On Structural Problems in the French Language
Karl M. Petruso
Twentieth-century philosopher Steve Martin famously said once, in exasperation, “Those French! They have a different word for everything!” Although this is true, it is hardly the most problematic feature of the language. Having a different word for everything is—let’s face it—a failure French shares with all other languages in the world, including the peculiar form of “English” that is spoken in Britain. But the real problem goes far beyond the lexicon. It has to do with various inconsistencies in the orthography and, incredibly enough, in the way the French have constructed their system of numeration. Here are a few examples I discovered on my fact-finding mission to France in May and June of 2008.
(1) In the matter of orthography: Below is a photograph I took of an actual bistro awning in the toney 6th arondissement (i.e., neighborhood) of Paris.1
Note the extra “e” in each of the first two words (Soupes and Salades). These letters serve no function, since the words are pronounced with one and two syllables respectively. Not only that, but these plurals sound just like their singular forms; and the final “s” in each is, astonishingly, not even pronounced. What’s the deal with that?2
Contrast this inexplicable situation with the third word (Sandwichs), whose plural absolutely demands an “e” before the final “s”. But no: we are forced to try to pronounce the word with just two syllables. I don’t know about you, but I find this pretty hard to do. It hurts my tongue.
(2) In the matter of numeration: In preparation for my fact-finding mission to France, I audited two semesters of French language at the university where I teach, you know, just to get a few useful phrases under my belt.3 These courses were very helpful. Among other things, they led unexpectedly to my discovery of a serious anomaly that other scholars seem not to have discovered, in the French words for numbers.4
We start off logically enough in counting—with reasonable phonetic and orthographic cues in the higher numbers. For instance:
4, 14, 40 = quatre, quatorze, quarante;
5, 15, 50 = cinq, quinze, cinquante; and
6, 16, 60 = six, seize, soixante
But the system breaks down once you go above 79. The word for eighty is quatre-vingt (=4 x 20). Ninety is even worse: quatre-vingt dix (=4 x 20 + 10).
Then all hell breaks loose. Ninety-eight is quatre-vingt dix-huit (=4 x 20 + 10 + 8). The question arises immediately: Why should one be obliged to do all kinds of complex multiplications and additions just to say a freaking two-digit number? What’s wrong with, for example, eightyante-huit and ninetyante-huit, huh? Answer me that.
These French people can really cheese me off sometimes.
I’ve half a mind5 to refer these matters to the French Academy (L’Académie française, that is: note how quaintly the adjective is relegated to a subsidiary role and is, inexplicably, not even capitalized). This august institution, founded in 1635, takes seriously its obligation to ensure that the French language remain pure and never change, and in so doing it perpetuates these unfathomable anomalies. Maybe if the guys who run the Académie (get this: they are called Les Immortels)6 gave just a little attention to the above matters, more foreigners might be inclined to learn their cute little language.
1 It is not clear why the word for “neighborhood” needs to have five syllables when three is enough. Perhaps this is an issue we can take up later.
2 One cannot help but wonder whether the inability to distinguish singulars from plurals in speech might have played a role in France’s lack of military success in WWII, even if the Resistance’s walkie-talkies were functioning reliably, which many historians doubt.
3 La vache est sur le lit is a particularly good example from my textbook.
4 Or at least that nobody has analyzed in any Wikipedia article that I could find in the course of my scholarly research.
5 In French, that might be une demi-pensée, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were something like deux quartiers-pensées. Sometimes I could just scream.
6 I kid you not.
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