Myth #4: French is
a Logical Language
- an idea promoted, not surprisingly, by French
leaders (politicians, intellectuals), as part of a "national
- what is more surprising is that (some) people
from other nations pick up on this myth: e.g. German
or English writers who maintain that French is "clearer"
or "more logical" than their own languages.
A number of sub-myths which can be dealt with separately:
1. French syntax follows the natural order
- while it may be that there exists a sort of
pure language-free thought or"mentalese" (see Pinker,
Chapter 3), there is no particular evidence that it follows a
- we perceive events holistically (i.e.
a Subject doing a Verb to an Object
= a Verb happens to an Object by a Subject)
without any 'natural' order between these elements;
- human languages are however necessarily linear:
just as sounds must be pronounced one at a time, so too must words.
- since we cannot utter a Verb, its Subject
and its Object all at once, our language forces us to
express them linearly.
- the order (mainly) used in French is SVO (Subject
Verb Object), as in English, but this is just one possibility
- so there can be no one "inherently logical"
order of words in any language.
- furthermore, French does not use SVO order consistently:
does this mean it is sometimes a logical language, sometimes not?
2. French vocabulary and grammar follow the
'natural' order of time and space.
- while languages
clearly differ as to how they divide up reality into vocabulary,
there is no clear evidence why any one division should be considered
more (or less) logical than any other;
- are flowing bodies
of water "naturally" divided into those which flow into
the sea or not? Are domestic quadrupeds (as opposed to other animals)
"naturally" distinguished (or not) from the corresponding
- French, like many if not all human
languages, has a number of homophones (words which sound
the same but have different meanings), which may not seem completely
"rational" or efficient but, due to help from context,
rarely creates much real-life ambiguity.
- similarly with grammar, there
is no "natural" order to verb tenses, nor the gender
of nouns etc.: each of these areas of grammar is simply a language-specific
- many familiar languages conventionally express
time in terms of spatial metaphors, with the
past "behind" us and the future "in front",
but other conventions are equally possible and in fact occur in
some languages (e.g. the past can be considered to be 'in front
of us' because we can 'see' it, i.e. we know what has happened,
while we back into a future which is 'behind' us, because we do
not yet know what it holds.)
3. French is a clear or lucid language;
- lucidity or clarity are characteristics of how
individuals use their language, not properties of the
- French can be used to expresss thoughts clearly,
but also to be quite unclear (just like any other human language).
While it seems likely that most people would think
that their native language(s) are the natural vehicle for logical
thought, since languages differ along many of these dimensions,
it is unlikely that any one language is more "logical"
Reasons behind this Myth?
What is less obvious is why non-French writers
and thinkers might buy into this myth: while not quite "linguistic
self-hate", this attitude seems somewhat at odds with the usual
assumption of any speaker (that their own language -- whatever it
happens to be -- is logical).
The view of French as a somehow "intellectually
superior" language seems to be a result of the association
of the French language with scientific, political and especially
philosophical writings of the Enlightenment: the prestige
of French thinkers and writers throughout Europe meant that new
ideas about rational scientific thought were associated with the
language used to express them: French, in this case. By extension,
French was used as the "universal" language (universal
amongst European nations, that is) of philosphy, culture, politics
and diplomacy, up until the late 19th or early 20th centuries.
Is there any "downside"to this Myth?
Or is it just a "harmless" (albeit inaccurate) belief?
While other European languages are unlikely to
suffer much from the comparison with French (English, German and
Russian, for example, are all pretty secure in their status, despite
the traditional prestige formerly attributed to French). But for
many of the poorer nations of the South (especially for former French
colonies in"Francophone" Africa), the status of French
as an international language used for scientific and cultural purposes
as well as business and administration (like other colonial languages,
especially English) often leaves many of the indigenous "national"
languages in a position of less prestige, even for native speakers.
Thus the myth of the 'intellectual superiority' of French, while
largely a relic of the past for other developed nations, is still
alive and well -- and having a potentially negative impact -- in
certain poorer countries.
Last updated: September 19, 2008
by David Heap