"Dear subscribed"

« previous post | next post »

This morning's email brought a notice from Le Monde, to which I apparently subscribe:

Two things struck me about the salutation "Chère abonnée, cher abonné". The more obvious and less interesting one is that Le Monde is obviously not on board with "Écriture inclusive". The second, less topical thing: the English word "subscriber" implies that subscribing to a periodical is something that you do, while the French word "abonné(e)" implies that subscribing to a periodical is something that's done to you.

It seems to be a general fact about modern English that it resists type-shifting past participles into nouns. The wrongness of a salutation like "Dear subscribed" is just an instance of this more general pattern. There are some old formations like "dearly belovèd", and plural definites are sometimes used in formal (and archaic?) writing, like "the damned". But using past participles as nouns in English seems to be a marginal phenomenon at best.

In contrast, French seems happy enough to do this, to the extent that English long ago borrowed the derivational suffix "-ee" from French for the purpose, as in employee, payee, grantee,

But in English it's subscriber, not subscribee — and in French it's abonné(e), not abonneur, even though (s')abonner means (se) prendre un abonnement.

Half-serious question: Do the French have a neo-Whorfian predilection for passivity (in the grammatical sense)? What about other languages? Are there socio-economic consequences for such typological differences?

And if not, what does this tell us about the whole language/thought nexus?


  1. Laura Morland said,

    February 21, 2019 @ 7:31 am

    As a fellow abonné(e), I would suggest that, being one in French feels no more "passive" than any other "reflexive-verb activity."

    Je me suis lavé les mains, je me suis brossé les dents, je me suis abonné au Monde… all involve direct action. One's status as "abonné(e)" is a direct result of the previous action.

    Cela dit, I understand that nearly every verb in Spanish can be réflexive. In a world where "the cup drops itself," are inanimate objets felt to possess more agency, and humans less responsibility?

    [(myl) Aha, it's reflexivity, not passivity, because in French, subscribing is someone you do to yourself. ]

  2. Philip Anderson said,

    February 21, 2019 @ 7:32 am

    “Dearly beloved” springs to mind, but is more Early Modern English than modern.

  3. Phillip Minden said,

    February 21, 2019 @ 7:38 am

    In English, you ARE subscribed to something, too. Nothing Freudian necessary, I think.
    (Still funny if a boss starts his talk to the staff with Dearly Employèd, I suppose.)

  4. Tom Dawkes said,

    February 21, 2019 @ 8:02 am

    @ Phillip Minden

    "Dearly Employed" might make everyone think of reducing the staffing costs!

  5. SP said,

    February 21, 2019 @ 8:06 am

    People who stand up on a bus are sometimes referred to as "standees":
    Following the Whorfian logic, do the individualistic anglophones view the condition of standing as something done to them by rival passengers?

  6. Simon Tatham said,

    February 21, 2019 @ 8:07 am

    You may 'subscribe' actively to an old-fashioned paper periodical, but I think it's extremely common to 'be subscribed' passively – particularly if it's against your own wishes – to an electronic mailing list.

    (I think this has rather the same tone as 'being volunteered' for something.)

  7. Robot Therapist said,

    February 21, 2019 @ 8:14 am

    "do the individualistic anglophones view the condition of standing as something done to them by rival passengers?"

    Well, they are quite likely to say "I was stood on the bus" (unless of course they were "sat on the bus").

  8. Don Monroe said,

    February 21, 2019 @ 8:42 am

    To my ear there are many plurals that do not seem particularly archaic, such as "the unemployed," "the forgotten," "the unwashed," and "the chosen." But those examples do seem to refer to people who are passive victims or (beneficiaries) of circumstance, which the construction reinforces.

    The singular strikes me as odd, though.

  9. Jenny Chu said,

    February 21, 2019 @ 8:47 am

    I would be interested to know whether this changes after the full implementation of GDPR, under which people In the EU must actively subscribe to mailing list and double opt in, to confirm they REALLY want to subscribe…

  10. ardj said,

    February 21, 2019 @ 9:07 am

    I call the dead (OED: "orig.pple") in aid against Professor Libermann's view of participle=>noun behaviour in English. Oh alright, perhaps it is relatively marginal, and not today a given (first OED: 1879) that a transitive verb can be so used. But even the example of "subscribed" is not entirely conclusive: one can speak of the "the subscribed" who will receive x while the unsubscribed will not, for instance, just as with the committed, the fallen, the grown-ups, the subsidized, …

    But really I just want to recall the story, probably true, of the early days of mass-mailing, when supposedly the Reader's Digest sent out many letters, each to "Dear Personalized Addressee"

  11. Bob Ladd said,

    February 21, 2019 @ 9:26 am

    I think the relevant semantic dimension here is the one that underlies so-called split intransitivity, the idea that intransitive verbs are either 'unergative' or 'unaccusative' (there is a lot about this on Wikipedia). The basic idea is that the subject of an intransitive verb is either an agent or a patient. This underlies lots of syntactic distinctions in a number of well-studied European languages, including whether the verb is reflexive or not (see Laura Morland's first comment), whether the verb takes have or be as an auxiliary in French, German, Italian, and some others (j'ai fini but je suis sorti(e), and whether the past participle conveys the active intransitive meaning when used as an attributive adjective in English (fallen leaves are leaves that have fallen, but an eaten chicken is not a chicken that has eaten).

    Cross-linguistically, there is a kind of semantic continuum from definitely unaccusative to definitely unergative, such that a verb that's kind of in-between semantically may behave differently in different languages. I think that's what's going on with subscribe / (s')abonner – that is, Laura Morland's comment and MYL's reaction are on target as far as the specific case under discussion goes, but I think that generalizing beyond this case will involve the notion of unaccusativity.

  12. Michael said,

    February 21, 2019 @ 10:53 am

    Hebrew also uses passive for subscriber.

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 21, 2019 @ 11:02 am

    Robot Therapist: Well, they are quite likely to say "I was stood on the bus" (unless of course they were "sat on the bus").

    If they're British, anyway. It's not likely at all if they're American or Canadian, in my experience. I don't know about the individualistic anglophones of other countries.

  14. JB said,

    February 21, 2019 @ 11:09 am

    What strikes me about the salutation "Chère abonnée, cher abonné" is not its lack of inclusivity, but rather its excessive and repetitive inclusivity: such a formulation would have been unnecessary and redundant in an age that respected the genius of the French language.

  15. JJM said,

    February 21, 2019 @ 11:56 am

    "What strikes me about the salutation 'Chère abonnée, cher abonné' is not its lack of inclusivity, but rather its excessive and repetitive inclusivity…"

    Well, of course, gender isn't an option in French, it's a grammatical requirement: nouns and pronouns must be either masculine or feminine – they cannot be both or neither. Further, gender is indicated in both the singular and plural.

    The sort of salutation above is very common in French now, far more common that the much-ballyhooed écriture inclusive, which doesn't seem to be catching on at all (trop compliquée et trop bizarre, à mon avis).

    Just the other day at Mass (I live in the Ottawa area in Canada), the priest, while making some announcements, used the formula "pour ceux et celles qui…" ("for those who…). In the old days, he would have simply said "pour ceux qui". A younger priest, more alert to PC trends, would have said "pour celles et ceux qui…".

    Notice that Le Monde is certainly onto this trend: they placed the feminine before the masculine.

  16. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 21, 2019 @ 11:59 am

    What becomes of the broken-hearted? Admittedly that falls on the usual side of the unaccusative versus unergative line referenced above.

  17. Max Wheeler said,

    February 21, 2019 @ 1:41 pm

    And in modern English -ee is an absolutive suffix, i.e. relating to the object of a transitive verb, or the subject of an intransitive. So alongside employee (trans) we have retiree (intrans), and attendee; standee is well-formed, though I'm not familiar with it.

  18. David Morris said,

    February 21, 2019 @ 3:18 pm

    In English, the same verb form covers perfect 'I have subscribed' ('Dear having-subscribed person') and passive 'I was subscribed' ('Dear been-subscribed person'). The use of the bare V-pp doesn't immediately tell us which aspect/voice is meant. Pardonnez mon lack of knowledge of French grammar, but does French have perfect aspect, too; if so, does it use the same verb form as passive voice; if so, could abonnée, abonné be perfect aspect and not passive voice?

    [(myl) Yes.]

  19. Bloix said,

    February 21, 2019 @ 3:21 pm

    In my line of work, we routinely speak of insurers and insureds.
    I couldn't tell you why we don't say insuree.

  20. Alyssa said,

    February 21, 2019 @ 5:20 pm

    I have the opposite impression as JJM, living in Montreal I'd expect to see "Cher abonné" or "Cher(e) "abonné(e)", but it's a bit weird to repeat the whole phrase twice.

    I went through my emails to check my instincts, and it looks like it's a huge mixed bag:
    chers x 3
    chere(e) x 2
    Cher/Chère x 2
    Cher ou chère
    Chères et chers
    Cher x 2

  21. Keith said,

    February 22, 2019 @ 4:07 am

    Two things struck me about the salutation "Chère abonnée, cher abonné". The more obvious and less interesting one is that Le Monde is obviously not on board with "Écriture inclusive".

    I agree with JJM on this; it is a very clear, and very common, way of writing inclusively in French, and the text remains perfectly legible. It has been around for decades, and we're used to it. The earliest example I can think of is the often caricatured speeches of Arlette Laguiller, beginning "Travailleuses, travailleurs!"

    As JJM pointed out, "gender isn't an option in French, it's a grammatical requirement"; references to "une personne", "une victime", "une sentinelle", will always use feminine grammatical agreements, even when we know that the person, the victim or the sentry in question is a man. So if, when addressing a roomful of men, the speaker announces something along the lines of "toutes les personnes présentes sont priées d'éteindre leurs téléphones", nobody bats an eyelid.

    Now for the word "abonné / abonnée" for a subscriber. French very easily takes the past participle of a verb and uses it as an adjective (as does English); it then takes that past participle and uses it as a noun (as does English, but perhaps less frequently).

    So this is the "perfect aspect", mentioned by David Morris; I don't think I've ever encountered that in French, before today. The verb "s'abonner" becomes (via its past participle) an adjective when the verb is completed. The action of subscribing to an online service is so rapid, these days (even if a payment is invovled)… could "s'abonner" even be considered as being "semelfactive"?

    Don Monroe points out examples of the adjective becoming a noun in "the unemployed," "the forgotten," "the unwashed," and "the chosen", and sees some passivity in these words, whereas the English word "subscriber" looks very much like an active "agent" kind of a noun. Amusingly, while "unemployed" looks "passive", the French equivalent "chômeur" looks like one of those active "agent" kinds of a noun (like "coureur", "acteur").

  22. Bart O'Brien said,

    February 22, 2019 @ 4:43 am

    Dutch has imported the French abonnee (irrespective of gender).
    But here's a thing. If as a subscriber in England you don't want to remain subscribed to a magazine you don't need to cancel; you can simply ignore any reminders to renew.
    However, as an abonnee in the Netherlands you have to cancel the subscription explicitly well before renewal time; if you don't, the magazine publisher can in principle, and perhaps in practice, take action to recover the debt.
    I don't know if that is true of an abonné in France.

  23. Adam F said,

    February 22, 2019 @ 5:19 am

    Like other commenters, I think this is related to the reflexive-verb-nature of "s'abonner à qqch".

  24. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 22, 2019 @ 9:42 am

    I happened to be in Paris in June of 1958 when I heard (on television) De Gaulle exclaim, "Françaises, Français, aidez moi !" But the peculiar thing about the Le Monde solicitation is that, when spoken, it sounds like a repetition of the same phrase.

  25. Antoine said,

    February 23, 2019 @ 6:56 am

    "A younger priest, more alert to PC trends, would have said "pour celles et ceux qui…".

    … written "celzéceux"

  26. David Marjanović said,

    February 23, 2019 @ 9:54 am

    [(myl) Aha, it's reflexivity, not passivity, because in French, subscribing is someone you do to yourself. ]


    Perhaps the best example of absolutive -ee is the licensee, who is not that which is licensed but the person who receives the license. In German that's a Lizenznehmer or Lizenznehmerin, a very ergative "license-taker".

  27. Bloix said,

    February 23, 2019 @ 6:10 pm

    licensee, lessee, subrogee, donee, franchisee, indemnitee …

  28. Andrew Usher said,

    February 23, 2019 @ 7:45 pm

    All those uses of the legalistic '-ee' suffix are where it could be contrasted with '-er'/'-or'. 'Standee' is otherwise, and strange for that reason – if I needed to refer to those standing I'd sooner say 'standers'.

    Cory Lubliner:
    It's more than peculiar. It shows that the French are more accepting of difference between written and spoken language than we are. No one would or could say 'chere abonnee, cher abonne' – which is a repetition of the same words – but writing it apparently doesn't feel strange.

    Placing the female first seems to be standard in French – a bit like like our 'ladies and gentlemen' so not an especial indicator of progressivity.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  29. Bessel Dekker said,

    February 25, 2019 @ 9:43 am

    One singular/plural is "undersigned", of course — curiously related to "subscriber(s)", if not in meaning.

  30. JJM said,

    February 28, 2019 @ 9:23 am

    "… written 'celzéceux'"

    Yes, I've seen that at some French French (as opposed to Canadian French) sites, as well as "toutzétous" or some variation thereof. It seems to mainly centre on satire regarding M. le Président Macron's public pronouncements.

    Regardless, even if you take "celzéceux/toutzétous" seriously, you're still not out of the grammatical woods: they're plurals, sure, but what gender are they? I mean, they work perfectly well as long as they are not in a phrase where they're modified.

    What if you say "pour celzéceux qui sont déjà inscrits"? Should that be "pour celzéceux qui sont déjà inscrites" or even "pour celzéceux qui sont déjà inscritzéincrits"?


    For the record, I note that in situations where the inclusive "celles et ceux" must be modified by an adjective or past participle, the masculine plural form is always used.

RSS feed for comments on this post