Oh French


Nothing is lower than the human race—except the French.

–Mark Twain

A couple months ago, a Chinese person shared how she’s struggling with the Japanese counting system because it had different units for different things.  Counting two pencils is “ni-hon,” for example, but two books is “ni-satsu.”  Boats are counted “ni-sou” yet larger ships are “ni-seki.”  I never realized the insanity of this until she pointed it out, but I guess all languages are insane in ways native speakers don’t understand.

Take French, for example, which I suspect is the only language in the world in which the more letters there are in a word, the less are pronounced.  Compare the French phrases, “he speaks” and “they speak.” They are written completely differently.  “Il parle” is “He speaks” and “Ils parlent” is “they speak,” yet they are pronounced exactly the same: il parl.

At least adding more letters didn’t lead to losing a sound. The French word for “the egg” is “l’oeuf,” pronounced: louf.  The grammar of adding “s” to make plural, as in “les oeufs,” is familiar even to English speakers.  The pronunciation, though, is something only the French can make up.  By adding the letter “s,” the word manages to lose a sound.  The plural is pronounced lez-ou, making silent the final “fs” even though “f” in the singular was pronounced.

French is clearly a language that emphasizes pronunciation over grammar.  Thus, although it consistently refuses to pronounce additional letters, it does go ahead and add a letter strictly for the purpose of pronunciation.  Take the phrase, “Is there…?”  The French for “there is” is “il y a,” but inverting this to form a question would have made “y-a-il.”  The French deemed this too awkward to pronounce, so they’ve “fixed” the problem by adding an extra “t,” as in  “y-a-t-il?”, which they think sounds better.

It is truly a screwed up language that doesn’t pronounce letters that are added through rules of grammar but adds a letter for pronunciation because the grammar doesn’t sound nice.  I pointed out the insanity of this tail wagging the dog to a French person, who just laughed it off by saying, “How true.”

As crazy as the French pronunciation is, though, it’s nothing compared to its preposterous numbering system.  The French do not have different words for seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen; they go with words that literally mean “ten-seven,” or “dix-sept,”  and so on.  They do have words for twenty, thirty and so on until sixty, beyond which their early ancestors apparently could not count.  When they need, say, seventy, they did the math and concluded that’s sixty and ten or “soixante-dix.”  This makes seventy-nine, of course, unnecessarily complicated sixty-ten-nine, or “soixante-dix-neuf.”

But this is not even the worst of it.  Eighty, one would think, should be sixty twenty, or “soixante-vingt,” but the French decided additions weren’t making counting complicated enough, so they came up with “quatre-vingt,” or “four-twenty.”  In case you’re mathematically disinclined, that’s four times twenty equaling eighty.  The numbers in the nineties combine the worst of worse worlds: it combines the addition and the multiplication such that ninety-nine is “quatre-vingt dix neuf,” or “four-twenty-ten-nine.”

This is mayhem.  When the French have to do “sixty-ten-nine plus four-twenty-ten-eight” just to add seventy-nine and ninety-eight, it’s little wonder that the only French mathematician the world has ever heard of is René Descartes (pronounced, of course, as little as possible as in “de-kart” and not “des-kar-tez”).

The foreigners who are forced to learn French because they had the misfortune of having France as their neighbors (or worse, being invaded by them) realized this is one crap they didn’t have to tolerate.  Thus the wonderful Swiss and the Canadians came up with the word “septante” for seventy, perfectly consistent with “soixante” for sixty and “cinquante” for fifty.  The French took offense and mock the Swiss for this, although they actually did the world a favor.  I think the French deserve a good smacking for contaminating the world with their ridiculous pronunciations and their tortured counting system, from Canada in the Americas all the way to Vietnam in Asia.

This is all in jest, of course.  I mock the French language in the same way the Brits joke that they have the nuclear bomb because of the French, speaking with the French is a prima facie evidence of treason in their Foreign Office, the French will plant bombs in their embassy in London to embarrass Britain, there is doubt as to whether there is any good in the French (for each, see “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister”) and the only thing the French should be allowed to host is an invasion.  In the six years of learning French, I myself grew to be in awe of their culture and  the food.

I do wish, though, the French people, who can dish it out (have you heard them speak about the Americans?) but can’t take it, lighten up.  God knows I’ve mocked the Japanese for mastering the art of obfuscation.  I think the world will be a much better place if we didn’t take ourselves so seriously.  This is doubly true for the French, who are quite proud of being a powerful player in the world stage a mere four centuries ago.

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3 Responses to “Oh French”


  1. 1 Caitlin October 17, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    Yeah, I wasn’t thrilled to find myself doing so much math in French class.

    Now we know why it’s the Swiss and not the French who are known for their banks.

    • 2 joesas October 18, 2011 at 8:01 pm

      Caitlin,

      And why the French stopped dominating the world: they stopped being able to count the number of colonies they had.

      Hope all is well and thanks for reading!


  1. 1 I Mock, Because I Don’t Understand | The World According to Joe Trackback on May 16, 2016 at 10:11 am

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