C’était le meilleur des temps…
say-tail may-yuhr day tah… Click below to hear this.*
It was the best of times…
This is, without a doubt, one of the best ever first lines of a novel. In case you don’t recognize it, it’s the opening line of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The two cities in question, of course, are Paris and London, and the era is that of the French Revolution, in the years surrounding the key date of 1789.
The rest of this opening line is it was the worst of times: in French, c’était le pire des temps. Linked by a comma rather than separated by a period, in this novel the good and the bad are intimately entwined. Nothing is purely one or the other; good emerges from evil, and vice versa.
Meilleur, by the way, is an adjective, and companion to the adverb mieux, which was featured in yesterday’s post. Meilleur corresponds to English good, while mieux corresponds to English well.
But now I’m going to let you in on a secret. Yesterday I lied to you, in a manner of speaking. In strictly correct French grammar, the comparative and superlative of mieux is (le) pis, not le pire, which properly belongs with meilleur. So why did I tell you otherwise? Because everybody does it. Languages change, and one of the ways they change is to level out the irregularities and to simplify vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. That’s what has happened here.
And besides, yesterday’s expression is “fixed”, that is, it stays that way even though it disregards the rule.
*Some mobile phones, such as Blackberries, won’t display the audio player. If no player appears, here’s an alternative link to the audio file: