Tuesday, July 17, 2007

French road sign

I wonder how foreign drivers in France react when they see this sign:

Accotement meuble. What on earth might that mean? To obtain a satisfactory translation, I think you would need a good and rather big French/English dictionary... unless, of course, your automobile guide book provides you immediately with the meaning. The noun accotement is a technical term, used by road builders, that designates the earth and gravel "shoulder" between the macadam and the adjoining land. But it's an unusual term. In French, if a driver wanted to say, for example, that he parked his vehicle on the edge of the road, it is rather unlikely that he would use the term accotement. Normally he would speak of the bord de la route: literally, the edge of the road.

Beginners in French will recognize the common noun meuble, meaning "furniture". For example, a furnished flat, in French, is an appartement meublé. So, is the road sign telling drivers to watch out for discarded furniture on the roadside? No, meuble is also an adjective meaning "moving", in the sense of "unstable". That explains why meuble is used for "furniture", that's to say, the mobile part of your residence, as distinct from an immeuble, which is the immobile building in which a residence is located.

So, this complicated road sign is simply warning drivers that the edge of the road was probably laid down recently, and hasn't had time to settle down yet. That's to say, it's unstable. If drivers were to park there, their vehicle might sink down into the earth and get bogged.

Instead of expecting foreign drivers to carry a dictionary with them, I think it would be more reasonable to invent some kind of a graphic sign. Here's a suggestion:

It could surely be improved by specialists, but I think it's already more easy to understand than the expression accotement meuble.

It's interesting, I think, to compare the two approaches from a sociological viewpoint. The verbal road sign is in fact very French, in an intellectual way. The roadbuilders are talking to the motorist as if he were an old fellow-student of their civil engineering school, and explaining the current situation in technical language: "You have to understand, my dear friend, that we've only recently laid down this macadam, and reinforced the shoulders of the embankments on either side. You'll appreciate therefore that the earth and gravel mix we've used as fill is not yet totally stabilized." My graphic approach is more down-to-earth, in a pragmatic New World style, and I don't seek to explain anything whatsoever: "If you don't want to get hurt, get your arse out of here." To be perfectly honest, I adore that old-fashioned expression: Accotement meuble.

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