God save the French (language)

When the English say « he swam across the river », the French say « Il a traversé la rivière à la nage », which is a case study of translation. In English, the action is conveyed at the same time as the way you do it, whereas in French, the action, focused on the verb, comes first and the way you achieve it, comes next. Hence the French reputation of Cartesian mind. This was first explained to me by, Michael Edwards, an English professor at the prestigious « Collège de France »1

On new year's eve, I was explaining this subtlety of French language which I only recently discovered, when a friend referred to a book, that I should read , « Contre la pensée unique »2 by another academic at the Collège de France.

Claude Hagège, who speaks 150 languages, among which 8 very seriously, takes us to a cosmic trip, explaining English enjoys a particular relationship with space and movement in a dynamic way (as German, Dutch), whereas the French, doesn't;  which reflects in its vocabulary less precise than the English one.

He quotes D.L Slobin commenting ( 2006) on the written warning at the entrance of the San Diego Zoo : « do not read, mosey, hop, trample, step, plot, tiptoe, trot, traipse, meander, creep, prance, amble, jump, trudge, march stomp, toddle, jump, stumble, trop, spring or walk on the plants ».

This very precise 4 lines would translate into a very long explanation in French «  il est interdit de marcher sur les plantes que ce soit au pas, en filant, en sautillant, en piétinant, à petit pas, en marquant des repères (ou d'un pas de comploteur), sur la pointe des pieds, en trottant, en traînant des pieds, en serpentant, en rampant ( ou furtivement), en caracolant, d'un pas tranquille (ou en allant l'amble), en s'affairant, en clopinant d'un pas cadencé, en trépignant, en trottinant, en sautant, en chancelant, à pas légers en bondissant ou au pas de marche »

One other major difference between French and English lies in the notion of reality and its interpretation. The French, which is more abstract, loves logical  connections « donc » « thus »,« cependant » « though », whereas the English forgets about those links, focusing on the down to earth reality. « Translating into English is copying a colour drawing with a paper pencil ».

To explain the origins of these differences, Hagège takes us back to the roots of the English language. In 55 before JC, celtic England called Brittany at the time, is occupied by the Roman empire. The bigger it gets, the more difficult and costly it becomes to deal with the barbarian invasions from the North. So that in 407 the Romans give up this far away colony. Facing the assaults from the North - the Scots and the Picts, the Britons leader, calls the German tribes, the Saxons to the rescue. This results in a germanic tribe called the « Angles » (from Angeln – what is now the Schleswig and Holstein) taking over, hence the name anglo-saxons.

Latin and German have of course left their strong prints on the English language. But nothing compares to that of Anglo-normand occupation. When in 1066, the Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror is deprived of the throne he should have inherited from Edward the Confessor, by Harold, he finds it rather irritating. The young stud ( the bastard son of Robert le Magnifique, with Danish blood of the cruel viking, Rollon) sails across the Channel and takes back what he feels is his belonging. In a rather uncouth and brutal manner. The result is that « anglo-normand » – which is not yet French still accounts for HALF of the English vocabulary. Claude Hagège explains the openness of the English language by the insularity and the need to create commercial relationship, just as Japanese includes Chinese and Vietnamese vocabulary.

In medieval time the Cluny abbey is very prestigious in France and the English aristocrats enjoy using, the French words of a prosperous civilization. Just like we love using American words in business. Anglo-normand is hype !

Therefore the anglo-saxons words convey what is practical or common, whereas the words with Latin roots tend to evoke more abstract and literary notions ( to die/ to perish, to abide/ to submit). They sound more sexy an sophisticated.

The English language kept a lot of the French medieval vocabulary, whereas the French very often gave up them the Latin meaning. Hence the « faux amis » « false cognate », those words, which look so familiar but are so different, most of them are inherited from medieval French.

In English, a word like « intelligence » of Latin origin, means “comprehension” but also conspiracy and information ( hence intelligence service), whereas the French language gave up the Latin meaning, and just kept the notion of comprehension (“en bonne intelligence”) and evolved to “smartness”.

How is it that the English language has now become the lingua franca, spoken all over the world. Even if English is not the most spoken language, Spanish is, it is the most widespread one all over the word.

Hagège dates this change from the Founding Fathers and the declaration of Independence. He quotes a visionary speech by the second President of the US J. Adams in 1797 : « English will become the language of the world as Latine and French were in their time »

This willingness, to widespread the English language is a State doctrine, is not only cultural, but of course economic and political.

The Marshall plan, the great American help for European reconstruction, after World War II was not only generous. American culture pervades European through movies, music food like a Trojan horse into the old continent.

Language is not only culture, it conveys a « way of thinking ». Hagège underlines the concept of « loser », which he describes as someone not being successful in what he tried to do, thus reducing an individual to his sole action. The author also compares the « whistle blower », considered as someone helping civic awareness in the anglo-american world, whereas this notion in France used to be negative referring to snitching, - this certainly is also connected to French behaviour during the last war with snitching. Whistle blowing is now becoming popular too all over Europe.

Hagège also quotes the « New Yorker » description of « Power point » as a spiritual reduction of ideas, hiding fragile proposals and empty business plans »


The English supremacy in the field of sciences is a great disadvantage for non English speaking scientists like E Duchêne who discovered Penicillin thirty years before Fleming but was forgotten in history, just as the Cuban doctor who discovered the bacteria responsible of stomach ulcer in 1970, some twenty years before Europe.

Hagège goes further in saying that this standardization is not necessarily creative and leads to a global and tasteless universe.

Hagège advocates for the richness of cultural diversity, evoking the Roman empire leader Charles Quint, who « used Latin with God, Italian for musicians, Spanish for troops, German for servants, French with ladies and English to his horse. »

Languages is a wonderful opportunity to reinvent oneself as the Armenian saying goes :

« As many languages you know, as many men you are »

from the Armenian « qani lezu gidès,ainkhan él mart ès »

1The collège de France (called collège royal before) was established in 1530 by King Francis I of France. Of humanist inspiration, the school was established as an alternative to the Sorbonne to promote such disciplines as Hebrew, Ancient Greek and Mathematics T. e Collège does not grant degrees but has research laboratories and one of the best research libraries of Europe, with sections focusing on history with rare books, humanities, social sciences and also chemistry or physics. (Source : Wikipedia)

2Contre la pensée unique, Editions Odile Jacob, 2013


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