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The rumors aren’t true: The French language

I believe it was Rousseau who wrote that the French language was logical and rational (but I can’t find the quote right now- anyone want to do that for me?) at a time when logic and rationality were very fashionable. Learners of French prepositions and personal pronouns (among many other concepts) would beg to differ. Common complaints list the irregularity of forms and spellings, the verbal system, and grammatical concepts that don’t exist in English. So which is it: is French the language of enlightenment and reason, or is it a chaotic mess of nonsense designed to ruin your life?

I’m going to spoil the anticipation and tell you that it’s neither. What you need to understand is that French is just another human language; it’s not particularly special or unique in any way, either in its features or its history. In fact, when compared with languages like Navajo or Arabic, French practically looks like “English with a silly accent”. Or vice-versa.


Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss dude who wrote in French, influenced the field of modern linguistics a ton. One of his best-known and most thoroughly-debated ideas is l’arbitraire du signe (the arbitrariness of the sign). To put it simple, this idea states that, for example, there is nothing naturally dog-like about the word ‘dog’, or chien, or كلب or any word you like that means dog. It’s just sounds which, by the unspoken agreement of speakers of a language, symbolizes the real-world creature which we call ‘dog’ in English.

So there’s nothing logical about most words. How about stringing them together into grammatical sentences? I hate to break it to you, but this is another area in which things appear to be pretty arbitrary. Take the idea of basic sentence order: different languages use different orders for subjects (S), objects (O), and verbs (V). SOV / SVO / VSO / VOS / OSV / OVS— all of these are possible orders for the basic parts of a sentence. There’s nothing more or less logical about any of the possible orders.

OK, so if vocabulary and grammar are arbitrary, what does that say about logic vs. chaos? In relative terms, languages are more or less equal in their chaos. In absolute terms, yeah, they’re all crazy and weird, but in different ways. If languages weren’t adequate for their speakers, they (the speakers) would either change them or pick a different language.

That doesn’t mean that all languages are equally hard to learn. But the biggest factor that changes how hard they are is the language you’re coming from, and how similar or different it is to/from the language you’re trying to learn. English to French? Not so bad, because they have a lot of vocabulary, grammar, and history in common. English to Tshiluba? (That’s a real language, spoken in the Congo, by the way) They’re two unrelated languages with very little history in common. The grammar and vocabulary are very different, and so it’s going to be a bit tougher.

Now you know: everyone is wrong. French isn’t logical, and it isn’t a total mess. Like pretty much all human languages, it does what it needs to do for its speakers. It does OK.

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