September 29, 2005

Paradoxes of the imagination

Jean-Claude Sergeant, a professor of britannic civilization ("professeur de civilisation britannique") at the University of Paris III, recently presented in the pages of the Courrier International his theory that English is a paradoxical language ("L'anglais, langue paradoxale", Sept. 15, 2005).

Prof. Sergeant sums up his idea at the end of the essay:

L'anglais est une langue paradoxale. Assez rigidement structurée sur le plan syntaxique, on pourrait la qualifier de "no nonsense language", c'est-à-dire de langue où l'à-peu-près n'a pas sa place, au risque de voir cette appréciation immédiatement contredite par l'emploi surabondant de reprises anaphoriques – this, that et leurs formes plurielles – et par les multiples possibilités de raffinement lexical que lui permet le jeu des postpositions adverbiales. On approchera un peu mieux encore la vérité de la langue en rappelant que le terme "reasonable" renvoie davantage à ce qui relève du bon sens que de la raison.

English is a paradoxical language. Quite rigidly structured on the syntactic level, we could call it a "no nonsense language", that is to say a language where there is no place for more-or-less, at the risk of seeing this insight immediately contradicted by the overabundant use of anaphoric references -- this, that and their plural forms -- and by the multiple possibilities of lexical refinement permitted by the play of adverbial postpositions. We will come a bit closer to the truth of the language by recalling that the term "reasonable" refers more to common sense than to rationality.

Those Britannics, with their rigid syntax and their excessive anaphora. Truly a nation of linguistic shopkeepers.

Jokes aside , the Courrier's theory checkers seem to have been asleep at their posts as this essay was edited. At least, I can't make sense of the implied logical connections among syntactic rigidity, use of demonstratives, lack of nuance, and rationality. Being an American, however, I'm willing to ignore the theory and focus on checking the facts. Earlier in the article, Sergeant explains in more detail his idea about the inflexibility of English syntax:

Dans sa configuration actuelle, l'anglais courant se caractérise d'abord par un extrême souci de cohérence et d'explicitation proche de la redondance. Les noyaux constitutifs de la phrase – sujet, verbe, complément – ne se laissent pas aussi facilement scinder qu'en français, et l'ordre dans lequel ils interviennent dans la phrase est moins susceptible d'être modifié. On ne peut guère, en anglais, accumuler en début de phrase des éléments de complémentation comme cela se pratique dans la presse française. Ainsi, la traduction de la phrase : "Enarque de 42 ans parvenu au terme d'une brillante carrière de conseiller financier, Jean Dupont songeait à se lancer dans la politique […]" ne saurait différer trop longtemps l'identification du sujet. Une traduction possible serait : "After a successful career as a financial consultant, Jean Dupont, a 42 years old ‘énarque', was considering getting into politics […]"

In its present configuration, current English is characterized first by an extreme concern for coherence and for explicitness approaching redundancy. The core constituents of the phrase -- subject, verb, complement -- cannot be as easily separated as in French, and the order in which they occur in the phrase is less susceptible of modification. We can hardly, in English, accumulate at the start of the phrase the elements of complementation (?) as this is practiced in the French press. Thus the translation of the phrase "Enarque de 42 ans parvenu au terme d'une brillante carrière de conseiller financier, Jean Dupont songeait à se lancer dans la politique […]" could not postpone too long the identification of the subject. A possible translation would be "After a successful career as a financial consultant, Jean Dupont, a 42 years old ‘énarque', was considering getting into politics […]"

(An ‘énarque', by the way, is a graduate of the Ecole nationale d'administration.)

The empirical claim here seems to be that we no-nonsense English speakers, in our impatience to get to the meat of the matter, can't match the typically Gallic accumulation of pre-subject "elements de complementation". I'm not sure what Sergeant means by "elements de complementation", but in the example cited, the pre-subject material is just a floating adjunct, hardly unknown in English. Mapping Enarque onto the rough cultural equivalent Harvard MBA , we could translate his example as the perfectly grammatical English

A 42-year-old Harvard MBA with a successful career as a financial consultant, Jean Dupont was considering getting into politics.

So if Prof. Sergeant is claiming that there's a hard-and-fast grammatical distinction on this point between English and French, he's certainly mistaken. But perhaps he has in mind a statistical difference -- maybe journalists writing in French tend to use this sort of initial adjunct more often than those writing in English do. Since I have a half a cup of coffee left, and a half an hour before I need to go to the gate to catch my flight, let's take a quick look, courtesy of Google News.

One recent event reported world-wide was the conviction of Lynndie England. The ledes of the first eight French-language articles I found on the subject (limited to those where her name was the subject of the first sentence):

La soldate américaine Lynndie England a été condamnée à trois ans de prison et radiée de l'armée pour mauvais traitements sur des détenus irakiens.
Lynndie England, la soldate américaine la plus connue pour son implication dans les sévices sur des prisonniers irakiens à la prison d'Abou Ghraïb en dehors de Bagdad, a été condamnée mardi par un jury militaire à trois ans de prison ferme.
La réserviste américaine Lynndie England, symbole du scandale de la prison irakienne d'Abou Ghraib, en 2003, a été condamnée à trois ans de prison, mardi, par la cour martiale de Fort Hood,
au Texas, pour mauvais traitements sur des détenus.
La femme soldat américaine Lynndie England, symbole des sévices sur les détenus à la prison irakienne d'Abou Ghraïb, a été condamnée mardi à trois ans de prison.
Lynndie England, 22 ans, était au coeur du scandale de la prison irakienne d'Abou Ghraib en 2003.
Lynndie England a été reconnue coupable de six des sept chefs d'accusation retenus contre elle.
Lynndie England, la soldate américaine au centre du scandale de la prison irakienne d'Abou Ghraib a été reconnue coupable.
La soldate américaine Lynndie England a été hier reconnue coupable par une cour martiale de six chefs d'accusations sur sept pour mauvais traitements sur des Irakiens, à la prison irakienne d'Abou Ghraib en 2003.

Of these 8 examples, 4 have material of some sort before her name. None of these, however, really seems to be the sort of adjunct that Sergeant wrote about -- they seem to me simply to be pre-nominal modifiers of the kind common to English-language journalism as well, and also favored by Dan Brown.

In this respect, the English-language press is not very different. Of the first 8 suitable examples that I found, 6 had some modifier before her name. Two of these were just the title Pfc., so that leaves 4 with modifiers like "army private" and "US soldier", just as in the French press:

Army Private Lynndie England, whose smiling poses in photos of detainee abuse at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison made her the face of the scandal, was convicted yesterday by a military jury on six of seven counts.
US Pte Lynndie England has been found guilty of abusing prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib jail.
Private Lynndie England, the US soldier who became the icon of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal is facing up to 10 years in prison after a military court found her guilty of mistreatment.
Pfc. Lynndie R. England, a 22-year-old Army file clerk whose smirking photographs came to personify the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, was convicted Monday of joining in the abuse when she posed next to detainees who had been stripped and put into humiliating poses.
Lynndie England, the US Army reservist photographed grinning as she humiliated Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison, was convicted yesterday on six charges of detainee abuse.
Lynndie R. England, the Army Reserve private who became a symbol of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal after she was photographed holding a dog leash attached to a naked Iraqi detainee, was convicted Monday on six of seven charges at a military court-martial.
Pfc. Lynndie R. England, the Army reservist who appeared in infamous photographs humiliating detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, was found guilty of six counts of abuse and indecent acts yesterday in the final court-martial for the original group of soldiers who touched off an international furor over U.S. treatment of prisoners.
US soldier Lynndie England was found guilty of abusing prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib by a military jury.

Looking around a bit further, I seem to find things like this in English

In a surprise move, the conservative winner of last Sunday’s Polish elections, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has proposed economics expert Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz as the new Polish prime minister - refraining from taking the tob job himself.

about as often I find things like this in French:

Dans un communiqué, le contrôleur européen de la protection des données (CEPD), Peter Hustinx, se dit peu convaincu par la nécessité de mettre en place une directive européenne concernant la conservation des données électroniques et téléphoniques ...

The adjuncts and modifiers of names, in general, seem to be deployed fore and after of subjects at about the same rates in both languages (these are not translations, just strings found in the ledes of different stories):

Le ministre de l'Intérieur Nicolas Sarkozy
Nicolas Sarkoy, ministre d'Etat à l'Intérieur et président de l'UMP (droite majoritaire),

French Interior Minister and number two in the government, Nicolas Sarkozy,
Nicolas Sarkozy, France's ambitious interior minister and head of the ruling UMP party,

L'ancien patron de l'Agence fédérale de gestion des situations d'urgence (FEMA), Michael Brown,
Michael Brown, le directeur de la FEMA, l'agence fédérale chargée de la gestion des secours d'urgence,

The former director of Fema (The Federal Emergency Management Authority), Michael Brown,
Michael Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in charge of the US response to natural disasters,

So, I'm not claiming any statistical significance here, but I've seen enough to make me willing to offer Prof. Sergeant a small wager: in a well-controlled study of French-language and English-language journalism, we would not find a significantly greater tendency for the French stories to have pre-subject adjuncts or modifiers (and I'll throw in adverbials, if he wants).

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 29, 2005 12:45 PM