September 30, 2005

The miserable French language and its inadequacies

I am really more than a bit disgusted that a speaker of French — of all languages — should have the nerve to criticize the English language (if the woolly verbiage of Professor Sergeant can really be called criticism). Let's be clear (since so many people seem to think the French always have a word for everything): this is a language used by people who are supposed to be the big experts in love and kissing and sexy weekends of ooh-la-la, and they don't have words for "boy", "girl", "warm", "love", "kiss", or "weekend".

No they don't! Don't contradict me. I'm a Senior Researcher and Vice President for Diplomacy at Language Log.

Boy-meets-girl stories cannot really be told in French, because there is no word for "boy" — garçon means "waiter", as everybody who has ever seen a movie with a scene in a French restaurant knows — and fille means either "daughter" or "whore" depending on whether you sneer in a certain way when you use it. (French speakers struggle by with the phrase jeune fille as a work-around to refer to a girl.)

Boy may long for girl to hold him in her warm embrace, but he won't be able to tell her that in French, because they don't have a word for "warm". They have tiède, which means "tepid", but boy doesn't long for girl to hold him in her tepid embrace. So what they use is chaud, which is the word on the hot water tap, the one that isn't froid. A language of love that was minimally functional would be able to distinguish between a warm friendship (enthusiastic discussion of topics of common interest; amicable farewell handshakes with promises to do lunch real soon) and a hot friendship (passion, heavy breathing, sudden uncontrolled couplings in shadowy doorways and on moving trains, returning home having lost underwear, midnight calls to say I have to have you right now). If boy cannot distinguish lexically between these, boy is going to be in real trouble with his relationship with girl.

Now consider love. Aimer is not a word for "love"; it is completely vague between loving and liking; you use it both for the way you are devoted to your spouse and the way you prefer to have your coffee. How do you really feel about me? Je t'aime. How's your fish? Je l'aime. Lover, haddock, whatever; it's all the same. These people do not have a word for love.

Baiser does not mean "kiss". It apparently did once, but today it is not a word you should try to use for a peck on auntie's cheek — it now means "fuck". And embrasser does not mean "kiss" either; people use it for that, but it clearly means "embrace" — bras means "arm". Although the French are widely thought to have invented at least one variety of kissing, they have no word that specifically denotes the activity.

And finally, if, despite all the above lexical difficulties, boy ever gets along with girl well enough to invite her away from Paris for a weekend of ooh-la-la in Dieppe, he will once again find himself completely stuck to express the notion of this crucial time period. What speakers do (to the disgust of the French Academy, which is charged with trying to prevent the miserable French tongue from completely falling apart) is to talk about le weekend. A borrowing from the very English that these linguistic cripples have the temerity to condemn.

So where do they get off, criticizing the language in which fine writers like William Shakespeare and Dan Brown created their literary masterpieces, huh? It makes me so mad.

I know, I'm going to get a whole flood of stupid email defending the beautiful French language and its expressivité: "La langue française, elle est si belle", they'll say, referring to their language as if it were a girl (not that they can say "girl"); Le français, they will say (inexplicably switching their gender decision from feminine to masculine), "est une langue" (O.K., so we're back to feminine again) magnifique, la langue de Racine et de Molière et de Balzac et de Rimbaud... All this from people who think a uvular scraping sound like a cat bringing up a hairball is a perfectly reasonable noise to use instead of an honest "r". From people who simply cannot make their minds up about whether an attributive adjective should precede the modified noun (sensible!) or follow it (silly!): the ever-indecisive French say un bon vin blanc ("a good wine white"), with one before the noun and one after. Get a grip! Pick one or the other!

Anyway, I don't care if the francophones bombard me with hate mail. Let them sue me for 500,000 yen for defaming their linguistic patrimony. I'm not buying the idea that this is a language fit to hold its head high and participate in world diplomacy and lovemaking. This is a language to be tossed the scrap-heap of human communicative failures.

And if it seems to you that I'm being a bit tough on the French, let me just point out that they started it.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at September 30, 2005 05:03 PM