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French, precisely

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One of the arguments the French put forward when vaunting their language is its precision. In many respects it is. In the phrase: “nous sommes allées”, it is unarguable that the number is plural, they tell you so three times: 1) nous, or we, the plural pronoun, 2) sommes, the plural auxiliary, and 3) allées, the plural s ending. So there is absolutely no ambiguity there, quite the contrary. Not only that, it also tells you that the people in question going are women, by the extra e after the past participle allé. But in common speech most people would have just said on est allé and left it at that, leaving you to guess who and how many, although usually indicated by the context.

What happens when they say “nous sommes allés”? Well, you’re buggered. It could be male, female or in between. And if there are 99 women and 1 man, it’s still “nous sommes allés”. So what? If anything, it reflects spoken speech when half the time you cannot tell number (how many) by sound (allé/e/s) anyway. But what happens with other types of verb? Take apprendre, meaning either to teach or to learn, precisely… and you’re buggered again: “nous avons appris”… seems to give you the same threefold confirmation of plurality, but you get the same plurality in the singular too: j’ai appris. And since “we saw” is nous avons vu, with narry an s in sight, it’s clear that the s of appris is not a plural. So much for precision… So participle agreement only matters in verbs conjugated with être. And you never know if the learners are women, nous avons appris applies to both genders. If a verb wants to specify the sex, it has to be the 3rd person: elle a appris or elles ont appris, she/they learnt. Note too that il l’a apprise means he learnt (or taught) it where the it is something feminine…

Yes, French is precise. Sometimes.

One of their complaints about English is its vagueness, which may be true. What is, after all a “unit”? Who are “they”? But one of the beauties of English is precisely its unanal flexibility. French, with its rules and regulations, its pedanticisms and archaicisms, its hallowed sense of correctness, is not a vernacular, it is a language of bureaucrats, and not this year’s either. It is a modern-day Latin, basically, a dead language.

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Guest Monday, 09 December 2019
You are here: Home Frogologoblog Simon French, precisely