Uphill of a magnet

4 February 2014 by Alex Brown, posted in overseas science, speaking science

French flag

French: mostly, don't speak it.

On not speaking French

A lot of spoken French goes without saying. I don't mean that speaking it is easy or évident; I'm referring to the many silent letters in French words, especially in endings. It can be very challenging for someone learning French to know which letters to pronounce, and which to leave out. Even learning French "from English" (which also has many silent letters  - "through", anyone?), as opposed to "from German" (where almost everything is pronounced) can be a challenge, because the rules of what to leave unsaid are different.

I was helping a friend at work with some French pronunciation today, when she came across ils aiment, or "they [masculine] like[/love]". She tried to say "ɛ.mɑ̃", to rhyme with aimant, instead of just "ɛm", to rhyme with aime (note the ever-silent-and-not-even-magic -e) or "em". Note that the final -t was still silent in this case, so I guess she was half-right, in a still-completely-wrong kind of way.

Anyway, I pointed out her mistake and in so doing was reminded of the words aimant, amant and amont.

Clearly, part of this TGV of thought was prompted by how similar the words are, but I can't help but suspect that this being just outside the window might have had something to do with it:

Magnet & mountains at CERN

Magnet & mountains at CERN

A language tornado

After playing with the idea for a little while, we came up with the following tongue-twister:

J'aime abondamment l'ame de mon amant tant aimé, abandonné en amont de mon aimant .

I'll break it down for you:

  • J'aime: I like or love
  • abondamment: abundantly
  • l'ame de: the soul of
  • mon amant: my lover
  • tant aimé: much loved
  • abandonné: abandoned or discarded
  • en amont de: uphill relative to (can also figuratively mean "upstream of" or "prior to" in a series or process)
  • mon aimant: my magnet.

I remember thinking as a child that the root of the word aimant was the verb aimer (to like/love), on the basis that magnets stick very tightly together like lovers (amants). In fact, it comes from the Latin adamas, which means "very strong iron" (see also the adjective adamant and the fictional element adamantium) and is in turn derived from the Greek ἀδάμας (adámas) which is also the root of the word diamond (diamant).

Diamond in a ring

A diamond. Linguistics would have you believe it's the same thing as a magnet, or something. Credit: wikipedia user "CrucifiedChrist"

So, the literal translation of my tongue twister is "I abundantly love my much-loved lover's soul, he who was abandoned uphill of my magnet." I'm sure you'll agree that it's less elegant in English. But then literal translations often are. In addition, moving or removing the comma would change the meaning as well (because that it would be the "I" that was abandoned, not the lover".

(*Actually, it's ambiguous as to whether it is the lover or his soul which is much loved, but the difference is negligible to a humanist like me.)

As it happens, this sentence has a certain poetic realism (yes, that's a thing now), because at CERN we do indeed deal with the odd magnet here and there and there are lots of hills (nay, mountains!) nearby.

So that was a fun distraction from the subtleties of trying to explain the different meanings of the word aimer. Just don't get me started.

Other bits and pieces which came up in the same conversation:

  • Les pions ("the particles"), not to be confused with les pions ("the pawns"). "Pi-ons", not "pions".
  • A salad spinner is a "particle acceleriator".
  • Is it "Carl Sah-GAHN" or "Carl SAY-gun"?

Over to you:

  • Can you say my tongue-twister ten times fast?
  • What is your favourite tongue-twister from your language? What does it mean?
  • Are there any particularly science-y tongue-twisters?
  • Have you made any of your own tongue-twisters?
  • How do you pronounce "Sagan"?

6 Responses to “Uphill of a magnet”

  1. Martin Reply | Permalink

    I've always pronounced it Say-Gahn actually, and never even thought of the possibility of it being pronounced another way.
    Norwegian tongue twister: "Ibsens ripsbusker og andre buskevekster" -> "Ibsens (Ibsen is the last name of a famous norwegian author) redcurrant bushes and other bushgrowths". You will basically end up saying Ibsens redcurrant bushes and other trouser purses, or something along those lines. (Busker = bushes, bukser = trousers, vekster = growths, vesker = purses) The main problem with this tongue twister though, is that every time I try to explain what it means in english, I fail on the prounounciation of bushgrowths.

  2. phanmo Reply | Permalink

    Regarding the first paragraph, my last name ends in an "s", which, being an English name, is pronounced. I've gotten into the habit of telling people that it's the "s" in pastis, not the "s" in Paris.

  3. Hussy Reply | Permalink

    My favourite foreign tongue twister has to be this one. It's the tones that make it an absolute sod to get through without losing at least a few brain cells in the process.
    Sì shì sì. (4 is 4)
    Shí shì shí. (10 is 10)
    Shísì shì shísì. (14 is 14)
    Sìshí shì sìshí. (40 is 40).

  4. Clara Reply | Permalink

    While trying to describe myself in French class yesterday, I kept telling everyone I was Russian (russe/rousse). I've since tried practicing it again with a French speaking friend, but I just can't make the 'oou' sound correctly.

    Also, I've always pronounced it SAY-ghan. But my accent is closer to the (UK) North than the South.

  5. Hugo Reply | Permalink

    Say-gun/Sah-gun seems to be a southern hemisphere thing. Like dah-ta (think everyone from SA, Oz or New Zealand. Only Brits I know that might say it this way are from either way out west or up Norwich way and then it's pretty muted) and day-ta.

  6. ecstatist Reply | Permalink

    Pagan Sagan?
    Red lorry, yellow lorry......repeat aloud 4 times

    (A lorry is a "british" truck.)

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