Is an event a thing? In traditional grammar, they are, at least on the level at which we’re taught traditional grammar in the Anglophone education system. Events are nouns, and specifically common nouns, as far as I know. So, we see a similarity between many dogs and many breakdowns, and a difference between many storms and a lot of juice. Dogs and breakdowns are easily pluralizable and take many, while juice is not pluralizable (it certainly is, but with different meanings) and takes a lot of.
So: in English, events are things. However, today I ran across some evidence that in French, they are not. Here’s how it went, and how I sounded stupid.
I’d been trying to work out the details of some flights for the past couple days. My host in France was the go-between between me and the person booking the travel. Eventually the person booking the travel sent me some flights, and I wanted to write back to say that they were fine–“that works,” as you might say in English:
One of the things that I really, really appreciate about France is that many French people (as you will have read in innumerable books about France) are willing to point out your errors in French. This is how we improve, and I love it! Here’s what I got back:
What’s going on here? It’s as my interlocutor described it: marcher is something that can refer to a thing, but not to an event. From a linguist’s perspective, this is fascinating, because it sheds some light on the status of a basic, very fundamental question in the semantics of a language: what are the kinds of distinctions that the language makes? Or, from a more poetic standpoint: from the point of this language, how is the world constructed? This is a question of ontology, the subject of this post from a couple days ago. Questions about language can be framed as very concrete questions about statistics, and they can be framed as very abstract questions about philosophy, and both approaches have their uses. Either way, the answer to the question should come from actual data.
Anyways: that’s how I sounded stupid today. Or, at least, that’s one way that I sounded stupid! Oh, and one more thing: the French word for “event” is one of the words affected by the big spelling reform coming up this fall. It’s going from événement to évènement. You know what this means: one more word that I’ve been pronouncing incorrectly for the past two years!
Update, March 26th, 2016
I showed this post to my interlocutor. Here’s his response–an alternative analysis.