October 03, 2005

Warmth and the French language

It is probably time for me to point out, to the one or two people who still have not noticed, that my post on the inadequacies of French as a Romance language for talking about romance was a joke. That's J O K E: witticism, pleasantry, jape, jest, spoof, rag, kidding... you know what I'm talking about? But at least it did lead to a correspondence about what one should really say about such things as that French doesn't appear to have a word for warmth. I'm grateful to Benoit Essiambre (yes, don't be surprised, I still have many French-speaking friends) for designing this cute graphic to illustrate something a little closer to what might be the true situation regarding a few of the words designating regions in the range from "cold" to "hot" in English and French:

You see what the chart suggests. Some of the senses sort of roughly line up, but nothing lines up perfectly between the two languages with respect to their series of vague adjectives for temperature. They have simply cut the spectrum of heat levels into a different set of regions. This does not mean anything about the French (or English) mind or the impossibility of translation or the inexpressibility of the notion of a warm friendship. I was in fact poking fun, in my ill-advised deadpan way, at the extraordinarily huge number of educated people who nonetheless believe that such conclusions follow. Listen to me: YOU CANNOT draw conclusions about what a culture values, or what speakers perceive, or how a nation thinks, by selective comparison of the senses of a few lexical items.

There. When I die it will still be the case that most educated people still do not appreciate the truth of what I just said, but I thought I would just say it once very seriously with appropriate emphasis. I will die without having convinced people that you can't conclude things about the savage mind by alluding to a few opaque Inuit words for snow, but at least I will not die never having written down the truth in boldface here at Language Log.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 3, 2005 03:48 PM