Lhomond

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One of the small streets near where I'm staying for a couple of months is the Rue Lhomond, which the street signs tell me is named for a grammarian, Charles François Lhomond (1727-1794). Since I pass the intersection every day on my way to the LPP, I've been curious about what this grammarian's grammar was like. And Gallica offers his Élémens de la Grammaire Françoise (1780), which begins like this:

La Grammaire est l'art de parler & d'écrire correctement. Pour parler & pour écrire on emploie des mots : les mots sont composés des lettres.

Il y a deux sortes de lettres, les voyelles et les consonnes.

Les voyelles sont a , e , i , o , u , & y. On les appelle voyelles, parce que, seules, elles forment une voix, un son.

Il y a trois sortes d'e ; e muet, e fermé, e ouvert.

Grammar is the art of speaking and writing correctly. To speak and to write one uses words : words are made up of letters.

There are two kinds of letters, vowels and consonants.

The vowels are a , e , i , o , u , & y. We call them vowels, because, alone, they form a voice, a sound.

There are three kinds of e ; mute e, closed e, open e.

This is an explicitly pedagogical book — the preface explains that

Les Enfants comprennent plus aisément les principes de la Grammaire quand ils les voient appliqués à une langue qu'ils entendent déjà, et cette connaissance leur sert comme d'introduction aux langues anciennes qu'on veut leur enseigner.

Children grasp the principles of Grammar more easily when they see them applied to a language that they already understand, and this knowledge will give them an introduction to the classical languages that we wish to teach them.

Two old-fashioned ideas are front and center in this work: grammar as prescription of a standard to be obeyed, and language (even spoken language) as based on writing.

I wonder when these ideas became established in French pedagogical ideology, and when (if ever) they went away. If the grammar-as-correction and speech-as-writing tropes were still taught in the 1930s, perhaps even using Lhomond's little text (which continued to be reprinted at least through the later 19th century), this might help explain Jacques Derrida's perverse insistence, against Rousseau and Saussure, that "il n'y a pas de signe linguistique avant l'écriture" ("there is no linguistic sign before writing"). Or perhaps even passages like this one  (from De la Grammatologie):

Il y aurait beaucoup à dire sur le fait que l'unité native de la voix et de l'écriture soit prescriptive. L'archi-parole est écriture parce qu'elle est une loi. Une loi naturelle. La parole commençante est entendue, dans l'intimité de la présence à soi, comme voix de l'autre et comme commandement.

There would be a lot to say about the fact that the native unity of the voice and writing is prescriptive. Archi-speech is writing because it is a law. A natural law. Speech is initially understood, in one's private thoughts (?), as the voice of the other and as a commandment.

Compare Rousseau (1761), one of the opinions that Derrida (and Lhomond?) argued against:

Les langues sont faites pour être parlées, l'écriture ne sert que de supplément à la parole… L'écriture n'est que la représentation de la parole, il est bizarre qu'on donne plus de soin à déterminer l'image que l'objet.

Languages are made to be spoken, writing is only a supplement to speech … Writing is only the representation of speech, it is bizarre that we give more attention to understanding the image than the object.

 



44 Comments

  1. Jim said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 6:24 am

    Schools in Lhomond's time had the job of teaching kids languages that they would never hear. Which, unless I'm missing an obvious one, is something we basically never do. How did they do it, and, knowing what we know, could we do it better?

    [(myl) I'm not sure that your premise is true. I don't know about 18th-century French education, but in the UK and the US, students in the 18th (and 19th and 20th) centuries had to memorize and recite Latin and Greek poetry, plays, orations, etc., and also had to be able to compose (sometimes orally and extempore) in those languages. And for Catholic priests (which Lhomond was), Latin remains a language of verbal expression to some extent even now, and certainly was in 1780.]

  2. Graeme said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 7:06 am

    Rousseau is right (naturally). But Lhomond lives in his writing as these thoughts here do – so we parse and valorise that form.

  3. Graeme said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 7:08 am

    Jim. Plenty of schools today teach unspoken scripts (programming languages). I'm not being cute in saying that.

  4. Jim said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 7:55 am

    Graeme, I almost mentioned programming languages. Many kids learn them in school, and many others learn them outside of school. I wonder about the most effective methods.

    myl, That's interesting. I did not know the extent of speech and recitation of Greek/Latin. The followup would be: did they really speak and hear it fluently, as they would a "living" language, or would they say it the same way that a student today might verbalize programming code (or musical notation or chess notation, etc.) Basically I'm asking if the brain might categorize these languages as writing-based, with the speech only a representation of the writing? Or is does the brain always assume a foundation of speech, even when a language is learned and used to a large extent on paper?

  5. Damien Hall said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 7:57 am

    Grammar as prescription of a standard has never really gone away: witness the importance given in good French bookshops to displays of today's standard one, 'Le Bon Usage' (Grevisse, though now edited and continued by Goosse, since Grevisse's death). Which isn't to say that most French people have a copy of Grevisse in their homes, or even that most French people know the finer points of the grammar of the language, just as most English-speaking people don't; but they would agree that the grammar, and through it the state of the language, is sacrosanct.

    They would also agree that the prescriptions of the Académie Française were sacrosanct and to be obeyed; at its inception, the Académie was charged with producing a dictionary, a grammar and a poetic for French. The poetic withered quite fast (it may never have been begun?); the dictionary is still in production (approaching completion of the 9th edition); interestingly, in the 1930s (I believe), the Académie disavowed its own grammar for being too prescriptive.

    Hal Schiffman's work on this is crucial.

  6. languagehat said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 8:58 am

    I wonder when these ideas became established in French pedagogical ideology

    I assume they were simply taken over from Latin grammatical pedagogy, which involved exactly the same sort of thing. Isidore of Seville's De grammatica, very influential in the Middle Ages, has a corresponding section: "Litterarum duplex modus est: dividuntur enim principaliter in duas partes, in vocales et consonantes. … Et dictae vocales, quod per se vocem inpleant" 'There are two kinds of letters, vowels and consonants. … And they are called vowels [vocales] because they use the voice [vocem]." I'm sure if you look into Priscian and Donatus you will find similar statements.

    [(myl) Perhaps so; but the 1660 Port-Royal Grammar starts in a strikingly different way:

    La Grammaire est l'art de parler.

    Parler, est expliquer ses pensées par des signes que les hommes ont inventés à ce dessein.

    On a trouvé que les plus commodes de ces signes étoient les sons et les voix.

    Mais parce que ces sons passent, on a inventé d'autres signes pour les rendre durables et visibles, qui sont les caractères de l'écriture, que les Grecs appellent γράμματα, d'où est venu le mot de Grammaire.

    ]

  7. languagehat said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 9:07 am

    Incidentally, if anyone is curious about the name Lhomond, Lexilogos says:

    Lhomond Nom porté dans la Dordogne. Variantes : Lhommond, L'Homond. Il semble désigner celui qui est originaire de L'Homond, hameau à Prats-de-Carlux, sachant que ce nom a eu des graphies bien diverses. Mentionné sous la forme Laumont sur la carte de Cassini (XVIIIe siècle), sa première mention connue date de 1467 (Mansus de Lonmon). À noter que M.-T. Morlet explique Lhomond par le nom de personne germanique Hlodmund. Les deux explications ne sont pas forcément incompatibles (le nom de personne pourrait être à l'origine de celui du hameau).

    In other words, it could be from the name of a hamlet in Prats-de-Carlux or the Germanic personal name Hlodmund or both (the hamlet deriving from the German name). Nothing to do with Loch Lomond!

  8. Bloix said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 9:10 am

    Even as late as Lhomond's time, scholarly and scientific works were otfen written and published in Latin. Educated people from different countries spoke Latin to one another as a lingua franca, and the Church conducted its business n Latin. A book as important as Newton's Principia, which was published in Latin in 1687, was not translated into French until 1759.

  9. Mark S said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 9:25 am

    I grew up in the 1960s in England, attending a Direct Grant school. We studied Latin (some of us also studied Ancient Greek). The way we pronounced Latin was basically as in English, but "c" as "k" always, and "v" as "w". However, I was persuaded to enter a Latin poetry recitation competition in which I had to pronounce it much more as it was believed to have been spoken in ancient times, with liaison between words, nasal vowels before "n", and some other things. Here's the very poem, complete with an audio recording: http://www.johnderbyshire.com/Readings/carmen101.html

  10. languagehat said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 9:35 am

    The way we pronounced Latin was basically as in English, but "c" as "k" always, and "v" as "w".

    That doesn't make sense to me. As far as I know, there are only two ways to pronounce Latin in English (setting aside the Italianate model used for singing masses and the like), the traditional one in which Latin is pronounced like English, now almost forgotten except in names and certain expressions ("SEE-zer" for Caesar, "et SET-eruh" for et cetera) and the restored classical one in which Latin is pronounced as far as possible as the Romans pronounced it (KYE-sahr, PAH-kay). I'm having trouble understanding how you could pronounce Latin "basically as in English," but with "c" as "k" and "v" as "w". KEY-zer? WEE-nee WYE-dye WYE-kye?

  11. languagehat said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 9:37 am

    (For "PAH-kay" read "et KYE-teh-rah"; I switched examples and didn't notice the discrepancy.)

  12. Rick Spadine said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 10:49 am

    someone asked me to comment on your reading of Derrida in this post, so I thought I'd share my response. I'm no expert on the subject (just an interested amateur), but this may help clear a few things up

    "the passage of Derrida he quoted didn't tell me too much out of context so I looked it up. what Derrida's talking about in that section is how Rousseau devalues writing in comparison to speech while saying that natural law is something God has 'written on man's heart.' the distinction between good (interior) and bad (exterior) writing implied by Rousseau's metaphors could as easily apply to speech, which obviously undermines his attempts at privileging speech. Derrida basically comes out and says this in the very next paragraph:

    'Il y a donc une bonne et une mauvaise écriture : la bonne
    et naturelle, l'inscription divine dans le cœur et l'âme ; la perverse
    et l'artificieuse, la technique, exilée dans l'extériorité du
    corps. Modification tout intérieure du schéma platonicien : écriture
    de l'âme et écriture du corps, écriture du dedans et écriture
    du dehors, écriture de la conscience et écriture des passions,
    comme il y a une voix de l'âme et une voix du corps.'

    in the specific passage the blog quoted, Derrida is unpacking Rousseau's arguments about natural law while suggesting that the idea of 'natural law' being imparted by an originary divine 'word' already threatens the primacy of speech, because (for reasons Derrida discusses further elsewhere) law presupposes Derrida's broadened conception of writing.

    so big mistake number 1, the blogger seems to be taking Derrida's reading of Rousseau as Derrida's own view, while missing the point he's making between the lines.

    big mistake number 2, he assumes for some reason that Derrida's talking about linguistic prescriptivism, when he's really talking about prescriptivism in general, as it relates to language."

    [(myl) I recognize(d) that Derrida was describing Rousseau's position, but the passage still represents part of his argument about the fundamental (as opposed to secondary) nature of writing, in opposition to Rousseau's view that writing is just a representation of speech.

    And it's clear that he's talking about commandments in general, not linguistic commandments in particular. But I've always been puzzled by Derrida's peculiar ideas about the relationship between speech and writing. (Though I realize that he's playing a game where you get points for violations of common sense…) So reading Lhomond led me to wonder whether Derrida's arguments in De la Grammatologie might be a sort ironic echo of his grade-school grammar lessons.]

  13. Damien Hall said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 10:58 am

    Apologies for the lack of formatting here: can't work out how to do it on my Mac!

    Vaugelas' _Remarques_ (1742) also start in an interesting way. He seems quite revolutionary to begin with, but soon reverts to something more expected.

    Ce ne sont pas icy des Loix que ie fais pour nostre Langue de mon authorité privée ; Je serois bien téméraire, pour ne pas dire insensé ; car à quel titre et de quel front pretendre un pouuoir qui n'appartient qu'à l'VSAGE, que chacun reconnoist pour le Maistre & le Souverain des langues vivantes ?

    'The following are not laws that I am making for our language of my own authority; I would be very rash, not to say acting senselessly [if I did that]. Because by what right and on what grounds [can I] claim a power that belongs only to USAGE, which is recognised by all as the master and sovereign of living languages?'

    He goes on, though, to say that there are two sorts of usage, a Good one and a Bad one – which is where the phrase 'Bon Usage' comes from, AFAIK. Of course, you have to pay attention to the Good one:

    C'est la façon de parler de la plus saine partie de la Cour, conformément à la façon d'escrire de la plus saine partie des Autheurs du temps.

    'This is the manner of speaking in the best part of the [royal] Court, which [also] conforms to the manner of writing of the best of our contemporary authors.'

    http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k84316s/f9.image

  14. Rick Spadine said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 11:09 am

    Also, a better translation of the passage (courtesy of Gayatri Spivak) would be:

    "There would be a lot to say about the fact that the native unity of the voice and writing is prescriptive. Arche-speech is writing because it is a law. A natural law. The beginning word is understood, in the intimacy of self-presence, as the voice of an other and as a commandment."

  15. Tom S. Fox said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 12:40 pm

    Why did you retain French punctuation in your translation?
    In English, you don't leave spaces before colons and semicolons (nor before exclamation marks, for that matter, but there weren't any in this text).

  16. Rick Spadine said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 1:08 pm

    "I recognize(d) that Derrida was describing Rousseau's position, but the passage still represents part of his argument about the fundamental (as opposed to secondary) nature of writing, in opposition to Rousseau's view that writing is just a representation of speech."

    Derrida most definitely does not argue that writing is fundamental and speech is secondary. He argues that, because Rousseau, Saussure and many others' critiques of writing are also applicable to spoken language, *neither speech nor writing* enjoys a privileged relation to meaning.

    As for whether he's ironically echoing his grammar lessons, well, maybe–he tends to ironically echo lots of things. But what he's echoing in the particular passage you quoted is mainly religious language, as shown in his use of the word "commandement," the phrase "la parole commençante" and the subject matter of the surrounding paragraphs.

    Derrida is difficult, but I find the section we're discussing pretty lucid and sensible. It seems you may have some "peculiar ideas" about Derrida that could be remedied with a closer reading.

    [(myl) It's true that Derrida doesn't say that writing is fundamental and speech is secondary, but he does deny the converse, so that in his view, writing is just as basic in its relationship to meaning as speech is: "La secondarité qu'on croyait pouvoir réserver à l'écriture affecte tout signifié en général, l'affecte toujours déjà, c'est-à-dire d'entrée de jeu." And he goes on to say things like "Tout se passe comme si le concept occidental de langage (en ce qui, par-delà sa plurivocité et par-delà l'opposition étroite et problématique de la parole et de la langue, le lie en général à la production phonématique ou glossématique, à la langue, à la voix, à l'ouïe, au son et au souffle, à la parole) se révélait aujourd'hui comme la guise ou le déguisement d'une écriture première 1 : plus fondamentale que celle qui, avant cette conversion, passait pour le simple « supplément à la parole » (Rousseau)." In the footnote, he refuses to take sides in the debate as to whether "l'écriture est-elle, comme l'affirmaient par exemple Metchnaninov et Marr, puis Loukotka, « antérieure au langage phonétique » ?"

    I don't find this argument especially lucid — but it's certainly clear that he rejects the idea, otherwise ubiquitous in modern thought, that writing is a representation of speech. And I wonder whether he first got this idea from elementary-school grammar.]

  17. Peter Taylor said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 1:16 pm

    @Jim, I have been told (although I don't have a reference) that in my Cambridge college's dining hall (and, if true, I would assume it to be the case in the others as well) it was only permitted to speak Latin or Greek, and any error incurred the forfeit of downing a jug of beer. So oral fluency would be pretty important.

  18. Eric P Smith said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 1:38 pm

    @Jim: Fluency in Latin?
    I learned French and Latin from age 11 to 16. I got very good marks in Latin, and middling marks in French. But I could speak French and understand spoken French; whereas Latin was always more like a code, worked out word by word.

  19. Robert Ayers said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 1:55 pm

    When I took a Latin class in public high school (I think 9th grade) in Springfield Massachusetts (USA) circa 1954, we were told that there were two ways of pronouncing Latin, the "German way" and the "Italian way" and that we were going to learn the former. I suspect that the German way roughly matches the remarks of Mark S. (My main take-away from the class was an increased awareness of grammar.)

  20. David Eddyshaw said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 3:45 pm

    Latin as a international language of scholarship lasted well after the seventeenth century. I recently had cause to consult Wijnkoop's (excellent) Darche Hannesigah, published by E J Brill, 1881. In Latin, despite the Hebrew title.

  21. David Eddyshaw said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 4:11 pm

    Literary Chinese, in active use as a pan-Chinese (and beyond) written language well into the twentieth century, is famously independent of any kind of contemporary spoken Chinese to the degree that when read out it is at best only fitfully comprehensible. Although it has a spoken form – in fact several spoken forms, including some which are not actually Chinese – there is no doubt that the written form is primary; and although (of course) nobody's "mother tongue", it was in no other sense dead.

  22. GH said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 5:08 pm

    Mathematics is another example of a written language that is often incomprehensible when spoken (even to people who understand the material: any moderately complex formula simply overwhelms working memory), and which has many different spoken forms in different languages. Simple arithmetic was presumably developed first in spoken form, historically speaking, but for more advanced topics the written form is definitely primary: the writing is not a representation of speech – rather, the speech is a representation of the writing.

    So while much written language is clearly derived from speech, that is not true in all cases (we can add the example of emoticons/smileys), and it seems odd to claim it as some universal, fundamental property. In fact, we also have gestures as a third medium for language, and we know that sign language does not necessarily represent vocalized speech.

    I like the first part of the quotation from the 1660 grammar:

    Parler, est expliquer ses pensées par des signes que les hommes ont inventés à ce dessein.

    (Loosely: "To speak is to express one's thoughts by means of signs, which people have invented for this purpose.") From this point of view, writing is not necessarily secondary: it only tends to be so because the vocal form is for most people their first language.

  23. the other Mark P said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 5:35 pm

    @DamienHall

    [The French] would also agree that the prescriptions of the Académie Française were sacrosanct and to be obeyed

    Yes, they mostly say that.

    Then they ignore them in practice and speak the language of France. They only write in French.

  24. Ken Miner said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 10:55 pm

    I read Derrida's Of Grammatology and what I got out of it is quite important, though I'm not quite sure it is there; I may have simply come up with it while reading the book. It is this: writing is primary because as an object of reflection, including scientific study, language must be written. First there are transcriptions. But a sound spectrogram is also writing. A recording is writing. A Chomskyan syntactic tree is writing. I once wrote a parody (it was part of the Metalleus series but I doubt many readers got the point) about a phonology lecture given on the lawn on a nice day, outside the classroom, with no blackboard. Of course it's an impossibility.
    To "do" phonology (or any linguistics) you have to write.

    The exception everyone always offers is Pāṇini. But I expect any day now a discovery that his supposedly oral tradition was based on a previous written tradition. It's always hard to say with India. Just about everything they wrote on was perishable.

    [(myl) This is certainly a point that he makes. The common-sense version of this idea is that many sorts of rational investigation, from mathematics to geography, are hard to do without formulas and diagrams. Linguistics shares this property. But Derrida chooses to dress this point up in an elaborate metaphysical argument about the nature of signs and signifiers.

    And his main goal seems to be to argue against the equally common-sensical notion that (true) writing systems are basically representations of speech, and secondary to speech in the obvious senses that (1) every human culture has speech, but many don't have writing; (2) anatomically modern humans have presumably had speech for as long as they have existed as such, whereas writing was invented a limited number of times a few thousand years ago; (3) normally developing children all become competent speakers by the age of 3 or 4 (though their language continues to develop for another decade and beyond), while they normally don't start learning to read and write until the age of 5 or 6, and some of them never really become fluent in the written medium; etc. etc.

    What has always puzzled me is why Derrida puts so much effort into stretching the obviously correct idea about the analytical value of "inscriptions" into the obviously silly idea about the equal status of speech and writing.

    My half-serious suggestion in the original post is that perhaps his early education predisposed him to view language as writing. This then might have combined with the intellectual shock value of making a serious argument against what everyone believes, to lead him to Grammatologie.]

  25. Damien Hall said,

    June 7, 2015 @ 5:52 am

    @ The other Mark P

    Indeed!

  26. Bloix said,

    June 7, 2015 @ 9:41 am

    For the predominance of writing, I would argue that French is a special case. Modern spoken French has lost a huge amount of the original vocalizations of its words, which are preserved only in the orthography of "silent" letters. Plural s, for example, is usually not voiced, except when preceding a vowel – but it is universally preserved in writing. So is it always "there" but just not spoken? And many other letters are silent most of the time, until they are not. Yet they are obviously always "there" because the sounds reappear in easily discernible patterns.

    I would think a child learning to read French would instinctively conclude that the written form is the true representation of the ideal language, while the spoken form is a derivative form. And in a sense this is true – the written form is the representation of an older spoken form than the current spoken form.

    Anyone who reads French and has tried to read Haitian creole will feel the deeply ingrained sense that the written forms with silent letters represent the "true" form of the words while the vocalized versions are somehow less authentic, less meaningful.

  27. Ken Miner said,

    June 7, 2015 @ 11:31 am

    Let me just toss in a related issue, named in the title of an interesting work by Per Linell, _The Written Language Bias in Linguistics: its Nature, Origins and Transformations_ (Routledge, 2005). Much of modern linguistics has displayed a sort of schizophrenia, proclaiming the primacy of speech but examining writing. E. g., the sentence as the standard unit for syntactic studies, despite its non-prominence in ordinary conversation and in unwritten languages. Or the rarity of really serious work on intonation and gesture and its near-absence in theory development. Or the pretty clear evolution of the phoneme from the letter. I think Derrida had all this in mind and was trying to make sense of it (or as myl suggests – make use of it).

  28. Keith said,

    June 7, 2015 @ 12:53 pm

    Believing that the written word is the model that speech should follow is a very easy trap to fall into.
    1. What we consider "important" or "historic" speeches are often drafted, corrected and edited before being pronounce orally to a group of people.
    2. These speeches are transcribed (by journalists, for example) before being presented as written text to other people.
    3. In a literate society much weight is given to written texts as a record of historical events and the transmission of information to people at some distance (in either time or space).
    4. There is a tendency among many people to look to a "Golden Age" preserved in written texts and to imagine that everything (including the grammar of those texts) was so much better back then.

    K.

  29. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 9:19 am

    At a higher level of generality, I have long thought it a plausible hypothesis that one of the reasons (if we are to venture into the perhaps dangerous waters of psychobiography) that not only Derrida but so many of the fashionable (or once-fashionable) Po-Mo French Dudes of his cohort ended up with such nihilist points of view is that they had been victims of a certain rigorous style of education less common amongst Les Anglo-Saxons but still common in those days in the elite stream of French education (exalting classical texts not merely as bearers of inherited folkways but as entirely congruent with a highly cartesian/rationalistic worldview) that any moderately sensible person would have decided was overselling the case for the efficacy of rationality and the clarity/lucidity of a certain style of French prose. Of course, figuring out that ones teachers are full of BS does not by itself provide any particular guidance or imply any particular direction as to how to construct a coherent and more plausible alternative worldview.

  30. Rodger C said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 11:49 am

    What J.W. Brewer said. Derrida et al. are only really comprehensible if you know something about French education, and then they become a mixture of anodyne and wtf, as the youngsters say.

  31. Rick Spadine said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 12:10 pm

    Nah; much of what Derrida has to say is quite comprehensible, even to laypeople, though a background in philosophy def. helps clarify his motivations for making the kind of arguments he's making. (Hint: he's not just trying to freak out the squares, or make linguists tear their hair out.)

    If you read him looking for nonsense and banality, sure, you'll find it, but that's true of practically any text.

  32. Alex Bollinger said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 12:31 pm

    "I would think a child learning to read French would instinctively conclude that the written form is the true representation of the ideal language, while the spoken form is a derivative form."

    Well, unless you look at the way The Kids Today write French, with their "sa va"s and their "koi"s and dropping the latter half of each word and their "cimer"s and their "keum"s.

    "And in a sense this is true – the written form is the representation of an older spoken form than the current spoken form."

    What is the link between "older" and "ideal"?

    "Modern spoken French has lost a huge amount of the original vocalizations of its words, which are preserved only in the orthography of "silent" letters."

    There are other languages with conservative spelling in the face of evolving pronunciation. Like English, for example.

  33. Rick Spadine said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 12:50 pm

    Was my last comment deleted? If so, I'm curious why.

  34. Rick Spadine said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 12:53 pm

    My mistake! Feel free to delete this and the one above. Thanks.

  35. languagehat said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 1:18 pm

    Nah; much of what Derrida has to say is quite comprehensible, even to laypeople

    I'm sorry, but that's simply not true. I worked in a New Haven academic bookstore at the end of the 1970s, when Derrida was all the rage and people constantly came in to buy his books or ask for recommendations, and I did my damnedest to read and understand him. I even attended some lectures he gave while he was a visiting scholar; the lectures were witty and comprehensible, but they didn't help at all with the books. Frankly, I have my suspicions that those who claim to understand him have simply learned to parrot him convincingly, but that may simply be the resentful layman talking; at any rate, what you say is definitely false where laymen are concerned.

  36. Rick Spadine said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 1:43 pm

    Fair enough; I could have been more specific about where I was coming from with thatcomment. I consider myself a layperson. I'm a college dropout. I have no qualifications to discuss Derrida besides my interest and enthusiasm, and make no claim to expertise.

    Would I throw a copy of "Grammatologie" at a newcomer to philosophy without any special interest in the subject mattter? No. But I think his arguments can often be rephrased in a way that makes clear their significance and relevance to questions that are far from just academic. I tried to do that above, and I think I suscceeded, because once the nature of the disagreement between the post's author and Derrida became clear, commenters came out with a variety of well-considered opinions on both sides of the writing/speech issue. Clearly that question is not one with a single commonsensical answer.

    All that is moot, obviously, if I'm just deluding myself into thinking I understand (aspects of) a theory that's actually total nonsense and banality, but that's a bad-faith accusation that's impossible by nature to argue against.

  37. Rodger C said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 3:02 pm

    By "comprehensible" I meant in the first place, following JWB, comprehensible as a phenomenon: i.e., why on earth would anyone find it necessary to point X out, let alone to draw Y conclusion from it?

  38. Rick Spadine said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 3:20 pm

    "By 'comprehensible' I meant in the first place, following JWB, comprehensible as a phenomenon: i.e., why on earth would anyone find it necessary to point X out, let alone to draw Y conclusion from it?"

    Right: and I stated that, with a more thorough knowledge of philosophy, Derrida would become more comprehensible.

  39. Ron said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 3:49 pm

    @Alex Bollinger I've seen that while reading French twitter. I sometimes read tweets out loud because they are tough to decode otherwise. C bon, n's pas?

  40. Rodger C said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 5:54 pm

    @Rick Spadine: I think you assume an ignorance of philosophy I don't possess. At any rate, I said "Derrida et al.," and with regard to the specifically French context the example that comes strongest to my mind is Foucault's proclamation of the death of "Man." It takes only a general knowledge of French culture (and of philosophy as an enterprise with a history) to see that he's talking about a very cut-and-dried French notion of "l'Homme" as the ideal Cartesian Westerner.

  41. Bloix said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 7:11 pm

    Alex Bollinger-

    Like hostile readers everywhere, you misapprehend my suggestion. (I assume you do this intentionally because I don't believe you are an idiot.)

    My hypothesis is that in French, there is an underlying logic to the language that is observed by all speakers but only emerges into the light of day in writing.

    The plural is the most obvious example. Usually, plural words formed with s are pronounced the same as the singular form. But if the plural comes before a vowel, then the s is sounded. This means that the s is always "there" in a Platonic sense, but its presence is usually suppressed in the oral form while it is always revealed in the written form. So written French could easily be perceived to be more true or "basic" than the spoken form.

    In English there are few regular patterns whereby silent letters are always present but only sometimes sounded. Silent letters preserved through conservative orthography are far more likely to be perceived as illogical – the spelling is "wrong," and the spoken language is the true form.

  42. GH said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 7:21 am

    @Bloix:

    I wonder how conscious native French speakers are of this aspect of their language, though.

    You could make a similar observation about the inconsistent way vowels are realized in English (mainly due to the Great Vowel Shift), so that a vowel that is logically "the same" (and is spelled with the same letter) sounds quite different in e.g. "recognize" and "recognition". No doubt you can find examples in every language, if you go looking.

    I gather that linguists discuss these phenomena under the labels "morphemes" and "allomorphs," with your French examples being a case of "null allomorphs." In these cases, it is apparently useful to analyze a word or morpheme as having an "underlying representation" that is then (in speech) subject to various sound production rules to give a "surface structure" (what you actually say/hear).

    However, I'm ignorant of the extent to which this is a universally accepted theory in linguistics, or just the position of a particular (Chomskyan?) school of thought.

    I suppose an extension to that argument would be that the written form is then not necessarily based on the sounds of the spoken "surface structure," but may seek to render the "underlying representation" directly (based, perhaps, on orthographic "letter production" rules).

    I'm trying to think of any unambiguous examples, and drawing a blank, but perhaps some support can be found in the consternation over how to spell shortened slang forms of words such as "usual" (as in "the ?yoozh"), "casual" (as in "totally ?cazh") or "vagina" ("?vadge"), where there's no easy way to both conserve the spelling of the (etymologically) "underlying form" and also represent pronunciation in a standard, comprehensible way.

  43. Bloix said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 10:22 am

    GH- thanks for the sympathetic read, and for the introduction of the term null allomorph, which is interesting.

    I completely agree that English, if anything is less regular in spelling than French (and much less so than, say, Spanish or Italian). That's why we have spelling bees.

    But the French regularity is the whole point – the silent letters (which have no counterpart in Spanish or Italian and not much in English) represent a sense of an underlying reality.

    Much more commonly, English speakers find to their chagrin that the spelling does not represent their sense of the word. Take the enormous difficulty that many people have in spelling "definately." The spelling doesn't represent people's sense of the true sound. The fact that the spelling does represent the word's origin – finite, definite, definitely – doesn't register.

    In French, by contrast, the silent letters seem to represent something that is there, and yet is not reproduced in speech. I can see why French-speaking people might have an intuition that writing is more basic than speech, or at least that it is better at representing some sort of ideal of the language.

  44. Ken Miner said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 12:06 pm

    @ GH: You are quite right. Take the three phonemic forms /'fotǝgræf/, /fǝ'tagrǝfi/, /fotǝ'græfɪk/. None of the spoken forms actually realizes the underlying form //fotogræf// which more or less matches the written form and then undergoes some rules based on stress. We would say that English written forms tend to be "remote" or "abstract".

    This sort of thing is the best argument there is for not writing English phonemically. But the spelling reformers usually seem unaware of any of it.

    (This is rather old-fashioned phonology; many new things are happening now.)

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