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Full text of "The Loom Of Language"

392                The Loom of Language
statement, or when we could alter the English sentence to was or were
+ the -ing form of the verb, e g. :
(a)  Quandf avais vingt ansjefumais quarante cigarettes par jour
At twenty years of age I smoked (=used to smoke) forty cigarettes a
(b)  Ellefaisait la cuisine quandje suis arrwt.
She was cooking when I arrived
The second of the two statements could also be given the form Elle
etait en tram defaue la cuisine,, etc This is useful to know because by
resorting to etre en tram de (be in the act of, be busy with) you can get
round the imperfect form of the verb
Another tense form, the past definite or preterite^ has completely dis-
appeared from conversational French, and is now the hall-mark of the
literary language It means that the event in question took place once
for all at a certain time, and as such corresponds to the simple past of
spoken and written English, and to the compound past of spoken French
(e g il se rapprocha for il s'est rapproche = he came nearer).
In literature it is the tense of sustained narration, hence also called
thQpast historic The first impression of the beginner who reads a French
narrative is that alternating use of perfect and imperfect is quite capri-
cious In reality this is not so When two actions or processes are going
on at one and the same time, the perfect expresses the pivotal one
For what is descriptive, explanatory, or incidental to the main theme,
the imperfect replaces it A passage from Le Crime de Sylvestre
Bonnard by Anatole France illustrates this rule, which applies to all
the Romance languages.
J'approchai (past historic) du foyer man fauteuil et ma table volante
(I pulled my easy-chair and little table up to the fireside), et je pn$ (past
historic) an feu la place qu'Hamilcar deignait (imperfect) me laisser (and
occupied so much of my place by the fire as Hamilcar condescended to
allow me) Hamilcar^ a la tete des chenets> syr un coussin de plume, etait
(imperfect) couche en rond, le nez entre se* pattes (Hamilcar was )ymg in
front of the andirons, curled up on a feather-cushion, with his nose
between his paws) Un souffle egal soulevait (imperfect) safourrure epaisse
et legere (his thick, fine fur rose and fell with his regular breath). A mon
approchey il coula (past historic) doucement ses prunelles d? agate entre ses
paupieres mi-closes qifil referma (past historic) presque aussitdt en songeant
"Ce rfest nen, c'est mon maltre ** (At my approach his agate eyes glanced
at me from between his half-opened lids, which he closed almost at
once, thinking to himself "It is nothing, it is only my master")
The elimination of the past definite from everyday speech is confined
to French In Spanish, Portuguese, and to a lesser degree, in Italian