Sur le pont d’Avignon

Posted on 29. Jan, 2015 by in Culture, History

Image courtesy of Europe Up Close

Image courtesy of Europe Up Close

Sur le pont d’Avignon, on y danse, on y danse, sur le pont d’Avignon, on y danse tous en rond. ♪ Even before I started learning French in high school, I’d heard this song when I was younger because my mom would sing it to me and my sister. Just like Frère Jacques and Alouette, it’s a pretty common song for children in the US, even if you have no idea what you’re singing. But the song about dancing on Avignon’s bridge has an interesting background. Read below to learn the legend of Saint Bénézet and his role in the construction of this landmark, how the famous song came to be, and how French scientists have recently “rebuilt” the bridge (well, in 3D).

Avignon is a southern French city located in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region. Just outside the city’s famous walls is the Rhone River, and on the other side of it is the city of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. A bridge was built between 1177 and 1185 to connect these two cities. Malheureusement, ce pont a été détruit 40 ans après pendant la Croisade des Albigeois (Unfortunately, this bridge was destroyed 40 years later during the Albigensian Crusade). The bridge was later rebuilt, this time with 22 arches. Avignon is prone to being flooded; even just a few months ago, the streets were completely covered in water. These floods now are less catastrophic than before, and this is thanks to le barrage de retenue (dam) that was put into place in the 19th century. Before this, because of the flooding, many of the bridge’s arches would collapse into the Rhone. Instead of investing more money and time (or just building a dam), the bridge’s reconstruction was abandoned. Of the original 22 arches, only 4 are left standing today. The “bridge” appears to be more a pier than anything.

In 1177, un jeune berger (a young shepherd) made his way down the mountains from a city in the Ardèche department some 150km (93 miles) away from Avignon. Claiming to have heard la voix de Dieu (God’s voice) — although some versions say Jesus instead, he was instructed to go to Avignon to have its citizens build a bridge. «Bénézet, prend ta houlette et descends jusqu’en Avignon, la capitale du bord de l’eau. Tu parleras aux habitants et leur dirais qu’il faut construire un pont» (Bénézet, take your rod and go down to Avignon, the capital of the waterfront. You will speak to the people and tell them they have to build a bridge.). Bénézet obeyed and made his trip to Avignon. His request to the bishop was, of course, met with ridicule and laughter. Why would God speak to you to tell us to build a bridge of all things? In fact, the bishop was so angry, he was tempted to have Bénézet’s hands cut off for telling such a blasphemous lie. To prove his word, il fallait se mettre au défi (he had to be put to the test) by the bishops to throw an enormous rock into the river. It wasn’t just any rock. No, it was a rock so heavy that not even three dozen strong men could make it budge. With incredible strength, he hoisted the huge boulder on his shoulder and tossed it into the river. Il a été aidé par une intervention divine , on dit (They say he was helped by a divine intervention). Now thoroughly convinced, construction could begin. The boulder he threw was used as support for the first arch. Bénézet was given 300 pieces of silver by the bishop to start the project, and les Avignonnais (the citizens of Avignon) were happy to help!

After Bénézet’s death, he was interred in the bridge’s chapel. That’s right – the bridge has its own chapel called The Saint Nicolas Chapel. Once the bridge was abandoned in 1670, Saint Bénézet’s relics were moved from the chapel to the Hôpital du Pont, which is found inside the city walls and next to the gatehouse.

So there’s the story of the bridge, but where does the song come from? Its earliest form was written by a man named Pierre Certon and dates back to the 16th century. His version sounds nothing like the version we know now, and was actually used as part of a mass! Check out a snippet below. The version we know today is thanks to a mid-19th century composer named Adolphe Adam, who is perhaps best known for composing le Cantique de Noël. He included the music in his 1853 operetta Le sourd, ou l’auberge pleine. It wasn’t until 1876 when the song became internationally known through another operetta that changed the title from Sous le pont d’Avignon to Sur le pont d’Avignon. I’m not sure why they changed the preposition, but its original name was a better fit. The bridge was built for donkeys and horses to cross, so it wasn’t wide enough to danser tous en rond as the song would like us to imagine. The bridge originally passed over parts of what is now called L’île de la Barthelasse (Barthelasse Island). Under some of the arches were cafés and picnics, and people would enjoy themselves there and dance. So there was indeed dancing, but it was sous (under) and not sur (on) the bridge!

YouTube Preview Image
The original composition by Certon

YouTube Preview Image
The song as we know it today

In November of 2014, «D’une rive à l’autre, un pont entre réel et virtuel, entre mythe et réalité» (From  one side to the other, a bridge between real and virtual, between myth and reality”), a video showing what the bridge would have looked like in its entirety from one side to the other in a spring day in 1550 before it was destroyed, was released. This project required a lot of time and effort. For 4 years, 4 separate laboratories researched, drilled, and even took ultra sounds – and it only cost 2.4 million euros. Very interesting video to watch.

YouTube Preview Image

French Television: Le Petit Journal

Posted on 28. Jan, 2015 by in Culture, News

Photo by Daniel Horacio Agostini on Flickr

Photo by Daniel Horacio Agostini on Flickr

When learning a new language, finding entertainment that’s similar to what you like in your native language can be a big motivation booster. I am a big fan of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, so when I found Le Petit Journal, I was happy to have found what is more or less une version française d’une des mes émissions préférées (a French version of one of my favourite shows).

Les deux émissions partagent souvent des convictions politiques et le sens de l’humour (the two shows often share poltical views and sense of humor), making l’émission française (the French show) a fun way to stay up to date on what’s happening in France. The host, Yann Barthès, keeps things going with his commentaires drôles (witty commentary) filling the show with jokes and a light hearted playfulness, but also leaving room to get serious for tough issues and interesting interviews.

En général, if you’re a fan of The Daily Show, you’ll enjoy Le Petit Journal. After watching just a few episodes you’ll surprise your French friends with your knowledge of French politics and French pop culture. The humor of Le Petit Journal is not for everyone. It is often enfantin et immature (childish and immature) and can borderline on antagonistic mocking. Cependant (however), it’s all in good fun and everyone laughs.

Test your French and see if you like the show yourself! Jettez un coup d’oeil à (take a look at) a fun segment on Beyonce’s album that came out in 2013:

YouTube Preview Image

An Introduction to the Subjunctive

Posted on 26. Jan, 2015 by in Grammar

From Michael

From Michael at


Just the mention of the subjonctif can make French learners tremble in their boots.  However, this grammatical mood is very common and exists in many languages, including in English.  In French, the subjonctif is used very often and serious French learners need to be familiar with it (although there are grammatical ways of getting around using the subjunctive, which will be the topic of a subsequent blog post).

In all languages, the subjunctive mood expresses anything that is not an assertion (called the indicative mood) but, rather, a doubt, wish, possibility, or judgment.  While it is not as common in English, it does exist; for example, in the phrase: “I suggest that you be careful.”  Here you can see how the subjunctive mood is normally found in the subordinate clause of the sentence, which comes after “that”.  Without the subjunctive, the verb be would be are, such as in “you are careful”.  However, the subjunctive here is necessary because it is expressing a suggestion rather than an assertion.

Another example in English is “I wish that she were here right now”.  Here, the were is in the subjunctive mood; otherwise, the grammatically correct verb form would be was as in: “she was here”. The subjunctive must be used in this sentence because it expresses a wish.

The French subjunctive works in a similar way.  Whenever doubt or possibility is expressed, le subjonctif is required.  Due to the construction of the French language, this occurs a lot.  However, there is a silver lining to the difficult French subjunctive: You can recognize it ninety percent of the time because it will nearly always follow a que, as explained in the last post.  You can see that English works in a similar manner: In the examples above, “I suggest that” and “I wish that” trigger the use of the subjunctive mood.

It’s also important to note that le subjonctif is NOT a tense, but a mood.  This means that the tense does not always need to be specifically defined in the clause that uses the subjunctive.  The present-tense subjunctive form expresses both present and future tenses, and the past-tense subjunctive form is used more rarely.

Here are some more rules for the use of the French subjunctive:

  • The sentence must contain a main clause and a subordinate clause in order to use the subjunctive
  • There must be two different subjects in a sentence that uses the subjunctive.  For example, “I” is the first subject in both examples above, while “you” and “she” are the second subjects.
  • The clauses must be joined by que or, in very special circumstances, qui.
  • And, finally, as stated above, the sentence must communicate a want, wish, need, desire, doubt, emotion, possibility, or denial.

Phew, that’s a lot.  But, before going into the details of the French subjunctive, I want to make sure that you know when and why it is used.  Recognizing when it should be used is the hardest part of using the subjunctive.  But, as you’ll see next week, the French subjonctif is especially difficult because the subjunctive verb forms are so very different from the regular indicative verb forms.

Please leave any questions you have in the comments and I’ll help to clarify before we move onto specific examples using le subjonctif next week.