Je suis en train de (re)lire Problèmes de linguistique générale d’Émile Benveniste, dont j’admire l’érudition, le style accessible et l’approche décontracté au multilinguisme dans ses écrits. Le dernier point est illustré par une citation.

I’m reading, or, for some parts, rereading, Émile Benveniste’s Problèmes de linguistique générale, both volumes of which are available in the publisher Gallimard’s low-cost-high-quality collection tel.

Benveniste#[1] (1902-1976) is one linguist whose name should be the first that comes to mind when writing about (the lasting influence of) structuralism in contemporary French linguistics. Strangely enough, it doesn’t: in the anglosphere, I usually see some hand-waving about Lévi-Strauss, full stop. Lévi-Strauss has certainly influenced many disciplines, but he wasn’t a linguist and is, as far as I can tell, an indirect reference at best in French writings on language.

Problèmes de linguistique générale is a collection of articles published between 1939 and 1972. I like the very readable style — the only difficulty comes from the subject matter — and the sheer erudition, which is always in the service of the topic, is quite mind-boggling#[2].

I want to quote, without translation, the first and part of the second paragraph of Pour une sémantique de la préposition allemande vor (reprinted as ch. X of vol. 2, originally published in Athenaeum, nouvelle série, vol. L, fasc. III-IV, University of Pavia, pp. 372-375) because its approach to multilingualism made me smile (footnotes omitted):

Dans un article antérieur, nous avons tenté une interprétation unitaire des emplois de la prépositon latine prae, afin de monter en particulier que le sens dit causal de prae résulte d’une spécialisation du sens général de « à l’avant, à l’extrémité, au point extrème ». Nous avions donc repoussé l’explication donnée par Brugmann de l’expression prae (gaudio) : « Etwas stellt sich vor etwas und wird dadurch Anlass und Motiv für etwas ». P. Meriggi, sans considérer en détail l’argumentation de notre article, reprend la thèse de Brugmann, et à la question que nous posions : « je pleure devant la joie… En quelle langue s’est-on jamais exprimé ainsi ? », il répond: « In tedesco, perchè vor Freude è l’expressione del tutto corrente e addirittura unica pel lat. prae gaudio ».

Nous pensons que, loin de modifier notre conception du sens de lat. prae gaudio, l’expression allemande vor Freude la renforce.

In what follows, he extensively quotes from the Grimms’ dictionary. In the original German, of course.


[1]: The Johns Hopkins Online Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism used to have an entry that was a good intro, though slightly slanted towards Benveniste’s influence on literary criticism. Well, it probably still has, but the database has unfortunately become subscriber-only and is thus inaccessible to lowly people such as me. Wikipedia, is for once, rather unhelpful. Except for the German version — someone should definitely translate this. [2]: For example, the essay La phrase relative, problème de syntaxe générale (originally published in Bulletin de la Société de Linguistique, LIII, (1957-58), fasc. 1) starts with a brief introduction, and then considers Ewe, Tunica, Navajo, Chipewyan and Arabic, before stating On peut maintenant se tourner vers l’indo-européen — he turns to Sanskrit, Old Persian, Homeric Greek, Hittite and Latin, and finishes with a few notes on Old Irish and German.

  1. Who are you callin’ ungrammatical? — a good article by Jan Freeman in the Boston Globe. The topic is, you guessed it, whom.
  2. American Accent Undergoing Great Vowel Shift — an interview with the linguist William Labov by Robert Siegel on (US) National Public Radio. Via Mark Liberman at Language Log; he also reports on the sad news concerning the public access to Prof. Labov’s research, though.
  3. Le mot de la fin — this is a four-times-a-week radio editorial by the lexicographer Alain Rey. (His is the name on most of the Robert dictionaries.) About 3 min each, and available as a podcast.
  4. Speaking in Minor and Major Keys [.pdf] — via Argonaut, a research paper by Maartje Schreuder, Laura van Eerten and Dicky Gilbers, who have found a correlation between musical minor/major keys and sad/happy emotional speech: “In order to investigate emotional intonation, we recorded and analyzed the performances of five professional readers reading passages from A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh in Dutch. In pitch contours of all speakers we found intervals between tones indicating minor modality in passages in which the sad character Eeyore is speaking and intervals indicating major modality in passages in which the happy, energetic Tigger is speaking.” A similar study had apparently been done already for Japanese.

right-hook v

Via Bridget Samuels at ilani ilani: The IPA council has adopted the first new phonetic symbol in twelve years. SIL explains that the “right hook v” will symbolise a labiodental flap, and how to produce this sound. It is a phoneme in several African languages, among which Mono.

The latest beta versions of the Doulos SIL and Charis SIL fonts include the right hook v in their “private use area” (code U+F25F). If you have one of them installed, you might see it here: . (Otherwise, you’ll see some nonsense or nothing at all.)

Appel aux francophones

A small, informal grammar-judgement survey in French. Results and objective will be posted in a future entry.

J’ai besoin de votre jugement grammatical. Voici six phrases : J’en ai parlé avec quelqu’un, mais je ne me rappelle plus qui. Jacques a discuté du problème avec un de ses supérieurs, mais je ne sais pas avec qui. J’ai parlé de quelque chose avec Marie, mais je ne me rappelle plus quoi. Pierre a fait ce travail pour un […]

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  • 2005-09-04
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The canonical example for a speech act that can cause real harm has long been “screaming ‘Fire’ in a crowded theatre”. Maybe this should be replaced with “screaming ’suicide bomber’ in a packed crowd”. All in all, last week has been rather too murderous. (I am aware that neither of these utterances is a performative act the […]

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Les poteaux roses, c’est auripilant

The word horripilant comes from horreur and not from any word that derive from the root aur- (gold).

Asphondylia auripila is a little gall midge, presumably covered in golden body hair.

  • 2005-07-22
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Trouvailles : Quel plaisir de faire violence à ce qui auripile nos oreilles. (lien) […] il se donne un genre qui m’auripile et je ne supporte pas sa façon de massacrer les chansons de nos grands chanteurs français. (lien) La n’est pas la question, mais ça m’auripile de vous entendre dire: “Attention aux motos Ecoles”, vous en avez eu […]

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… et où l’on les découvre vraiment

French eggcorns, the list.

Continuation du billet précédent, coupé en deux pour raison de longueur excessive. Voici donc la liste des poteaux roses français : héraut » héros : Un héros de la lutte contre le SRAS élu président de l’Association médicale chinoise (lien) ôter » hauter : Mon père avait sélectionné avec soin deux sabres pour nous hauter la vie, […]

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… où l’on découvre les poteaux roses

This is a long overdue post on French eggcorns, with an introduction and (in the second instalment) a collection of about 40 of “poteaux roses”.

Les lecteurs/trices francophones qui ne jettent pas les gants devant les billets rédigés dans la langue de JK Rowling ont déjà rencontré un genre d’entités mystérieuses appelés eggcorns. Il est grand temps que /ser.ənˈdɪp.ɪ.ti/ leur consacre un article en français. Le voici. L’histoire des eggcorns a débuté il y a deux ans, quand les professeurs de […]

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  • 2005-07-19
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Interesting article by Michael Erard in today’s New York Times (reg. req’d), on the book and the database The Ethnologue, which are published by the Summer Institute of Linguistics (S.I.L.). This is an absolutely amazing source of information for everyone who is interested in the languages of the world. Erard does not avoid to touch upon the […]

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Finex ! Pooo !

Interesting (but too short) article on the language of the French military — slang, phonetic idiosyncrasies, and lexicalised initialisms. The source is a semi-confidential manuscript written by an unnamed officer.

Remarkable examples: “PMF” for “woman”, from the collective term “female military personnel”; “IAL” for “drinking straw”, from “interface for liquid food”. And so on.

A general is called a “leek”. Why? Because his head is white, but his shaft still green.

The “translation” of an excerpt from Little Red Riding Hood (that would be “LRRH”, or “PCR” in French) is particularly amusing.

  • 2005-07-14
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Libé parle langue dans un article de Jean-Dominique Merchet consacré à l’argot militaire (14 juillet oblige). S’il est assez vague sur sa source, «  un petit document semi-confidentiel » (à mon avis, c’est celui-ci ; voir également là) rédigé par un officier anonyme, cet aperçu de particularités lexicales — lexicalisation de termes et sigles issus du jargon bureaucratique […]

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