Expat Magazine

The (lack Of) Precision of the French Language

By Sedulia @Sedulia

"On dit souvent," said a woman next to me at lunch, "that the French language is the best for diplomacy because it is the most precise language." She smiled at me. Of course as a civilized person I would share this universal faith.

"That is a complete myth which the French believe dur comme fer," I answered.

She looked shocked. Shocked. The French do universally believe that French is more precise than English (or any other language). This is such an idée reçue that no one ever questions it. I think they're probably all even taught this in catechism.

In the days when France had the largest population and most powerful army in Europe (before 1814), French was the language of diplomacy. This had everything to do with the population, wealth and army of the country concerned, just as the use of the English language does today. 

Notice I am not saying English is more precise than French. All languages are precise when spoken or written with precision, and any concept can be expressed, eventually, in any language. But French is certainly no more precise than any other language. The examples French people use to illustrate the superiority of French are laughable.

Several people have sent me this article, which is entitled, "To impose a language is to impose a way of thinking" and consists of Claude Hagège, an eminent linguist, discussing the dominance of English in the world. For the most part, I agree with what he is saying. Of course the French are right to defend their language and insist that people in France speak French. Personally, I love the French language. He's good enough to say that there is no "superior" language. In so many words. But then his emotions carry him off, and he starts ranting against English. "We are talking about an imprecise language, which makes its pretensions to universality even less acceptable." And he gives two examples of this imprecise "language of the enemy" (as he actually calls it).

On December 29, 1972, an airplane crashed in Florida. The control tower had ordered, 'Turn left, right now'...but the pilot had translated 'right now' as 'turn right now' which caused the disaster. Or look at diplomacy, with the English version of the famous Resolution 242 of the UN in 1967, which recommends the 'withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.' The Arab countries believed that Israel should withdraw from 'the occupied territories'-- implying all of them; while Israel considered that it was enough to withdraw from 'occupied territories'-- that is, from only part of them."

In the first example, it is odd that a Frenchman doesn't  see that  the phrase 'right now' to mean 'immediately' is exactly as 'imprecise' as 'allez tout droit' ['go straight ahead'] in French-- a phrase that literally means 'go completely right.' But isn't it always easier to see the mote in one's neighbor's eye?

In the second example, I actually happen to have read about the translation of this Resolution. The ambiguity in the English was deliberate so that the Resolution could be signed by two sides that disagreed completely. To make it unambiguous, all that would have been needed was the 'the'. It was not a lack of precision, but a lack of honesty (ambiguity is so often useful in diplomacy).

And all examples French people give of the imprecision of English (because for the French, English has to be inferior, since French is superior to all other languages) that I have ever seen are in the same silly vein. 

So, for your viewing pleasure, here are a few similar examples of the imprecision of the French language. Please send in more!

kind versus nice -- In French, you translate these both by gentille, but that does not convey the genuineness of kind; you can pretend to be gentille when you're not really.

like versus love -- In French that poor word aimer has to serve for both.

edit versus publish --  Éditer can mean either one.

Paul reçoit la lettre de l'étudiant -- Does it mean Paul receives the student's letter? Or does it mean Paul receives the letter from [the hands of] the student? Not very precise, is it?

l'amour de Dieu     --Does this refer to God's love for you, or to your love for God?

la fille du fermier qui nous vend des légumes   --Does this mean the daughter sold the vegetables, or her father the farmer sold the vegetables? 

elle ne connaît que les plages de la Floride  -- Has at least three different meanings in English

un desarmement des navires dans les ports français sous le contrôle allemand could have FIVE different meanings in English.... *

Basically, if language is imprecise, it is the fault or responsibility of the speaker or writer, not the language; all languages can be clear and precise. French has no special gift for it. But perhaps the very belief in this precision of French contributes to carefully written language. Le Monde has a very lively blog written by its copy editors and it receives hundreds of comments a week from the passionnés of the French language. Good for them!

Lastly, if imposing a language on non-native speakers is wrong (um, I'd speak French in that case), Claude Hagège and all those who think like him should logically also be fighting for the non-imposition of French on speakers of Breton, Occitan, Basque and Alsatian German. Mais que nenni! What they really want, if they are honest with themselves, is just for French to be top dog again. I suppose I'd feel the same way.


*These last five examples are from an article called Structural Ambiguity in French by Robert Trammell and Marie-Geneviève García.

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