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As a native speaker of American English, I am confused by "prendre dans" in Madame Bovary, ed. Conard, 1921, page 4:

s'essuyant le front avec son mouchoir qu'il venait de prendre dans sa toque.

Thorpe 2011 translation page 5:

wiping his forehead with a handkerchief that he had just drawn from beneath his headpiece:

Davis 2010 translation page 5:

wiping his forehead with the handkerchief he had just taken from inside his toque.

Does "dans" often mean "from inside"? Or is this a peculiarity to Flaubert or to the Norman dialect?

I thought that "dans" meant either where something is or whither something is going. And Dictionnaire Littré seems to support this. Among the six definitions given by Littré, none means "out of," as far as I can tell. ("Out of": Latin "ex," German "aus.")

For "take out of," I would have expected something more like

s'essuyant le front avec son mouchoir qu'il venait de prendre de sa toque

s'essuyant le front avec son mouchoir qu'il portait dans sa toque

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    Certainly not special to Flaubert, Je prends mon mouchoir dans ma poche pour m'essuyer les yeux... is something I'd say without thinking about it. Apparently not the only one, just found online: je prends mon porte monnaie dans ma poche, je sors un billet de cinquante euros....
    – None
    Nov 11, 2023 at 19:03
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    But I must admit that out of any context I would understand je prends mon téléphone dans ma poche as meaning "I take (put) my phone in my pocket"
    – None
    Nov 11, 2023 at 19:24
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    qu'il venait de prendre de sa toque is IMHO less "congenial" than dans. It's not clear why a toque would have something like a pocket to put a handkerchief in - it doesn't seem to be a garment with pockets (?). With dans sa toque, one can imagine he carries it inside his toque, directly on his head. If the garment had an obvious pocket prendre de would work as well as prendre dans.
    – Frank
    Nov 11, 2023 at 21:15

3 Answers 3

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Does "dans" often mean "from inside"?

It doesn't, neither from Flaubert or any dialect. Dans just means that the handkerchief was located inside the toque. There is no need to specify a direction. Prendre means 'take' but the fact he wipes his forehead makes clear it was "from" the toque and not "to" it.

You are right that je l'ai pris dans ma xxx can be ambiguous without context.

Prendre de sa toque adds the direction but is much less idiomatic.

Avec son mouchoir qu'il portait dans sa toque would be technically correct but emphasizes too much on the possession. We'd rather say avec le (or un) mouchoir qu'il portait dans sa toque but porter is still dubious here.

This happens inside of a classroom so the toque was unlikely on the head of the teacher1 but simply upside down on his desk. That makes the handkerchief location less surprising2 and Thorpe translation questionable.

1 Men were wearing hats when they were outside but always take them off when entering any building. Keeping them would have been very impolite.

2 Teacher's toques never had pockets and putting your handkerchief behind your toque or any hat for that matter would have been ridiculous in that context.

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If I can hazard a guess, it's English's bias towards specificity in preposition choice that prompted your question. It's also what makes it somewhat irrelevant.

In French,

  1. You don't always need to pick a preposition that denotes movement or direction when your verb already does it. A simple preposition of place like dans is good enough in a lot of cases.
  2. More generally, the preposition <> verb correlation is weaker. Their relationship is much looser than in English and we don't have phrasal verbs (whether "to take from" is a phrasal verb is another question).

In the extract, prendre and dans combine to form the simple action that everyone can imagine. Nothing specific to Flaubert or Normandy here. It's often going to be the case in French and you shouldn't overthink it too much.

Edit: The underlying reason seems to be that English is satellite-framed as opposed to verb framed.

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  • This is such an interesting observation and new to me even as a relatively advanced speaker. The only way for me to reconcile the obvious English translation is to think of prendre as having the sense to take (from). I don't think I've ever come across that sense before in all my reading. But on reflection, I see that I have no intuitive problem with the opposite to take (to), as in someone's example of the ambiguous « Je l'ai pris dans ma chambre », because that ambiguity exists with take in English too. ("Where did you take your medicine?" — "I took it on the boat.")
    – Luke Sawczak
    Nov 13, 2023 at 14:27
  • Thanks. The ambiguous cases are marginal anyway IMO. And I would be very surprised if disambiguation was an important factor in how a language shapes - I mean, there are whole memes about ambiguous French homophones :D Nov 13, 2023 at 16:54
  • @guillaume31, I too find this difference in prepositional precision fascinating. Do you happen to know any sources that discuss or explore it? Nov 13, 2023 at 21:20
  • @PaulTanenbaum It was an empirical observation. But I found this cairn.info/revue-langue-francaise-2013-3-page-109.htm (5.1.2) and this fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cadrage_verbal_ou_satellitaire Nov 14, 2023 at 8:42
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The tournure "prendre dans" is definitely ordinary, here meaning "from the inside" or "out of". It's the normal way of saying it, and as a native speaker, I even had trouble understanding where the problem was.

I guess the confusion comes more from "prendre". If you say "je prends un café dans le train" dans designates the place where the action takes place, whereas "je prends une pièce dans ma poche" is where the object comes from and is taken out of.

But if you say "je l'ai pris dans ma chambre" it's not clear whether you were in the room or if you took something from the room.

This is not specific to dans, if "je prends une pièce sur la table", I'm not on the table, the coin was.

"Prendre dans" can also mean "to put into", but it is also depending from the context.

"Prendre dans le tiroir" is definitely out of the drawer, while "prendre dans mon sac" can mean taking something with you in your bag.

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    English isn’t all that different. At least in imperatives, English does the same thing. If you’re headed to the library, please return the book on the table for me is a (conditional) request that the person addressed return the book that is on the table. It’s just that in English we don’t do that as often for past tense. He returned the book on the table isn’t exactly “bad” English, but I think native speakers would more likely render it with a complement like the book that was on the table. Nov 13, 2023 at 21:17
  • @PaulTanenbaum In fact, when we construct a similar example using the OP's quote, we might compare "He took the handkerchief [that was] in his hat" vs. "The handkerchief that he took [that was] in his hat" — in the first the elided matter is clearly implied, but in the second the elided matter hardly suggests itself, even when it would make sense of the sentence! I'm guessing that the French syntax supports the latter elision better, and this leads to the confusion among the Francophones as to why we Anglophones think "take" needs any directional component.
    – Luke Sawczak
    Nov 14, 2023 at 12:32

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