Anxieties of word-order influence

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Sir Michael Edwards, "La Française République", bloc-notes de l'Académie Française 5/2/2019:

La grande majorité des importateurs d’anglicismes sont des gens honnêtes ; les agents publicitaires en particulier ne cachent pas leur jeu. Air France est in the air, les voitures Citroën sont inspired by you, Opel, qui nous disait autrefois, fièrement et avec l’accent à l’appui : Wir leben Autos, nous offrent maintenant de bonnes occasions pendant les German days. […]

Il en est autrement dans le monde universitaire.On dirait qu’il a été charmé par l’ingéniosité de ce que j’ai appelé (à propos d’autres usages impropres) les anglicismes furtifs, qui s’insinuent dans la langue sans se faire remarquer. […] [D]ans Aix-Marseille Université, par exemple, tous les termes sont français ; de quoi pourrait-on se plaindre ? De l’ordre des mots, hélas, qui est anglais, comme dans Cambridge University.

The great majority of anglicism importers are honest: advertisers in particular don't hide what they're up to. Air France is "in the air", Citroën cars are "inspired by you", Opel, who once told us proudly, backed up with a German accent, "Wir leben cars", now offers us bargains during "German days". […]

It's otherwise in academia, which has perhaps been seduced by the ingenuity of what I've called "furtive anglicisms", which sneak into the language without being noticed. […] In "Aix-Marseille Université", for example,  all the terms are French; what can we complain about? The order of the words, alas, which is English, as in "Cambridge University".

As you might guess from his name, Sir Michael Edwards is actually British, born in London and educated at Cambridge. Lacking any Royal Academy of the English Language, the British have turned linguistic peeving into one of those amateur sports that can be easily (if erratically) internationalized. The Académie's new site "Dire, ne pas dire" seems to be an attempt to professionalize this activity, or perhaps just to promote its public display.

Edwards goes on to cite other examples of the same syntactic crime:

L’enseignement supérieur n’est pas le seul coupable. On trouve également, avec en première position le nom employé comme adjectif : Nantes Métropole, RATP Sécurité, une série d’enquêtes télévisées qui s’appelle Cash Investigations, et la présentation de la France, avec à la fois franchise et fausseté, comme la start-up nation. Si cette coutume devait s’étendre, en donnant Beauvais Aéroport ou Sud Autoroute, une des deux institutions qui forment le Parlement pourrait devenir la Nationale Assemblée, et le nom du pays se transformer, avec un tour de passe-passe, en la Française République.

C’est très peu probable ? Soit, mais qui aurait prédit que la Sorbonne, plus ancienne qu’aucune université anglaise, se laisserait rebaptiser Sorbonne Université ? Et que les Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne deviendraient, en faisant un vif demi-tour afin d’aligner les mots dans l’autre sens, Sorbonne Université Presses ? Et pourquoi ? Ni Cambridge University Press ni Oxford University Press n’ont demandé à servir de modèle.

Higher education is not the only guilty party. We also find, with a noun in initial position used as an adjective: "Nantes Métropole", "RATP Sécurité", a series of TV shows called "Cash Investigations", and the presentation of France, at once freely and falsely, as the "start-up nation". If this custom should spread, giving us "Beavais Aéroport" or "Sud Autoroute", one of the two institutions making up the parliament could become the "Nationale Assemblée", and the name of the country may become by sleight of hand the "Française République".

Unlikely? Maybe, but who would have predicted that the Sorbonne, older than any English university, would let itself be renamed "Sorbonne Université"? And that the Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne would become, making a quick verbal about-face, "Sorbonne Université Presses"? And why? Neither Cambridge University Press nor Oxford University Press asked to become their model.

Of course the balance of trade  in modifier-head order once favored France, leaving residues in English like Attorney General, Sergeant Major, and Peach Melba.

Edwards ends by putting the issue in historical context:

Au Moyen Âge, à peu près 80 % des adjectifs étaient antéposés, au xviie siècle 50 %, au xxe seulement 35 %. Les Français ont voulu cette évolution, sans trop y penser, ce déplacement de l’adjectif après le nom qui a progressivement éloigné le français de l’anglais. Ont-ils changé d’avis ?

In the middle ages, about 80% of adjectives were initial; in the 17th century 50%; in the 20th century 35%. The French have willed this evolution, without thinking about it much, this post-nominal displacement of adjectives that has progressively distanced French from English. Have they changed their minds?

This perspective seems to violate the norms of the sport, whereby the complainer is expected to claim (if often falsely) that the miscreants under scrutiny are discarding centuries of hallowed grammatical practice.



  1. Kristian said,

    May 5, 2019 @ 8:56 am

    In my opinion his article doesn't really seem peevish at all.

  2. Tom S. Fox said,

    May 5, 2019 @ 10:45 am

    I have to take issue with the translation, “It’s otherwise in the academy…” Not only does it sound weird, but given the institution that published the piece, I initially thought it was referring to the French Academy itself until I looked at the original French. Why not, “It’s different in academia?”

    [(myl) Good point –suggestion taken.]

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    May 5, 2019 @ 11:28 am

    I am in agreement with both respondents to date — it does not seem peevish to me, nor did I find “It’s otherwise in the academy…” to be the most natural rendering of Il en est autrement dans le monde universitaire. For me, the obvious rendering of the latter would be "It is otherwise in academe [or 'academia']".

  4. Adam F said,

    May 5, 2019 @ 11:32 am

    I just love the phrase "the balance of trade in modifier-head order"!

  5. Tom S. Fox said,

    May 5, 2019 @ 11:35 am

    I’m still not sold on the word “otherwise” here.

  6. Bloix said,

    May 5, 2019 @ 11:49 am

    It was obvious to me within the first sentence that the author of the quoted passages is a native English-speaker. Why? Because my French is not very good and I read it slowly, yet it could read these passages quite easily. Usually, I have difficulty with referents, tenses, idiomatic constructions, words whose meaning depends on context – all sorts of things. But not with this!

    Conclusion: Edwards writes translated English, not genuine French.

  7. Bloix said,

    May 5, 2019 @ 12:14 pm

    PS- the formal name of Cambridge University is "The University of Cambridge." It was incorporated in 1571 as The Chancellor Masters and Scholars of the University of Cambridge," and that remains its legal name today. Although "Cambridge University" is more informal and is used formally in compounds (e.g. "Cambridge University Press"), the school seems to prefer "University of Cambridge." See, e.g.,
    You'd think as a Cambridge man that Edwards would know this.

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    May 5, 2019 @ 12:17 pm

    From his Wikipedia entry, I would suspect that his spoken/written French is not bad at all …

    Sir Michael Edwards OBE (born 29 April 1938) is an Anglo-French poet and academic.

    [B]orn in Barnes, London, [h]e was educated at Kingston Grammar School and Christ's College, Cambridge, where he studied French and Spanish. He wrote his doctorate on Jean Racine, completing it in Paris. He was the longtime Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick until 2002, when he was elected to a chair in the Study of Literary Creation in the English Language at the Collège de France.

    [He] was elected to one of the 40 seats of the Académie française on 21 February 2013, becoming the first English person to be so honoured. He had been nominated previously in 2008. He received the second highest number of votes in the fourth and final round of voting (eight votes, behind Michel Schneider who received 10) but no candidate secured a majority so the seat remained vacant on that occasion.

    [He] was knighted in the 2014 New Year Honours for services to British–French cultural relations.[7][8]

  9. Bloix said,

    May 5, 2019 @ 12:32 pm

    To me it reads like French-as-a-second-language. I'd be interested in the reactions of a native French-speaker.

  10. Levantine said,

    May 5, 2019 @ 2:13 pm

    I believe that “the academy” is more common in American English. I’m not sure why so many prefer it to the unambiguous “academia”.

  11. jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    May 5, 2019 @ 2:32 pm

    What do you mean "internationalise" it? We're not importing it. We've been peeving since the 17th century.

  12. Ellen K. said,

    May 5, 2019 @ 3:00 pm

    I'm American, and using "the academy" strikes me as solidly wrong. Not something I'm familiar with. In that passage, it reads to me as a reference to the French language academy. And my French reading ability isn't good enough to have picked up that that's wrong until I read the comments.

  13. Ellen K. said,

    May 5, 2019 @ 3:03 pm

    Pardon… something got lost in editing… that first sentence should say: I'm American, and using "the academy" to mean academia strikes me as solidly wrong.

  14. Keith said,

    May 5, 2019 @ 3:08 pm

    Edwards's text does not strike me as being "English translated into French", and as a long-time resident of France, I have noticed and been ever so slightly annoyed by the same phenomenon.

    French has, though, certain adjectives that shift from post-noun to pre-noun or vice-versa, depending on vowel harmony and usage, and usage has changed even in recent history (by which, I mean since Victor Hugo wrote 'Les Mis).'

  15. Laura Morland said,

    May 5, 2019 @ 4:42 pm

    I live half the year in France, and I've noticed increasingly more adjectives slipping to pre-noun position, even in language that could be considered "soutenu," e.g., "Cela fut une excellente / une agréable soirée." Here's another set of instances I just I found at random on the net: "une délicieuse rencontre / conquête / comédie."

    None of those adjectives was on the list that many of us had to memorize in high school, of "adjectives that precede."

    En revanche, "Sorbonne Université," c'est une atroce !

  16. peterv said,

    May 5, 2019 @ 5:18 pm

    From the diary of the 2005 Chairman of the English Language Committee of the International Mathematics Olympiad, Geoff Smith:

    “July 11: . . . In the evening I prepare for the English language committee which I will chair next day. This means I slope off to my room early and try to cast the questions in perfect English myself, in order to have something to start with.

    The committee meets first thing in the morning. These days everyone is welcome in the ELC, including its most important member, the leader of France. We like to have simple sentences in IMO questions; ones which ideally can be translated almost word for word into as many languages as possible. French is rather special, and does not allow the rather free word order and grammatical latitude of English. Therefore the English language version has to be designed so that it can be easily translated into French. As each English sentence is suggested, we turn to FRA7, Claude Deschamps, to receive either a blessing (a shrug which indicates that all is well) or a sad shaking of the head which indicates that a particular piece of Anglo-Saxon thuggery simply cannot be expressed in French.”

    From here:

  17. AntC said,

    May 5, 2019 @ 5:26 pm

    I guess the peever is in a cleft stick when it comes to adjective-noun order. The usual peever's recourse is to claim it's more 'logical' or more clear to (insert peever's hobby horse here). But since French has either order in abundance, they would have to be accepted as equally logical.

    Like others, I find Edward's French very clunky (not that I'm a native speaker, but it doesn't 'flow'). Yes my initial reaction was: this is an English speaker just flipping the words into French. In particular the first sentence quoted echoed down the years of Edward Heath's attempts to speak French when he took the UK into the EU.

  18. Levantine said,

    May 5, 2019 @ 6:12 pm

    Ellen K., I'm a Brit in the American academic system, and I hear it very often among my colleagues. My own anecdotal sense of things is that the order of preference among American academics is "the academy", "academe", and "academia". To me, only the third sounds normal.

  19. AntC said,

    May 5, 2019 @ 6:32 pm

    There's plenty of Youtube videos of Sir Michael, including a "60 seconds with …" (in English) where he says "I always think in English".

    Come to think, what may be non-idiomatic about that first sentence quoted is the sentiment: beginning with a parenthetical about those you're criticising, that accuses them of honesty. Would a French French Academician be so oblique?

  20. Brett said,

    May 5, 2019 @ 7:40 pm

    @Levantine: In American English, academia is indeed the unmarked term. Both the academy and academe sound somewhat affected, even within academia itself.

  21. Uly said,

    May 5, 2019 @ 7:51 pm

    Levantine, I don't know where you are in the academic system, but where I'm sitting "the academy" means a specific academy known to the speaker and listeners and clear from context, not academia.

  22. Ray said,

    May 5, 2019 @ 8:06 pm

    when learning french in high school, one of our chapters — they always began with stories that included new vocabulary, verb tenses, and idioms and whatnot — one of our chapters began with a conversation in which one of the speakers replies, "Le Splendid Hôtel? Avec un nom comme ça, il ya de chance que je paie ma chambre très cher!"

  23. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 5, 2019 @ 8:34 pm

    Uly: One example is The Awakening: Women and Power in the Academy, from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

  24. Levantine said,

    May 5, 2019 @ 10:18 pm

    Uly, I'm on the East Coast in the humanities. It's a very widespread usage in my neck of the woods. Here's a relevant link:

  25. Ryan said,

    May 5, 2019 @ 10:30 pm

    I'm curious how people here pronounce academia. I believe I never heard the pronunciation "acadamia" till about the time I heard macadamia nut, but now I hear that most often, and it grates nearly as much as "neesh" for niche, both apparently interpreted as foreign loan words by people who weren't cultured enough to hear them in normal English.

    I'm in a crotchety mood, which may make me slanderous.

  26. Levantine said,

    May 5, 2019 @ 11:02 pm

    Ryan, I pronounce the first "acadeemia" and the second "neesh". I believe I should be forgiven the latter, as I've never heard any Brit say "nitch".

    A word that behaves in the opposite manner is "guillotine", which by many Americans is pronounced the French way but in British English is always (?) said with the Ls sounded.

  27. Philip Taylor said,

    May 6, 2019 @ 12:59 am

    For me (native speaker of <Br.E>, 70+ years), /ˌakəˈdiːmijə/, /niʃ/, /ˈgiːjəˈtin/. I think I would choke if I ever heard "niche" pronounced /nɪtʃ/ !

  28. Levantine said,

    May 6, 2019 @ 1:04 am

    Phillip Taylor, you surprise me with the last one! Have you always said it that way? Unless I'm mistaken, British dictionaries do not list the L-less pronunciation.

  29. Philip Taylor said,

    May 6, 2019 @ 1:42 am

    Levantine, probably not ! As a child my only exposure to French was reading the back of the HP sauce bottle ("Cette sauce de haute qualité est un mélange de fruits orientaux, d'épices et de vinaigre …") so I would not have known the French pronunciation until later in life. Once I knew it, I adopted it, just as I adopted some other "foreign" pronunciations once I learned of their existence ("guillemets", but not "guillemots", for example). "Paris" remains /ˈparɪs/, of course; even I would regard /paˈʁiː/ as "affected" when speaking English, but I do have four very distinct syllables in "mediæval", unlike most of my peers. /ˈgarɪdʒ/ really annoys me, even though it is nigh-on universal in <Br.E> these days, but fortunately (for me) very few descend to the level of /ˈdrɛsɪdʒ/, although it is (sadly) not entirely unknown …

  30. Philip Taylor said,

    May 6, 2019 @ 2:05 am

    P.S. The OED does give /ˌɡiːjəˈtiːn/ as a British pronunciation, ranked third, although with the stress pattern reversed from my own usage :

    Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈɡɪlətiːn/, /ˌɡɪləˈtiːn/, /ˌɡiːjəˈtiːn/

    Incidentally, I would be very interested to know how you (and others) pronounce "innovative". My former colleagues were almost universally adamant that it should be /ɪˈnɪvətɪv/, but that pronunciation seems so illogical to me that it drives me crazy. I personally have /ɪˈnɒvətɪv/. but I could understand why some might prefer /ˈɪnəˌveɪtɪv/ …

  31. Levantine said,

    May 6, 2019 @ 2:07 am

    I for one proudly say "garridge". Fowler recommended it back in 1926, but I don't think he succeeded in convincing speakers of RP to embrace it. Still, I prefer it to the alternatives, in part, I think, because I'm a fan of the music genre known as UK Garage (which can't be pronounced any other way).

  32. Levantine said,

    May 6, 2019 @ 2:45 am

    I missed your follow-up question regarding "innovative". I use the third pronunciation, with the stress on the first syllable.

  33. Philip Taylor said,

    May 6, 2019 @ 4:42 am

    That is the first time that I have seen the pronunciation of "UK Garage" given; until now, I had simply assumed that it would be /juː keɪ gærɑʒ/.

  34. Athel Cornish-Bowden said,

    May 6, 2019 @ 4:48 am

    Dans Aix-Marseille Université, par exemple, tous les termes sont français ; de quoi pourrait-on se plaindre ? De l’ordre des mots, hélas, qui est anglais, comme dans Cambridge University.

    Maybe many don't complain, but I do, whenever the occasion arises. Worse than that, the committee that decided on that name also decreed that we must write "Aix Marseille Univ" on our publications — no hyphen, "Université/y" abbreviated. Apparently no one on the committee, or not a majority anyway, realized that journals set their own styles and are likely to edit ones they don't like.

  35. Joe said,

    May 6, 2019 @ 7:58 am

    In the annals of "the balance of trade in modifier-head order" we bring you the Solomonic compromise of UTC.

  36. Scott P. said,

    May 6, 2019 @ 8:41 am

    "I'm American, and using "the academy" strikes me as solidly wrong. Not something I'm familiar with. "

    Also American, and agree with those who note "the academy" is reasonably common over here.

  37. Geoff M said,

    May 6, 2019 @ 9:27 am

    I'm the exact opposite of Ryan: "nitch" (like "click" for clique") is nails-on-chalkboard to me, and marks the speaker as definitely American and probably uneducated.

  38. cameron said,

    May 6, 2019 @ 11:56 am

    The Oxford Guide to English Usage (2nd Edition 1993) gives the following in the section on pronunciation:

    clique: rhymes with leak, not lick.

    niche: nitch has been the pronunciation for two or three centuries; neesh, now common, is remodelled on the French form.

    No comment is given on "guillotine".

  39. David B Solnit said,

    May 6, 2019 @ 4:40 pm

    I must make mention here of _Asterix Chez Les Bretons_, in which the Britons say things like "Il nous faut du magique potion pour combattre les Romains armées" (quoting from memory). And I believe that Obelix, trying to follow what he perceives as the pattern ("Pourquoi parlez-vous à l'envers?" he asks), tries postposing some French preposed adjectives when talking to the Britons: "Avez-vous vu mon chien petit?". (Naturally none of this was translated in the English edition.)

  40. David Marjanović said,

    May 6, 2019 @ 6:15 pm

    I've noticed increasingly more adjectives slipping to pre-noun position, even in language that could be considered "soutenu," e.g., "Cela fut une excellente / une agréable soirée." Here's another set of instances I just I found at random on the net: "une délicieuse rencontre / conquête / comédie."

    Recency illusion! None of this is new – it's just emphasis. Je vous souhaite une [ˈ˥]exce[ˌ]llente soirée. :-)

  41. TR said,

    May 6, 2019 @ 8:03 pm

    Agree with David M — more precisely, not just emphasis but implied contrast. There's an anecdote about an American telling his French friend that he was sorry to miss the wedding de votre fille charmante, implying that he wouldn't have minded if it had been the less charming daughter.

    But that seems a completely different issue than what the post describes — Nantes and so on aren't adjectives, pace Sir Michael (or Sir Edwards as his French colleagues doubtless call him). I don't understand the syntax of things like Aix-Marseille Université — is it really modifier-head, or something else? FWIW Hebrew, which is otherwise strictly noun-modifier, not modifier-noun, has what looks like the same phenomenon in store signs and the like (made-up English-friendly example: David Falafel for Falafel David), and I don't know how to parse that, either.

  42. Bloix said,

    May 6, 2019 @ 10:14 pm

    "Le Splendid Hôtel? Avec un nom comme ça, il ya de chance que je paie ma chambre très cher!"
    Ray – my children had a favorite picture book about a little boy who plays a prank on his sister at their parent's favorite restaurant. The name of the book: At the Café Splendid.

  43. Andreas Johansson said,

    May 7, 2019 @ 2:22 am

    I've been pronouncing "niche" to rhyme with "fish" – presumably pissing both sides off!

  44. Bloix said,

    May 7, 2019 @ 6:53 am

    Hat did a post on "niche" a few years ago, which had some interesting comments.

  45. Martha said,

    May 7, 2019 @ 8:40 pm

    There's a place in Washington called Dismal Nitch, spelled that way because that's how William Clark spelled it in his journal.

    I'm American and my intuition about "the academy" is about the same as Ellen K.'s, although I did read "the academe" recently.

    Regarding Edwards's alleged English translated into French: My French isn't that great, so I can't comment on how "natural" French sounds, but I have encountered passages written by native French speakers that I've found to be remarkably English-like.

  46. Ray said,

    May 8, 2019 @ 8:23 pm

    @Bloix — I love knowing that "At the Café Splendid" kept the french word order for its english-speaking readers. it reveals that word order matters when trying to impress. (fwiw, my high school french lesson book was published well before 1987)

  47. /df said,

    May 10, 2019 @ 8:49 am

    @Philip Taylor,Levantine, also AntC 5:26pm
    Always wondered why the pronunciation "Farridge" doesn't apply …

  48. ardj said,

    May 12, 2019 @ 3:32 am

    Niche : A late and probably unhelpful comment, but citations in the OED (2nd.ed.) suggest that in the 17C the French pronunciaton may have been common [1612: "… The nieces filled with statues"], but this changed in the 18C. (Though Swift's 1726 usage of 'nitch' is clearly for the rhyme, so does not necessarily categorize his general usage.)

  49. benjamin said,

    May 13, 2019 @ 4:07 am

    As TR said, the issue addressed by the post is not about the semi-productive possibility of pre-nominal adjectives, but about the possibility of the Modifier-Head word order in NN-compounds in French. Michael Edwards shows how poor his command of simple grammar analysis is in failing to separate the two issues here. "Aix-Marseille Université" is indeed quite innovative and very likely influenced by English compounding rules. But "la Française République" has nothing to do with it. Michael Edwards's rethorics makes use (or abuse?) of the clear oddness of "la Française République": I'd indeed mark it as grammatically marginal, or I'd try and assign it another meaning, a very interesting issue of French linguistics indeed, and not an easy task outside the frenquent cases of pre-nominal placement of adjectives. "start-up nation" (to be read [startœpnasjõ]), on the other hand, awakes other intuitions and feelings, along with a whole bunch of other such NN compounds: it constrats with the "natural" word order Head-Modifier, see "homme-grenouille", lit. 'man-frog', i.e. 'frogman', i.e. a man (head) who looks like a frog (modifier).

    That the Modifer-Head word order may come from English and is innovative and gaining ground in French is already documented (for example in Loock 2013). It is no surprise that an "académicien" has a problem with it. And it is unfortunately also no surprise that he fails to put forward a basic and accurate grammatical analysis of the phenomenon…

    As a French linguist, my personal position is quite acrobatic: I'm open to criticism against anglicisms in the sense of being resistant to the instrusion of some aspects of anglo-american culture into French public discourse ("start-up nation" I really hate, and my knowledge of its being an anglicism reinforces this feeling). But on the other hand, as a linguist, I'm of course delected by what seems to be a beautyful syntactic borrowing. I tested it against my intuitions and I admit to finding it quite productive actually. As Loock (2013) points out, its productivity is best with particular head nouns, some themselves borrowed from English or with clear English cognates: "(star) academy" (purely graphical borrowing, it's pronounced like the French "académie"), "(surfeur) attitude", "(zen) expérience", …

    (Loock, Rudy (2013). The emergence of Noun + Noun constructions with a regressive order in contemporary French? Journal of French Language Studies, 23.2.

  50. Leo said,

    May 13, 2019 @ 6:41 am

    This reminds me of the (Chilean-owned) chicken restaurant in "Breaking Bad", awkwardly named "Los Pollos Hermanos" rather than "Hermanos de Pollo". Is such an anglicisation of word order actually realistic for business names in the USA? Or was it just a nod from the show's creators to the restaurant being a front for illegal activity?

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