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The intriguing French history of the essay

By Sahara Wilson   |   Bordeaux, France

All of us have had to write some form of essay at some point in our lives and I’m sure, faced with the task, few have been particularly enthusiastic.

It is surprising then that, at its birth, the essay was far from the strictly academic form now synonymous with the word. En fait, it has its roots in the Renaissance writings of a rather eccentric French courtier.

An early definition of the word shows just how dramatically the essay has changed since the period of Enlightenment:

Essay: A loose sally of the mind; an irregular undigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition. (Dictionary of the English Language, 1755, Samuel Johnson)

With this in mind, how then did the essay begin its life as such a “sally of the mind” to become the structured composition it is today? On va essayer d’expliquer…

Origins of the essayin French history

In 16th century France, Michel de Montaigne retired from court life at the ripe old age of 38. He wanted to live out his days doing what he loved best – writing. At his family residence, Château de Montaigne near Bordeaux, he had built a specific tower for this, which he named his ‘citadel’. It was somewhere he could spend his days writing to his heart’s content.

On the ceiling beams of the citadel he engraved famous quotes in Latin and ancient Greek as well as this now famous inscription:

“In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, his birthday, Michel de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned virgins, where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life, now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat; and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquillity, and leisure.”

Missing the company of his dear friend, the poet Étienne de La Boétie who died in 1563, de Montaigne wrote as he used to talk to de La Boétie – not in any particularly logical order but the way in which a conversation would flow. He called these writings essaisderiving from the French word essayer, to try – making this word one of the many that English has adopted from French.

This name was fitting, he believed, as his essais were an attempt for him to make his character and flaws understandable to the family and friends he would one day leave behind. From the essais, “they [his family] may recover here some features of my habits and temperament, and by this means keep the knowledge they have had of me more complete and alive”.

“… his essais were an attempt for him to make his character and flaws understandable to the family and friends he would one day leave behind.”

Posing the famous question of  “Que sçay-je?” (Middle French for  “Qui suis-je?”) or “Who am I?”, de Montaigne introduced a whole new method of writing: a way of exploring a topic in written composition. His collected essays with titles such as ‘Of Drunkenness’ are far from today’s academic form, and are more closely related to what we consider to be ‘literary essays’ – the kind of reflective, autobiographical piece often published in literary journals or magazines like the New Yorker. However, in all its forms, the fundamental idea of the essay remains the same: an in depth exploration of a topic or theme.

So, the next time you hear someone complaining about writing an essay, whether it be your child, your friends, your students, or your own woes, you know who to blame.

And if you happen to be in Bordeaux…

The original citadel of de Montaigne was extensively damaged in fires in 1885, but you can still visit this château today as it was completely restored in 1855. Just under 60km from Bordeaux, the château makes a lovely day trip with its extensive gardens and the interesting history behind the de Montaigne family.

Did you know about Michel de Montaigne before reading this article? Have you visited his family château? Please share your thoughts below or tweet me!

Image credits:
1. Michel de Montaigne via Wikipedia.
2. Michel de Montaigne’s citadel via Wikipedia.
3. Engraving in the citadel via Wikipedia.
4. Chateau de Montaigne via Wikipedia .
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About the Correspondent

Sahara Wilson

I have just returned from living in Paris and love to indulge in all things French even when in my hometown of Melbourne. I am an aspiring writer, poet and earring-maker extraordinaire, as well a student at university. I hope to be a lifelong learner, taking my readers with me as we discover worldly delights! Tweet me @DesertDeWilson or find me on  Google+.




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When it comes to expressing your thoughts in French, there’s nothing better than the essay.

It is, after all, the favorite form of such famed French thinkers as Montaigne, Chateaubriand, Houellebecq and Simone de Beauvoir.

But writing an essay in French is not the same as those typical 5-paragraph essays you’ve probably written in English.

In fact, there’s a whole other logic that has to be used to ensure that your essay meets French format standards and structure. It’s not merely writing your ideas in another language.

And that’s because the French use Cartesian logic, developed by René Descartes, which requires a writer to begin with what is known and then lead the reader through to the logical conclusion: a paragraph that contains the thesis.

Sound intriguing? The French essay will soon have no secrets from you!

We’ve outlined the four most common types of essays in French, ranked from easiest to most difficult, to help you get to know this concept better. Even if you’re not headed to a French high school or university, it’s still pretty interesting to learn about another culture’s basic essay!
 

 

Must-have French Phrases for Writing Essays

Before we get to the four types of essays, here are a few French phrases that will be especially helpful as you delve into essay-writing in French:

Introductory phrases, which help you present new ideas.

  • tout d’abord– firstly
  • premièrement– firstly

Connecting phrases, which help you connect ideas and sections.

  • et – and
  • de plus – in addition
  • également – also
  • ensuite – next
  • deuxièmement– secondly
  • or – so
  • ainsi que – as well as
  • lorsque– when, while

Contrasting phrases, which help you juxtapose two ideas.

  • en revanche– on the other hand
  • pourtant – however
  • néanmoins– meanwhile, however

Concluding phrases, which help you to introduce your conclusion.

  • enfin– finally
  • finalement– finally
  • pour conclure – to conclude
  • en conclusion – in conclusion

4 Types of French Essays and How to Write Them

1. Text Summary (Synthèse de texte)

The text summary or synthèse de texte is one of the easiest French writing exercises to get a handle on. It essentially involves reading a text and then summarizing it in an established number of words, while repeating no phrases that are in the original text. No analysis is called for.

synthèse de texte should follow the same format as the text that is being synthesized. The arguments should be presented in the same way, and no major element of the original text should be left out of the synthèse.

Here is a great guide to writing a successful synthèse de texte, written for French speakers.

The text summary is a great exercise for exploring the following French language elements:

  • Synonyms, as you will need to find other words to describe what is said in the original text.
  • Nominalization, which involves turning verbs into nouns and generally cuts down on word count.
  • Vocabulary, as the knowledge of more exact terms will allow you to avoid periphrases and cut down on word count.

While beginners may wish to work with only one text, advanced learners can synthesize as many as three texts in one text summary. The concours exam for entry into the École Supérieure de Commerce de Paris calls for a 300-word synthesis of three texts, ranging from 750 to 1500 words, with a tolerance of more or less 10 percent.

Since a text summary is simple in its essence, it’s a great writing exercise that can accompany you through your entire learning process.

2. Text Commentary (Commentaire de texte)

A text commentary or commentaire de texteis the first writing exercise where the student is asked to present analysis of the materials at hand, not just a summary.

That said, a commentaire de texte is not a reaction piece. It involves a very delicate balance of summary and opinion, the latter of which must be presented as impersonally as possible. This can be done either by using the third person (on) or the general first person plural (nous). The singular first person (je) should never be used in a commentaire de texte.

A commentaire de texte should be written in three parts:

  • An introduction, where the text is presented.
  • An argument, where the text is analyzed.
  • A conclusion, where the analysis is summarized and elevated.

Here is a handy guide to writing a successful commentaire de texte, written for French speakers.

Unlike with the synthesis, you will not be able to address all elements of a text in a commentary. You should not summarize the text in a commentary, at least not for the sake of summarizing. Every element of the text that you speak about in your commentary must be analyzed.

To successfully analyze a text, you will need to brush up on your figurative language. Here are some great resources to get you started:

  • This guide, intended for high school students preparing for the BAC—the exam all French high school students take, which they’re required to pass to go to university—is great for learning how to integrate figurative language into your commentaries.

3. Dialectic Dissertation (Thèse, Antithèse, Synthèse)

The French answer to the 5-paragraph essay is known as the dissertationLike the American 5-paragraph essay, it has an introduction, body paragraphs and a conclusion. The stream of logic, however, is distinct.

There are actually two kinds of dissertation, each of which has its own rules.

The first form of dissertation is the dialectic dissertation, better known as thèse, antithèse, synthèse. In this form, there are actually only two body paragraphs. After the introduction, a thesis is posited. Following the thesis, its opposite, the antithesis, is explored (and hopefully, debunked). The final paragraph, what we know as the conclusion, is the synthesis, which addresses the strengths of the thesis, the strengths and weaknesses of the antithesis, and concludes with the reasons why the original thesis is correct.

For example, imagine that the question was, “Are computers useful to the development of the human brain?” You could begin with a section showing the ways in which computers are useful for the progression of our common intelligence—doing long calculations, creating in-depth models, etc.

Then you would delve into the problems that computers pose to human intelligence, citing examples of the ways in which spelling proficiency has decreased since the invention of spell check, for example. Finally you would synthesize this information and conclude that the “pro” outweighs the “con.”

The key to success with this format is developing an outline before writing. The thesis must be established, with examples, and the antithesis must be supported as well. When all of the information has been organized in the outline, the writing can begin, supported by the tools you have learned from your mastery of the synthesis and commentary.

Here are a few tools to help you get writing:

4. Progressive Dissertation (Plan progressif)

The progressive dissertation is a slightly less common, but no less useful, than the first form.

The progressive form basically consists of examining an idea via multiple points of view—a sort of deepening of the understanding of the notion, starting with a superficial perspective and ending with a deep and profound analysis.

If the dialectic dissertation is like a scale, weighing pros and cons of an idea, the progressive dissertation is like peeling an onion, uncovering more and more layers as you get to the deeper crux of the idea.

Concretely, this means that you will generally follow this layout:

  • A first, elementary exploration of the idea.
  • A second, more philosophical exploration of the idea.
  • A third, more transcendent exploration of the idea.

This format for the dissertation is more commonly used for essays that are written in response to a philosophical question, for example, “What is a person?” or “What is justice?”

Let’s say the question were, “What is war?” In the first part, you would explore dictionary definitions—a basic idea of war, i.e. an armed conflict between two parties, usually nations. You could give examples that back up this definition, and you could narrow down the definition of the subject as much as needed. For example, you might want to make mention that not all conflicts are wars, or you might want to explore whether the “War on Terror” is a war.

In the second part, you would explore a more philosophical look at the topic, using a definition that you provide. You first explain how you plan to analyze the subject, and then you do so. In French, this is known as poser une problématique (establishing a thesis question), and it usually is done by first writing out a question and then exploring it using examples: “Is war a reflection of the base predilection of humans for violence?”

In the third part, you will take a step back and explore this question from a distance, taking the time to construct a natural conclusion and answer for the question.

This form may not be as useful in as many cases as the first type of essay, but it’s a good form to learn, particularly for those interested in philosophy.

Here are a few resources to help you with your progressive dissertation:

As you progress in French and become more and more comfortable with writing, try your hand at each of these types of writing exercises, and even with other forms of the dissertation. You’ll soon be a pro at everything from a synthèse de texte to a dissertation!
 

 

And One More Thing…

Of course, French is a lot more than writing essays.

To cover all your other language bases, there’s always FluentU.

FluentU lets you learn French from real-world content like music videos, commercials, news broadcasts, cartoons and inspiring talks.

Since this video content is stuff that native French speakers actually watch on the regular, you’ll get the opportunity to learn real French—the way it’s spoken in modern life.

One quick look will give you an idea of the diverse content found on FluentU:

Love the thought of learning French with native materials but afraid you won’t understand what’s being said? FluentU brings authentic French videos within reach of any learner. Interactive captions will guide you along the way, so you’ll never miss a word.

Tap on any word to see a definition, in-context usage examples, audio pronunciation, helpful images and more. For example, if you tap on the word “suit,” then this is what appears on your screen:

Don’t stop there, though. Use FluentU’s learn mode to actively practice all the vocabulary in any video with vocabulary lists, flashcards, quizzes and fun activities like “fill in the blank.”

As you continue advancing in your French studies, FluentU keeps track of all the grammar and vocabulary that you’ve been learning. It uses your viewed videos and mastered language lessons to recommend more useful videos and give you a 100% personalized experience. 

Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store.

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