August 19, 2005

Interprète, L'

Reading through a fairly positive NYT review of the new movie The 40 Year-Old Virgin, I found out that it co-stars Catherine Keener. I had one of those tip-of-the-tongue-type reactions where I recognized the name but was having difficulty matching it with a face, so I IMDB'd -- and found that Keener also co-starred in the recent movie The Interpreter (mentioned at least a couple times here on Language Log). I also found, much to my surprise and amusement, that the convention of putting articles (a, the) at the end of a movie (or book, etc.) title for alphabetizing purposes has a funny result in French (and, I assume, other languages that are like French in relevant respects).

Quick background, for those who may not be (so) familiar: in French, the article corresponding to English the is le (masculine) or la (feminine), both of which lose their vowel (which is replaced orthographically by an apostrophe) when they precede a vowel-initial word: le livre 'the book' but l'homme 'the man' (the initial 'h' of homme is silent); la table 'the table' but l'église 'the church'). (This rule applies in pretty much the same way with several other function words, such as de 'of', je 'I', etc.)

The rule is strictly based on the sound that the immediately following word starts with; for example, 'the big man' is le grand homme or l'homme grand, depending on where you place the consonant-initial adjective. There's no rule for how to pronounce/write one of the relevant function words when it appears phrase-finally -- these words never appear in such contexts under natural circumstances -- but all signs point to the prevocalic form being the special case and the preconsonantal form being the elsewhere, default case.

(Update, added immediately after posting: this may depend on the variety of French you speak, as devoted Language Log readers may know. For at least some Canadian French speakers, for example, a sentence may end in a preposition such as de; some European French speakers, on the other hand, accept stranded prepositions except de and à.)

Except, of course, in the case of this convention of putting articles at the end of a title: the rule, at least orthographically, appears to be to use the form of the article that is used when the convention is not in force: The Interpreter is L'Interprète, so Interpreter, The is Interprète, L'. (Figure, go.)

(Continuation of update: And I doubt that those Canadian French speakers would either pronounce or write d' when the fronted object of the stranded preposition is vowel-initial ...)

(Cross-posted, mutatis mutandis, on phonoloblog.)

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at August 19, 2005 04:40 PM