Rating the World’s Languages—Dikembe Mutombo and John Thompson World of Language — JLSSCNC Vol I, No 2 Contents The Structure of Bee Communication by James Grant Carmichael III (review)—James Grant Carmichael III

Saving French Discontinuous Negatives

A terrible thing is happening to the French language; terrible, at least, from the standpoint of those who have to teach introductory linguistics classes. For many years now, everyday spoken French has not had any discontinuous negative morphemes; i.e., ne...pas, ne...rien, etc. Speakers nowadays simply dispense with the ne part of the morpheme, saying, for example ‘Il va pas’ rather than ‘Il ne va pas’. Luckily, standard, or “fake” French, as prescribed by the French Academy, retains the discontinuous ne, so that writers often use it and teachers of French as a foreign language always require it.

Why is this lucky? Well, as any teacher of introductory linguistics knows, French ne...X is one of the standard examples used in beginning discussions of morphology, comparable to Eskimo snow words in discussions of culture and words for ‘mother’ in comparative Indo-European. The fact is, ne...X is probably the only good example of a discontinuous morpheme in a language which some of our students have studied. (Don’t mention German separable prefixes to me; very few American students are stupid enough to waste time studying a ridiculous language like German.) If ne...X becomes moribund, then we will have to find another example, probably digging it up out of some obscure Amerindian language. This necessity would create two major problems. First, we, the instructors, would actually have to find and remember such examplesand who wants to do all that work? Second, assuming we did find examples, we would have to ask the students to take them on faith. It’s bad enough that all our claims about linguistic determinism are derived from Hopi, that our explanations of ergativity are based on Australian languages, and that our statements about syntax depend upon various linguists’ unexaminable intuitions; we don’t need to stretch our students’ credulity further by supporting the discontinuous morpheme idea with evidence from languages which, for all our students know, don’t even really exist.

Probably some of you readers are thinking, “You’re right, there would be a problem if ne...X were to die, but why worry? The French Academy decides such things, and they’re even more conservative than Edwin Neumann.” So I used to think, as well, until just recently. For last year, to my horror, the French Academy announced the abolition of the circumflex. Think of that: they abolished an entirely unpronounced orthographic mark whose only purpose was to let pedants like me know that there used to be an s in the word in question. Now, if the Academy is going to go around destroying useless anachronisms of that nature, then what, I ask you, is sacrosanct? Certainly not ne...X, which we can expect to see eliminated by the end of this decade unless we organize to save it.

Here is what I propose. In most cases, eliminating the ne of ne...X has no effect on comprehension; speakers understand ‘Je vais pas’ quite as well as ‘Je ne vais pas’. However, in the crucial case of ne...plus, this is not always the case. For example, if several people were waiting inside a building for rain to stop, and one of them went to check whether it was continuing, imagine the confusion if he came in and said, “Il pleut plus.” Would he mean ‘It’s raining more’ or ‘It’s no longer raining’? Most likely his listeners would beat him over the head for daring to be ambiguous. At least, so we could claim to the members of the French Academy, who, being impressed by the rigorous logic of our arguments, would no doubt give our conclusions favorable consideration. Of course, we’ll have to make sure that we get French linguists to advance our arguments; the Academy is unlikely to listen to Americans. With luck, ne...X will be saved, and we’ll be spared the trouble and unfortunate consequences of finding a substitute.

Tim Pulju Rice University

Rating the World’s Languages—Dikembe Mutombo and John Thompson
The Structure of Bee Communication by James Grant Carmichael III (review)—James Grant Carmichael III
World of Language — JLSSCNC Vol I, No 2 Contents