September 30, 2005

The Truth About French

You can tell that Geoff Pullum is a syntactician. His remarks on French, focus on syntax and semantics, all but omitting phonology, phonetics and orthography. I therefore pass on the following observations of unknown authorship, which I received many years ago on a sheet of paper headed The Truth About French. I have not been able to turn them up via Google. The only clue that I have is that the use of the word stoat suggests that the author is British. (stoat is the British word for weasel (Mustela erminea), especially in its brown phase.)

[Addendum 2005-10-01: Reader Caity Taylor has pointed out that in Britain there are both stoats and weasels. What in North America is called a weasel, Mustela erminea, is called a stoat in Britain. The animal called a weasel in Britain is Mustela nivalis, which is not found in North America.]

One of the many engaging peculiarities of the French is their conviction that their language - if they could only keep it pure of Anglicisms - is one of singular beauty and nobility. Nothing could be further from the truth. French is nothing but Latin (a gawky language to start with) in an advanced stage of putresence. The words, at any rate, nearly all derive from Latin, though their sense has sometimes been so perverted that, for example, the mangled husks of the Latin persona person and rem thing now signify no one and nothing.
If Caesar could arise from his tomb and revisit that land of three parts upon which his conquests imposed his language, he would have sore difficulty in recognizing a word of it. Many of the imperial consonants have fallen silent; some of the vowels have done likewise, while others have reduced themselves to strangulated peeps, or sought concealment in the nasal passages. The syllables scurry past with their heads down, except that every now and then one of them will pop up on its hind legs like a stoat, making them all pause for a moment before they scuttle on.
Many a proud vocable has been filleted and shrunk almost to nothing; for instance, the summer month that once bore the majestic name of Augustus has in the mouth of the French been reduced to the sound Oo. In an effort to counter this vanishing effect, and to prevent their sentences from becoming too short to be noticed, they throw in all the extra words they can find, to serve as ballast, which results in the creation of such convolvular periphrases as "qu'est-c que c'est que ça?" A logical tongue, they would have us believe; and indeed we find no want of rationality in the arrangement by which 100 being "cent", 200 is "deux cents". Except that 300 is not "trois cents" but "trois cent". A singular plural, in very truth; fruit of a language wonderous indeed in its notions of orderliness.
English may fairly be criticized for the vagaries of its orthography, only the criticism comes ill from the speakers of a dialect in which, where eaux is written, no e is sounded, no a, no u, and least of all an x, but only o. It might as well be spelled aquas, which is what it comes from. There are two sorts of h: one of them is silent, and might as well not exist at all; the other, dignified by the name h aspiré, is not (as the level-headed student might suppose) aspirated, but is as silent as the other, only people refrain from eliding vowels before it in case it should be offended - strange homage to a puff of breath long extinct.
Posted by Bill Poser at September 30, 2005 09:30 PM