This is a fascinating post, Sarnidac.

Professional linguists, despite their academic disinclination to do so, occasionally venture opinions as to the "character" of different languages (eg Sarn's Hungarian ~ mathematics; Greek/Latin/German ~ high philosophy, etc). The consensus view, if there is one, among linguists is:

French - the language of conceptual precision and political invective.
Spanish - the language of flowery ceremony and self expression
Italian - ???
English - a sense-bound language dominated by practicality
Yiddish - (sadly, in steep decline) the language for complaining

There was an interesting article in a linguistics journal in the late 60's (alas I can remember no more publication details than that), comparing French to English and at the same time contrasting the Gallic and Anglo-Saxon world views. The Galllic world view is portrayed as one where abstract concepts, and the integrity and precision of these concepts, are the most important things in life: What is it? The Anglo-Saxon view, on the other hand, is portrayed as being essentially concerned with practicality: How can we do it? How can we get efficiently to the result?

The author gave many linguistic examples of this from French and English. I remember two:

What do you name your capital's underground transportation system? In French, it's the Metropolitain - a grand, conceptual abstract name for a dense network that covers the city with a mathematical evenness of distribution - no place in Paris is more than a couple of blocks from a Metro station. In English, it's the Tube, a simple practical name devoid of higher conceptualization that simply describes a sensory aspect of how the system works. This system efficiently connects remote high density population nodes, and ignores certain areas of London altogether.

What does compromettre/compromise mean? These cognate words share the same two meanings in both languages: 1) to betray ones principles, and 2) to arrive at an accomodation by moderating one's position. In French, the primary meaning (what first flashes into a listener's mind if you say the word) is that of betrayal: If the integrity of what is is supremely important, then it is unethical to abandon that. In English, the primary meaning is one of accomodation: If achieving practical ends is supremely important, than whatever helps us get there is admirable.

I noticed my own version of this driving in Canada, where bilingual road signs provide handy translations.

What do you call the toothed strip engraved down the middle of a road that makes noise if you stray over the center line?

In French: bande striee. Abstract, conceptual, geometric description.
In English: rumble strip. Sensual, practical - what it does when you drive on it.


Last Edited By: halsey Nov 12 09 9:06 AM. Edited 1 time.