Nos pauvres cerveaux de singe, à la française

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In the comments section of yesterday's post on "Gov. Cuomo and our poor monkey brains", it was noted that some examples of misnegation translate into Russian, French, and Spanish. This observation deserves a post of its own, since it helps us to distinguish among the possible explanations for the phenomena in question.

Focusing on French first, we observe some equivalents of "cannot be underestimated":

On ne peut pas sous-estimer l'importance d'enseigner les langues aux enfants …
Nous ne pouvons pas sous-estimer l'importance des petites entreprises dans notre économie régionale.
On ne peut pas sous-estimer l’importance et l’impact d’un bon titre.
Le travail des migrants (rotation du personnel) joue un rôle qu'on ne peut pas sous-estimer.
Néanmoins, nous ne pouvons pas sous estimer la complexité du problème et la nécessité de le résoudre graduellement, systématiquement, mais seulement sur la base de prémisses strictement objectives.

Quel que soit le rôle du vécu dans le Capital, rôle que sans doute on ne pourrait pas sous-estimer, le vécu n'est cependant jamais constitutif.

This pattern seems to be somewhat less common in French than in English, but still far from rare.

"Fail to miss" also has some Francophone echoes:

[Update — no it doesn't; or at least the examples that I found actually mean "nearly miss", as Coby Lubliner explains below…]

How about "no head injury is too trivial to be ignored"?  I wasn't able to find anything directly comparable — all the examples that I turned up were like these, where things line up in the right direction:

Aucun détail n'est trop insignifiant pour être contrôlé.
Aucun rêve n'est trop grand pour être concrétisé !
Nul être humain n'est trop mauvais pour être sauvé.

So I pass this one on to the readers: do "No wug is too dax to be zonged" and other classic examples of potential misnegation have French (or German or Russian or Chinese) equivalents?


  1. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 11:21 am

    But "faillir de manquer" doesn't mean "fail to miss"; it means "almost miss."

    [(myl) Oops. Chalk that one up to my imperfect command of French. So we can elevate what I thought was difference in frequency to a qualitative difference — is there any equivalent of "fail to miss" in French, or in other languages besides English?]

  2. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 11:55 am

    Speaking of imperfect command of French, are these also examples of "can not underestimate"?

    Or, on ne saurait pas sous-estimer l'importance de l'éducation dans l'évolution du système économique, politique et social de la Communauté européenne.

    Après avoir analysé en détail l'œuvre de Cambiaso, l'auteur conclut qu'il est impossible de sous-estimer le rôle joué par l'artiste dans le développement de la peinture baroque.

  3. Alain Turenne said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

    Closer to common practice:
    "Vous n'êtes pas sans ignorer que…" [you cannot fail to ignore that…] instead of "vous n'êtes pas sans savoir que…" [you cannot fail to know that…], with the latter's meaning.

    As for "On ne peut pas sous-estimer l'importance …", I understand "On ne *doit* pas sous-estimer l'importance …", i.e., "the importance of X should not be underestimated".

    [(myl) This is exactly the same situation as in English, where people sometimes act as if cannot meant must not, though in general it doesn't. Do you (for example) understand "On ne peut pas plaire à tout le monde" to mean the same thing as "On ne doit pas plaire à tout le monde", or "On ne peut pas obtenir mieux" as "On ne doit pas obtenir mieux"?]

    "Failli de manquer" sounds archaic nowadays, "failli manquer" "(j'ai failli manquer le train/le bus/…", etc.) being the usual pattern for "almost missed".

  4. MJ said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 12:19 pm

    Not a French speaker either, but what about "Il est impossible de sous-estimer l'importance . . ."?

  5. Colin Reid said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 1:41 pm

    Perhaps some of the confusion in 'cannot be underestimated' comes from the widespread use of can't in English to mean mustn't (as in "you can't do that, it's illegal!"). Likewise the use of can in place of may. The equivalent substitutions happen in German as well, but less commonly than in English (and are definitely frowned upon in more formal registers). It's interesting to look at the number of Google hits you get:

    "kann nicht unterschaetzt werden" ("cannot be underestimated"): 337 000
    "darf nicht unterschaetzt werden" ("must not be underestimated", ie bad things will happen if you do underestimate it): 444 000
    "kann nicht ueberschaetzt werden" ("cannot be overestimated"): 65 700
    "darf nicht ueberschaetzt werden": 37 300 (this one seems to be mostly used 'correctly' to mean "shouldn't be overestimated", ie "it may be less important than you think")

    So the German "cannot be underestimated" is very common, but not yet dominant. By comparison "cannot be underestimated" seems to come up a lot more than "must not be underestimated" in English, even though the latter is more logical for most contexts. Meanwhile in both languages "cannot be overestimated" (a phrase which is hyperbole in most contexts) is much less popular.

    The equivalent of "Fail to do" exists in German but isn't that common (I think "versagen" is a bit too strong for most contexts), and I've never seen "fail to miss".

  6. ke said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 1:49 pm

    In German we have “X ist nicht zu überschätzen” and “X ist nicht zu unterschätzen”. Both are used to mean either of “X is high” or “X is low”. Which meaning is intended can only be determined from context.

    The different meanings correspond to different interpretations of the “zu”-construction as either meaning “cannot” or “should not/must not”, much like in English and French. Unlike the English “cannot” and the French “ne peut pas”, the “zu”-construction is *generally* ambiguous between the two modalities. E.g. “Keine Wolke ist zu sehen” – “No cloud can be seen”, but “Das Sieb ist vor jeder Benutzung zu reinigen” – “The sieve should always be cleaned before use.”

  7. The Ridger said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 2:08 pm

    [(myl) This is exactly the same situation as in English, where people sometimes act as if cannot meant must not, though in general it doesn't.

    Maybe not in general, but very very frequently it does.. "You can't do that!" is often said to someone who is, in fact, doing that.

    Both "can" and "can't" have meanings beyond mere ability, no matter how many times people say "I'm sure you're able" to elicit a grudging "Okay, may I then?"

  8. ke said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 2:16 pm

    Intuitively, I’d say “No wug is too dax to be zonged” with misnegation is not very common in German, save for the special case where the subordinate clause contains an extra “nicht”. This special case is very common and completely grammatical. To give some examples, the first page of Google hits for "kein * ist zu * um" contains 5 instances with the extra “nicht”

    – Kein Job ist zu stressig, um nicht doch die Zeit für ein Lauftraining zu finden.
    – Kein Kind ist zu klein, um eine Diagnosestellung nicht frühzeitig erzwingen zu können.
    – Kein Kontakt ist zu unbedeutend, um nicht gepflegt zu werden.
    – Kein Prolaps ist zu groß, um ihn nicht aus einem Mikrositus entfernen zu können.
    – Kein Wunsch ist zu kurios um ihn den choccies nicht mitzuteilen!

    and 3 instances without

    – Kein Weg ist zu weit, um dort anzukommen, wo das Herz zu Hause ist.
    – Kein Kind ist zu dumm, um etwas Anstand zu lernen.
    – Kein Problem ist zu klein, um darüber zu reden.

    and 2 search artefacts. None of the sentences would change their meaning by dropping resp. inserting the extra “nicht” in the “um”-clause (or Infinitivgruppe introduced by “um”, if you will).

    It is as if the conjunction “um” (“to”) licenses this optional extra “nicht” and prevents it from making a semantic contribution. The conjunction “bevor” (“before”) has the same property:

    – Aber Arbeit 2 kann nicht auf Maschine a kommen, bevor sie nicht Maschine d durchlaufen hat.
    – Ich komme nicht weg von hier, bevor ich nicht mit der Arbeit fertig bin.
    – Ich weiß nicht, was ich gesagt habe, bevor ich nicht die Antwort darauf gehört habe.
    – …

  9. marie-lucie said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 2:32 pm

    I think the French examples are either translations from English, or affected by those translations. I also agree with Alain Turenne about the confusion between the two meanings of English can, which are translated with the verb pouvoir which has to do with possibility/impossibility.

    myl: do you understand "On ne peut pas plaire à tout le monde" to mean the same thing as "On ne doit pas plaire à tout le monde", or "On ne peut pas obtenir mieux" as "On ne doit pas obtenir mieux"?

    In my case, absolutely not. On ne peut pas means "one cannot = it is impossible for one to …". So On ne peut pas plaire à tout le monde means "one/you can't please everybody", and On ne peut pas avoir mieux = "You can't get anything better". ( I would use avoir here, not obtenir which is a direct translation of English "get" but belongs to a higher register in French).

    ( I say "in my case" because I am a long-time expatriate and the language has changed quite a lot in my lifetime, mostly because of English influence, not just in vocabulary but – to me more shocking – on syntax).

  10. marie-lucie said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 2:37 pm

    Example: English "must" is now translated by the verb devoir, which has therefore increased its usage, while the idiomatic translation used to use the phrase il faut (que …), for instance il ne faut pas sous-estimer ….

  11. Colin Reid said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 3:37 pm

    @ke: ah good, I'm not a native German speaker but it seems I correctly picked up on the ambiguity in 'etwas ist nicht zu tun'. The equivalent exists in English but if the meaning is passive, we use a passive infinitive, e.g. "This is not to be underestimated". The negation can signify advice against doing something ("He is not to be trusted"), a prohibition ("She is not to be disturbed") or impossibility ("They were nowhere to be seen"), or perhaps something else I haven't thought of. It can definitely be an ambiguous construction. Then there's "you are not to do it" and so on with an active meaning, also with their fair share of polysemy (e.g. "you were not to know" or "what not to do").

    With 'bevor … nicht' in the sense you give, is it always the case that the 'bevor' essentially means 'solange'?

  12. Colin Reid said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 3:41 pm

    Also: according to Wikipedia, 'savoir', 'pouvoir' and 'devoir' are used in a markedly different way in Belgium to the way they are used in France. (Perhaps other dialects differ as well.) Can anyone confirm this?

  13. marie-lucie said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 3:49 pm

    I don't know anything about Belgian French, but it is quite possible that these uses are influenced by Flemish, which, as a Germanic language, must have equivalents to must/müssen, etc.

  14. Garrett Wollman said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 4:42 pm

    @marie-lucie: I don't want to hijack this thread, so could you just point to some online references that describe the change in idiom that you describe? It's been nearly two decades since I studied French, and we certainly learned "il faut" as a fixed expression long before we ever learned "devoir". Are there as I suspect similar changes in word choice for requests and prohibitions? (I can't tell as my French exposure these days is limited to signage and packaging.)

  15. BW said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

    @Colin Reid

    Google is very unreliable in its first estimate of hits. For example, I googled your two German phrases and clicked through to the last page of results. I got:
    544 for 'darf nicht unterschätzt werden'
    157 for 'kann nicht unterschätzt werden'

    Of the latter, at least some were actually correct, such as
    "Grundsätzlich sollten Einflüsse, die das Glas der Primärverpackung auf die Stabilität von Medikamenten haben kann, nicht unterschätzt werden."
    "… ohne dass dies von außen erkannt werden kann. Nicht unterschätzt werden sollte …"

    So, we can conclude that this type of misnegation exists in German, but it doesn't seem particularly common.

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 5:11 pm

    @marie-lucie: How about this example from 1940?

    Ce sentiment peut fournir à la propagande étrangère un moyen d'action dont il est impossible de sous-estimer les effets.

    Were anglicisms showing up that early among diplomats?

  17. marie-lucie said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 5:22 pm

    Garrett Wollman, no, I don't have any online references, I am not studying the question specifically, I just notice a huge amount of English syntax in the current press. In fact I find it depressing to read the French press online (meaning basically Le Monde) because of the (to me) non-French syntax (which I think has crept up slowly from translations). French people in France may have got used to it slowly, but since I have been in English-speaking Canada for decades and have not read much French in the meantime I find the English element very striking (even in the absence of English words in the texts in question).

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

    @marie-lucie: How about this example, which appears to be from 1919?

    Mais il nous semble impossible de sous-estimer les différences qui séparent la doctrine que nous venons d'exposer d'un positivisme quel qu'il soit.

  19. Charles in Vancouver said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 6:06 pm

    My second language understanding of French is…

    Even though "devoir" translates to "must", the negation doesn't follow as in English. Ne pas devoir (verb) = to have no obligation to (verb). In other words, it isn't "must not", but rather "not must".

  20. Charles in Vancouver said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 6:12 pm

    I should add that you can get "must not" by negating the infinitive instead: "tu dois ne pas conduire après avoir bu"

  21. marie-lucie said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 6:44 pm

    Jerry Friedman, I can't comment on where your examples of il est impossible de sous-estimer …might come from, but neither of them uses the verb pouvoir as the more modern examples do, which is my point: traditional French syntax uses impersonal phrases (il faut, il est (im)possible, and many others) rather than quasi-auxiliary verbs li devoir, pouvoir, etc by which the English modal auxiliaries are translated.

    Charles in Vancouver: "tu dois ne pas conduire après avoir bu"

    To me this sentence is ungrammatical. It should be Tu ne dois pas conduire apràs avoir bu, which is less idiomatic than Il ne faut pas conduire apràs avoir bu. I am not aware of ever encountering Tu dois ne pas … except perhaps if devoir means must in the context of guessing, where tu ne dois pas … is still preferable.

  22. Hermann Burchard said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 11:18 pm

    I tried Google on "man kann den wert der erziehung nicht unterschätzen" and again with "über" for "unter", but nothing good came up: It occurred to me that the English difficulty may lie in a wrong choice "can" for the auxiliary verb. Substitute "may" for "can" — the two are often confused — and you get a non-nonsensical "we may not underestimate the value of education." Does alter the intended semantics? I find it impossible to understand why English speakers would not say: "We cannot overestimate the value of education." Oh, my poor monkey brain!

  23. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 23, 2011 @ 1:01 am

    @marie-lucie: Sorry, I misunderstood. I thought you were saying that the misnegation in MYL's examples was because they'd been influenced by English. I provided my examples of il est impossible de sous-estimer to show that French can have misnegations that don't come from an anglicized use of pouvoir, which was his question.

    All three of my examples are from Google Books. The first is from a review of Les scènes de nuit de Lucas Cambiaso in The Art Quarterly, volumes 15–16, probably 1952. The second is from Documents diplomatiques français: 1939-1944. 1940, tome 2. The third is from the Revue de métaphysique et de morale, Volume 26 (probably 1919). I can't find the author of any of them.

    @Hermann Burchard: As a fellow possessor of a monkey brain, I regret to tell you that I'd normally take "We may not underestimate" to mean "We are forbidden to underestimate", which would be somewhat odd. When people say "We cannot underestimate", they mean "We should not" or "We must not"; it's a bad idea.

    And people do say it right occasionally. "We cannot overestimate the paramount influence of his conversion on the Christianity of his day and all time." Thomas Carter, Life and Letters of Paul (2005). For some reason there seems to be a religious theme to a lot of the 21st-century hits at GB.

  24. marie-lucie said,

    January 23, 2011 @ 1:17 am

    JF, indeed I was not referring to the misnegation but to the use of pouvoir.

    myl: nos pauvres cerveaux de singe, à la Française

    French has two words for "brain", le cerveau and la cervelle. The first one is fairly high register for the organ in anatomical descriptions and in the context of high mental functioning. The second one is lower register, used for animal brains, especially used for food, and also as a familiar word for relatively low mental functioning in humans. So in the present context of "our monkey brains", it would be more appropriate to use nos pauvres cervelles de singe.

    Also, there used to be a difference between the adjective meaning "French", used without a capital, and the noun meaning "French man/woman/person", used with a capital. I think that the use of the capital for both is another English influence. To me, à la Française seems to mean "like a French woman or girl", while à la française means "(according to) French style" which is what the English title implies.

  25. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 23, 2011 @ 1:31 am

    On the "no wug" front, are these misnegations?

    Voitures, lopins de terres : aucun cadeau n'est trop beau pour attirer les guitaristes Michelinot et Dizzy Madjeku, le saxophoniste Deyesse Empopo en 1972. [to Franco's Spain]

    Hommes & migrations, Issues 1265-1270 (2007).

    That looks a little different from the typical English case—it may be something like "No present is too beautiful [to use] to attract the guitarists M. and D. M. and the saxophonist D. E. in 1972." I saw a couple more like that one. The next two seem more like "No detail is too trivial to ignore."

    Aucun niveau social n'est trop insignifiant pour ne point mériter une gestion par les meilleurs de la société concernée.

    Phambu Ngoma-Binda, Une démocratie libérale communautaire pour la République démocratique du Congo et l'Afrique (2001). À propos du titre, est-ce qu'on peut dire "De ta bouche &agrave l'oreille de Dieu"? (="From your mouth to God's ear")

    … la pratique de la dialectique valant pour elle-même, aucun objet n'est trop vil pour en interdire la mise en œuvre.

    Sylvain Delcomminette, L'inventivité dialectique dans le Politique de Platon (2000).

  26. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 23, 2011 @ 1:35 am

    Argh. à, not &agrave.

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 23, 2011 @ 1:54 am

    And as long as I'm correcting myself, just forget that I wrote, "When people say 'We cannot underestimate', they mean 'We should not' or 'We must not'; it's a bad idea." The monkey brain is easily confused.

  28. Caroline Fery said,

    January 23, 2011 @ 3:38 am

    A comment on the use of 'savoir', 'pouvoir' and 'devoir' in Belgian French as an answer to Colin Reid
    In Belgian French, "je ne sais pas venir ce soir" coud mean "I cannot/I am not able to come tonight". In hexagonal French it translates to "je ne peux pas venir ce soir" (this kind of Belgicism is disappearing nowadays)

    "Tu ne dois pas manger de viande" can mean "you are not allowed to eat meat". This is of course due to the ambiguous scope of the negation which can be in the main or in the embedded clause. So "tu dois ne pas conduire après avoir bu" is really ambiguous. In one reading it means "you are not obliged to drive after drinking" and in the other "you are obliged not to drive after…" This ambiguity is present in both hexagonal and Belgian French.
    "aucune blessure à la tête est trop insignifiante pour être négligée" is as hard to compute as in English.

  29. ke said,

    January 23, 2011 @ 4:56 am

    @Colin Reid: About "bevor" meaning "solange" in the usage I mentioned, yes, that's one way to look at it. But keep in mind that the "nicht" can be dropped without changing the meaning, then this analysis doesn't work anymore.

  30. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 23, 2011 @ 1:15 pm

    This exact question was discussed thoroughly on Swedish Radio's Vetenskapsradion Språket on 31 Dec 2008. Prof. Lars-Gunnar Andersson went through the Swedish Academy newspaper corpus and concluded that two times out of three the writer wrote "cannot be underestimated" [kan inte underskattas] in error for "cannot be overestimated" [kan inte överskattas].

    You can judge the degree of thoroughness for yourself (in Swedish, naturally) here. In the same broadcast there's also a discussion of the topolect situation in Nepal, parts of which are in English.

  31. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 23, 2011 @ 1:17 pm

    Dang! Here's the link in plaintext.

  32. marie-lucie said,

    January 23, 2011 @ 2:30 pm


    Voitures, lopins de terres : aucun cadeau n'est trop beau pour attirer les guitaristes Michelinot et Dizzy Madjeku, le saxophoniste Deyesse Empopo en 1972. [to Franco's Spain]

    This sentence can be ambiguous. "No gift is too beautiful to attract these musicians": this can imply that the musicians might be antagonized by the most beautiful gifts (if they have modest tastes and will not "bought" with expensive gifts), or, more likely, the musicians are so much in demand that it is worth giving them the most handsome gifts in order to attract them. The first interpretation is about the musicians who (potentially) have a choice of refusing the most expensive gifts, the second about the potential givers who are ready to give any amount of money or property in order to attract them. In the second case, the sentence could be clarified as "Nul cadeau n'est trop beau selon ceux qui veullent attirer les musiciens".

  33. Ben Hemmens said,

    January 23, 2011 @ 5:43 pm

    "bevor … nicht" is the only example of overnegation that occurs to me which seems to be correct standard German.

    Where I am (southern Austria) double negation is used generously in dialect. Possibly a contact phenomenon with Slovenian or other Slavonic languages, where double negation is the rule, or maybe just a spontaneous product of our monkey brains.

  34. Hermann Burchard said,

    January 23, 2011 @ 8:00 pm

    W.r. to my above post, apologies for overlooking earlier comments on German misnegation. @Jerry Friedman: Thanks, and: 'We should not' or 'We must not'; it's a bad idea," are those covered by "We may not?" — But, here for a joke. Forget the details but will try:
    Teacher in English class: "A double negative amounts to a positive, but we don't have any examples where a double positive results in a negation." Voice from the back of the class: "Yeah, sure."

  35. Hermann Burchard said,

    January 23, 2011 @ 8:01 pm

    Mein armes Affenhirn..

  36. Ray Dillinger said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 11:13 pm

    I have recently been hearing in English (west coast, USA) a construction that I found jarring the first few times, but it's completely logical. Perhaps it's a response to overly convoluted negations such as those we're discussing here:

    A few examples;

    "That would be a very important thing to not do." (Advice against building a flawed design)
    "I really enjoyed not going there." (the speaker stayed home because he doesn't like bars)
    "you have to not see his work to appreciate it." (a wry way of saying an artist is overhyped)

    In each case negation (usually the word "not") is applied directly to an active verb where it would be more typically applied to a participial form or gerund.

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