Linguistics 2287F Language Science

Linguistics 2187a   Intro to Language Science

Myth #4: French is a Logical Language

  • an idea promoted, not surprisingly, by French leaders (politicians, intellectuals), as part of a "national pride" agenda;
  • 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 of logic.

  • 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 linear order.
  • 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 amongst many.
  • 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 meats?
  • 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 convention.
  • 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 language itself.
  • 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" than another.

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

David Heap
Office: UC 133

Department of French Studies & Linguistics Program

office: UC 133

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