of any feminine noun in -ide, let alone -id.
Anyway, French society got on with fighting covid, without wondering further about its gender. This was without counting on the Académie Française. If you don’t know, the Académie Française is a bunch of old white men (ok, and a few old women too these days. I have even heard of some of them) wearing swords (why not), who claim to know the absolute truth about how the French language should be spoken. By all. Everywhere. And forever.
In their wisdom (dans leur grande sagesse), the Académiciens ruled, in May 2020, that it should be la covid. And in their kindness, they deigned explain the thinking behind their decision. To be fair, it is completely rigourous. Covid stands for “coronavirus disease”. Acronyms take the gender of the main word. If it is a translated acronym, it takes the gender of the translation in French of the main word. Hence le FBI (le bureau) and la CIA (l’agence, feminine). The word for “disease” in French is la maladie. Hence it should be la covid.
That’s us told. Except language is not something that can be ruled by decree. It develops organically, as each generation meets the challenges of its age, as teenagers want to speak differently from their parents, as poets write, as technology advances, as fashions come and go. L’usage fait loi, us linguists say. Usage rules. That’s the beauty and wonder of language.
Anyway, since the Académie‘s ruling, journalists and governement officials use la covid -at least in public- and almost everyone else use le covid. You can even find a map of usage here. If we didn’t argue enough about how far is far enough, the government’s spin, the wearing of face masks, the neighbour inviting a friend around, the inhumanity of social distancing, whether bookshops are essential businesses, the risks of the vaccine, how early is too early for a curfew, the slow vaccine roll-out etc… then we could argue about the gender of “covid”.
To you, long-suffering learners of French across the world, here is my message: don’t worry about making mistakes in French. We natives get it wrong all the time.