March 30, 2008

Fourniret mailbag

A few days ago, I wrote about Michel Fourniret, the "Ogre of Ardennes", an accused serial killer known for what John Lichfield in the Independent called "complex, verbose but inaccurate French, with unnecessary subjunctive verbs and sub-clauses" ("Il fallut que j'accusasse: the morphology of serial murder", 3/27/2008).

Searching the web, I was able to find only one specific example of Fourniret's linguistic style, the phrase "Il fallut bien que je l'enterrasse" ("it was indeed needful that I should bury her"). The article in Le Monde remarked on the imperfect subjunctive, but called his language "suranné et ampoulé" ("outdated and turgid"), not inaccurate. So I wondered whether Fourniret is really given to hypercorrections and other mistakes in attempting to use a register above his station, or whether he's just obnoxiously pretentious and fussy.

This brought in quite a bit of mail. As usual, I stuck the first few on the end of the post as updates. But a few days have gone by, so here's some more commentary on the same topic.

At the end of the earlier post, Alex Price suggested that the imperfect subjunctive "sounds funny" to modern French speakers because the ending -asse "recalls the -asse ending of many informal, often pejorative nouns". Coby Lubliner sent in a joke that

Your post about Michel Fourniret and his language habits reminded me of the film Panique (1947), in which Monsieur Hire, played by Michel Simon, raises the police inspector's suspicions by saying "sans que je le susse..." to which the flic responds, mockingly, "sans que vous le sussiez" (which sounds like "suciez"). I don't remember if the 1989 remake (Monsieur Hire) has this exchange.

Having to translate a joke is even more of a thankless task than having to provide a monolingual explanation for one. But here goes anyhow:

"sans que je le susse" = "without me knowing it", literally "without that I knew it", "susse" being the 1st-person singular imperfect subjunctive of savoir "know";

"sans que je le suce" = "without me sucking it", "suce" being the 1st-person singular (indicative or subjunctive) of  sucer "suck";

"sans que vous le sussiez" = "without you knowing it", "sussiez" being the 2nd-person plural (or formal) imperfect subjunctive of savoir;

"sans que vous le suciez"  = "without you sucking it", literally "without that you sucked it", "suciez" being the 2nd-person plural (or formal) imperfect indicative of sucer "suck".

Some readers speculated that Mr. Lichfield might have thought that the term imparfait ("imperfect") in "l'imparfait du subjonctif" was referring to correctness rather than aspect -- or tense, or whatever morphological category French imperfects really belong to these days. (A discussion of the relevant areas of current usage is here.)

But Andrew Brown wrote:

You might want to write to [John Lichfield] directly. I've known him for twenty years, and he is one of the best, most lucid and scrupulous journalists I've worked with -- in this context a survival from when the Independent was a high-minded broadsheet. I wouldn't believe much that I read in that paper today without corroboration, but Lichfield doesn't write stuff without evidence and he does speak very good French and knows the country well.

So I'll send him a note, inviting comment, if I can find an email address.

Meanwhile, Fabio Montermini sent in a pointer to some new evidence, as well as a discussion of French journalists' reaction:

If you didn't see it yet, today's Le Figaro quotes larger extracts from the letter M.F. wrote to his judges, and the journalist also provides a sort of explication de texte: ["La cour tente de briser le silence de Fourniret", 3/28/2008]. The article also provides a reproduction of Fourniret's handwritten text, so you can read a bit more of his letter. I won't make an explication de texte myself. I am not a native speaker of French, but according to my competence I don't find any inaccuracy in Fourniret's prose. Among the characteristics the journalist points out, there is the fact that M.F. uses "well known proverbs" ("proverbes rebattus") and a sometimes familiar vocabulary: "cinoche" (argot for "cinéma"), "putain", "péter". In the reproduction of the handwritten part, there are in fact a lot of fixed expressions which are almost clichés, especially from the legal language: "ratissages au peigne fin", "tous azimuths", "affaires non élucidées", etc.

French journalists' comments seem to me also very interesting. In general, the French adore high prose and beautiful style (sometimes they claim it is a reflection of the "génie" of the French language). But look at the expressions used to qualify M.F.'s prose in the article from Le Figaro: "qui tourne vite à la logorrhée", "formulation alambiquée", "style, que l'auteur veut soigné, voire ampoulé". This last phrase is significant: the journalist judges that in any case M.F.'s style cannot be genuinely "soigné", such a mean person cannot actually put "génie" in his style. It seems to me a good example of an ideological reading of language.

[Daniel Ezra Johnson sent a really bad joke:

The imperfect subjunctive isn't so uncommon, you'll see it in any bar in Canada:


I've already explained one questionable joke in this post, so you folks are on your own with this one. Well, OK, I'll observe that in Canadian French, en fût means "on tap" -- in France, I think it would mean "in tree trunk" or something of the sort -- and I'll give you a link to the verb conjugator at, set up for etre. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 30, 2008 08:21 AM