May 25, 2012 | Review Period

En Route (That’s French!) to My College Reunion!

And I study grammar all the way there.

This weekend is my 25th college reunion. Back in 1987, a quarter of a century ago, I graduated and began a reasonable semblance of adult life.

I felt much better this year than I did 25 years ago. On my graduation day, I regret to say, I was hung over, and it was also a really, really hot day to be wearing black robes and listening to speeches.  

At Harvard Graduation, June 1987 (I Am Second From Left)

At Harvard Graduation, June 1987 (I Am Second From Left)

This day, on the other hand, I was studying French grammar and feeling fine on a comfortable air-conditioned Acela train zipping Brandt and me along from New York City to Boston.

During the journey, my previously mentioned French book on subjunctive, The French Subjunctive Up Close, informed me, “Be aware that, in French, the negative is very often used, more than in English, to confirm the meaning of a statement.” The writer, Annie Heminway, offered up that instead of saying, “Ce jeune athlète est très beau,” one might say, “Ce jeune athlète, il est pas mal!” (With both sentences nonetheless indicating that the speaker thinks a particular young athlete is hot.)

Really? I didn’t even remember that you could throw in a pas without the ne.

And is that also true that the French are more likely than Americans to formulate a positive statement in a negative way? I am not familiar with that notion.

As I studied along, I thought, wow, I was doing French homework just like this a little over 25 years ago. So, little has changed. That might depress some people, but I swear to you, this project has made me feel way younger than I did three years ago. As I have mentioned before, it is like turning back time.

At first, college was a strange time for me and languages. I took a lot of them (German, French, and a dash of Spanish), but it took me until my third year of college to realize that I should be majoring in them and not just dabbling in them. Before I figured that out, I majored in biochemistry, government, and applied mathematics. My transcript is one of the weirdest I’ve ever seen.

Math courses with shameful Cs in them, because my problem sets inspired in me both hopelessness and procrastination, sandwiched between French and German classes with As in them, because I couldn’t wait to do my homework. What the hell I was thinking remains a mystery to me.

As I studied along on the Acela, I wrote in my French grammar book, “My life has changed very little in many ways.” Except that I wrote ∆d for “changed.” I think I started doing that in junior high school math. 

In my notetaking, I also use ∃d for “there were” and ∄d for “there weren’t.” Those kinds of things speed up my (hand)writing life considerably. And I like the link between math language and other types of language, however meager my math existence may have turned out to be.

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