I don’t think I’ve seen languages interwoven in quite this way; if you know both French and English, it’s a very enjoyable read:

To answer the question I’m always asked [voyons réfléchissons] No I do not feel that there is a space between the two tongues that talk in me [oui peut-être un tout petit espace] On the contrary [plus ou moins si on veut] For me the one and the other seem to overlap [et même coucher ensemble] To want to merge [oui se mettre l’une dans l’autre] To want to come together [jouir ensemble] To want to embrace one another [tendrement] To want to mesh one into the other [n’être qu’une] Or if you prefer [ça m’est égal] They want to spoil and corrupt each other [autant que possible] I do not feel as some other bilingualists have affirmed that one tongue is vertical in me the other horizontal [pas du tout] If anything my tongues seem to be standing or lying always in the same direction [toujours penchées l’une vers l’autre] Sometimes vertically [de haut en bas] Other times horizontally [d’un côté à l’autre] Depending on their moods or their desires [elles sont très passionnées vous savez] Though these two tongues in me occasionally compete with one another in some vague region of my brain [normalement dans la partie supérieure de mon cerveau] More often they play with one another [des jeux très étranges] Especially when I am not looking [quand je dors] I believe that my two tongues love each other [cela ne m’étonnerait pas] And I have on occasion caught them having intercourse behind my back [je les ai vues une fois par hasard] but I cannot tell which is feminine and which is masculine [personnellement on s’en fout] Perhaps they are both androgynous [c’est très possible]

It’s by Raymond Federman, from his Loose Shoes: A Life Story of Sorts, where I also enjoyed Federman, his meditation on his name (“His wife … always tells him that Federman does not mean Penman, that it has nothing to do with la plume and his vocation as a writer, that the name simply came from what his ancestors were doing back in the old country. And what were Federman’s ancestors doing in the old country? his wife explains, plucking chicken feathers in the steppes of Russian or the Ghettos of Poland”). I don’t usually enjoy “experimental” writing, but this I like. (Via wood s lot.)


  1. rootlesscosmo says

    A quick review suggests that while the English text, minus the French parentheses, makes a coherent paragraph (même si un peu empauvrée), the French interpolations, outside the English matrix dans lequel elles sont insérées, don’t.

  2. Crown, A. J.P. says

    @ rootless, that’s the way it generally goes, for some reason, one language dominates. Though the only one in our family who is perfectly bilingual is my daughter, my wife is close behind and we do this kind of thing all the time (not so poetically. but usually with humor somewhere). Once when we were all arguing at the fish counter about tosketunger, eller gravetlaks versus ørret that’s been røykt, the man said ‘How do you understand each other?.’ Actually it’s the easiest thing in the world.

  3. FYI, I’m told there will be a big Federman 80th birthday event/reading/panel/somesuch at SUNY Buffalo in October.

  4. I like Pierre Joris’s ruminations on this question in A Nomad Poetics, which is very pomo but has many redeeming qualities.

  5. Kári Tulinius says

    There’s a lovely song by Manu Chao (who routinely sings in at least 4 languages on his albums) called Le rendez-vous which oscillates between French and English. Very charmant.

  6. marie-lucie says

    rootlesscosmos: a coherent paragraph (même si un peu empauvrée)
    Is empauvré a creation of yours, or a new word that I haven’t run into? appauvri is the standard, but I could see empauvré as a useful neologism with a slightly different meaning.
    (and since paragraphe is masculine, unlike orthographe, the final e is not needed).

  7. rootlesscosmo says

    “Empauvré” was a guess for “impoverished”, and so was the gender of “paragraphe.” Thanks for setting me right.

  8. David Marjanović says

    La matrice dans laquelle…

  9. John Emerson says

    In “Sabsylma” and “Afropea”, the Afro-Belgian a capella group “Zap Mama” sings in at least 8 languages and probably 20 musical and vocal styles, often mixed in one song. It works, too.

  10. I just posted an article on John McWhorter’s Power of Babel. It is at if anyone is interested.

  11. La matrice dans laquelle…
    An interesting one, David. The original is the English matrix dans lequel, which raised an eyebrow for me also. We could read Rootless as making an especially deft point here, since close splicing of two languages is the topic. Exactly where is the transition, in this case? If after matrix, then perhaps matrice does not dictate the gender of what follows. It might be reasonable to default to the epicene for the English-as-French matrix, and therefore (following long tradition) to the masculine form lequel. But then, why elles sont insérées to go with interpolations? Ah well. Perhaps because the written form is identical in both languages, so it is not obligatory to read interpolations as English.

  12. I should have pointed out that matrix, while it does not appear to have currency in earlier standard French, turns up as a masculine import influenced by the film title The Matrix. French Wikipedia tells us that the film’s title is Matrice in France (so cautious), but La Matrice in Québec. Nevertheless Le Matrix is much in evidence, as a Google search shows. Similarly for Italian and Spanish: Il Matrix and El Matrix are to be found, but so is La Matrix in all three languages. Complicated.

  13. I meant:
    Matrix in France…

  14. rootlesscosmo says

    I’m grateful to all for corrections and for learned hypotheses to the effect that my error might have been an intentional subtlety; it wasn’t, I just guessed wrong. As I’ve said before, I love this blog.

  15. …it wasn’t, I just guessed wrong.
    The white-hot irony of this “confession” simply takes the breath away! Analysis falls silent before such virtuosity. Seven? Make that thirteen types of ambiguity.

  16. John Emerson says

    I’m a sick man, a spiteful man…. nothing attractive about me.

  17. marie-lucie says

    I have not seen the movie but it seems to me that the problem with translating the title in France is that the most common translations of the French word la matrice (‘uterus’ and ‘casting mold’) do not seem to have anything to do with the name of the evil organization that is exploiting humans (other meanings I saw in the dictionary seem very specifically technical), so the French (in France) title Matrix which implies the word is a name avoids the problem of those connotations. As to why this name could be perceived as masculine, there are very few feminine names ending in -ix (eg Alix and Béatrix, both very rare) but everyone is familiar with the Astérix series and its pseudo-Gaulois male names most of which end in -rix.

  18. rootlesscosmo says

    I sense obscurely that I’m being patronized here, though maybe the wink-smile emoticon draws the sting; in any event, neither irony nor ambiguity was meant, just a shamefaced admission that I’d relied on guesswork rather than research.

  19. Sorry, Rootless. Just my quirky way, with nothing untoward intended. You did occasion an interesting question about the gender of matrix as it migrates through the languages, and I for one am glad that you did.
    Good to see you among the matriculants here at the LH academy.
    …so the French (in France) title Matrix which implies the word is a name avoids the problem of those connotations.
    Quite so, I’m sure. And these connotations call to mind your observations concerning the French epicene chat, along with its gendered version chatte, here. Not all that far from the original Latinish matrix, come to think of it… But the conversation is become unduly Fallopian, methinks. Let us turn back from that slippery slope.
    As to why this name could be perceived as masculine, there are very few feminine names ending in -ix…
    An acute point. There is, of course, perdrix; but setting aside the many nouns in -[a,o]ix (mostly masculine anyway), it is outnumbered by the likes of crucifix, hélix, phénix, prix, sandix, and tamarix – all masculine to a fault.

  20. Sounds a bit like Ottawa-speak. Federal politicians during press conferences often use this kind of parenthetical code-switching to address two of their “bases.”
    Introducing Dan Dennett at a Cog. Sci. conference, Stevan Harnad used a similar strategy (with in-group jokes in French).
    Montreal bloggerSylvain Carle transposed this in a near way, at a tech-savvy conference: slides in English, talk in French.

  21. marie-lucie says

    As to why this name could be perceived as masculine, there are very few feminine names ending in -ix…
    I meant names (not nouns) were the x is actually pronounced, unlike in the old word perdrix ‘partridge’.
    (Noetica) An acute point. There is, of course, perdrix; but setting aside the many nouns in -[a,o]ix (mostly masculine anyway), it is outnumbered by the likes of crucifix, hélix, phénix, prix, sandix, and tamarix – all masculine to a fault.
    Again, in crucifix and prix ‘price’, both old and common words, the x is not pronounced.
    I was thinking of words where a final -ix does correspond to the pronunciation: these are all borrowings, and the French tendency is to pronounce all the letters in borrowed words. The words you quote are hardly common words: only le phénix is well-known, mostly I think because generations of French children (but not, it seems, the present one) have learned by heart the fable Le Corbeau et le Renard (the raven and the fox) in which the fox says to the raven “si votre ramage est égal à votre plumage, vous êtes le phénix des hôtes de ces bois” (roughly: if your singing voice matches your beautiful feathers, you are the phoenix – a unique personage – among the inhabitants of these woods). As for the other words, I had to look them up (and did not find tamarix), but a French speaker would pronounce the final x, and assume that the words were masculine (especially after reading a lot of Astérix albums).
    Another instance: Most French people pronounce the final -x in the name of the ski station Chamonix, but the local pronunciation is Chamoni – the final written -x is a local tradition which is not in keeping with most of standard French orthography – the example of prix and perdrix is not enough to counteract the general pattern.

  22. Marie-Lucie:
    All fair enough. Petit Robert on tamarix (note the pronunciations):
    tamaris [tamaRis] ou tamarix [tamaRiks] n. m.
    • XIIIe; thamarisque 1213; du bas lat. tamariscus, probablt rac. ar. tamar, comme 1. tamarin 
    Arbuste originaire d’Orient (tamaricacées), à petites feuilles en écailles, à fines fleurs roses en épi, très décoratif, qui croît dans les sables du littoral (appelé parfois aussi tamarin). Allée de tamaris. « tamarix blonds, tamarix verts […] dont les branches flottent et ondulent dans l’air » (Mirbeau). — Tamaris à manne : tamaris d’Afrique qui donne une exsudation sucrée.

  23. John Emerson says

    A shoutout to Eddie Merckx seems in order.

  24. John Emerson says

    Baron Eddie Merckx, who was hated by the French, per Wiki.

  25. marie-lucie says

    Noetica: I should have looked a little longer at tamaris. Faced with your information, I cannot quite remember whether I have heard the word as tamari or tamarin. In any case I know I wouldn’t have thought of the final s being pronounced: both tamarisque and tamarix (an interesting reformation with -ix on an “exotic” word) are new to me. I have seen references to this tree in writings describing the Mediterranean coast but never knew what kind of tree it was. It looks like I should read the Petit Robert more often!

  26. We should all read the Petit Robert more often.

  27. Surprised nobody remarked on the English double-entendre that gets disambiguated by the French. Or maybe we’re supposed to leave it unsaid so that only the in-crowd can get it?

  28. We should all read the Petit Robert more often.
    Except me, of course. I should get out more. 🙂

  29. I suppose that settles my ancient question about the French pronunciation of Unix: [yniks].

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