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Think, Believe, Croyez - nhpeacenik
Think, Believe, Croyez
My father taught me French, well ... a little French. He claimed to speak with a "Southwickian accent", because his teacher at Rice Institute had been a Mr. Southwick. Our textbook was the little French lessons scattered around the 22 volumes of the 1919 Book of Knowledge. Looking at these pictures, you will understand that I got a very odd impression of what French life was like. Did all French families have maids? Did they all travel around in horse-drawn carriages? I knew the Amish people we had bought our house from did travel in buggies, so it was possible, but the "old world" seemed very old indeed, to look at these pictures

French  Lesson Part 2

The other night in a dream, I remembered a conversation we had one day, when he pulled out a post card he had just received from a Swiss colleague and asked me to translate it.. At the end of the card was the stylized phrase "Croyez, Monsieur, a l'éxpression de mes sentiments les plus distingués" Of course I couldn't make head or tail of it, so I asked for help. What was the verb at the beginning of the sentence? He told me it was the imperative form of "croire".

- And what does that mean?


- But what does it mean?! 

- It's just a way of being polite; it really doesn't mean anything, but it's something like "Believe me! I really do like you!".

We looked up the word "croire" in the dictionary and found it defined as "believe, think".

I protested that "believe" is not at all the same as "think". I wasn't this articulate as a second-grader, but what I meant to say was "If you believe something, you imply it's somewhat unlikely and not provable, but if you think something, you have evidence for it and it's probably true". I later learned that French has a verb, "penser" that means "think" in the sense of "reason", and that French is capable of making the same distinctions as English, but there are subtle differences in the way the two languages divide the semantic territory. Both languages have the phrase  "I believe in x." and well as the phrase "I believe x.". In English, we might say "I believe there's a man behind the curtain" or "I think there's a man behind the curtain" and denote exactly the same thing while implying two different things. The second sentence implies that you are ready to pull back the curtain and prove you are right, while the first implies that pulling back the curtain might be a sign of doubt and therefore wrong. There is a quasi-religious element of awe in "belief" that is not present in "thought". If you stand up in church and say "I think God exists.", you are likely to be attacked as an unbeliever. If you stand up at a scientific meeting  and say "I believe global warming exists", you may be viewed with suspicion, as a traitor to fact-based methods. I wonder if we can imagine a world where "believe" and "think" really are synonyms in these contexts.

Anyway, more 1919 French lessons:
French Lesson Part 1
French Lesson part 3
French Lesson Part 4

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