Necessary and sufficient conditions for being a chair

Two ways to think about what it means to be a chair–neither of which works.

semic analysis fauteuil
Semic analysis of French words for things that you sit on. Picture source:

The news from France: one of the Immortals is going to be replaced.  An immortel is a member of the Académie Française, the French Academy.  This is a group of 40 people who have been tasked with setting standards for the French language since 1635.  Membership in the Académie is for life.  You get to wear a fancy gown, and carry a sword.  You also have a chair assigned to you.  Assia Djebar, chair #5, died last February, and the 39 remaining Immortals will soon elect her replacement.  The chairs are handed down, and the new Immortal will be chair #5.

If you scroll down to the bottom of this page, you’ll see a screen shot of the written form of a column that appeared on this subject on the radio show Les matins de France Culture.  There are sooo many directions that we could take this–so many things to talk about concerning this story!  Do we discuss the fraught notion of language standardization?  Do we talk about the concept of metonymy, which Jacques Munier (the columnist) mentions in his column?  Do we talk about what, exactly, is immortal about the Immortals?

Given that embarrassment of choices, I’m going to talk about…the chairs.  Still, there are so many choices to make.  Do we discuss why the Immortals have chairs at all?  Originally, they didn’t all have them–they met in a small space, and only the most distinguished got a seat.  They squabbled about this, and Richelieu supplied them all with some place to sit.  Do we discuss Bea dM’s observation that it was originally the French language itself that was felt to be immortal?  Munier’s contention that it can just as well be the chairs that are immortal—Immortel est en revanche le fauteuil, qu’on se transmet de génération en génération…  “Immortal is, on the other hand, the chair, which is passed from generation to generation…”  I suggest that we talk plutôt about the meaning of “chair.”

The word chair turns out to be of some significance in French lexical semantics, the study of what words mean and how they mean what they mean.  In a previous post, we talked about how to study the meanings of verbs.  In another post, we talked about one theory about how words have meanings–the notion of conditions nécessaires et suffisantes, “necessary and sufficient conditions.”  There we saw some problems with the “necessary and sufficient conditions” model of meanings, such as the facts that, as Zufferey and Moeschler put it in their book Initiation à l’étude du sens, le modèle des conditions nécessaires et suffisantes présuppose certains faits à propos des catégories.  Tout d’abord, les catégories ont des frontières clairement identifiables….Ce modèle semble…trop rigide pour pouvoir intégrer de telles propriétés.  Par ailleurs, de nombreuses expériences ont démontré que les limites entre les catégories sont souvent floues.  “The model of necessary and sufficient conditions presupposes certain facts about categories.  First, that the categories have clearly identifiable borders….This model seems too rigid to be able to integrate some properties.  Furthermore, many experiments have demonstrated that the boundaries between the categories are often fuzzy.”  (Yes, you can study meaning experimentally.)  We also talked about prototype theory, a theory that tries to deal with some of the deficiencies of the necessary and sufficient conditions model by allowing for fuzzy boundaries between categories.  Rather than defining something by its boundaries, it defines a category by its “center”–un objet est catégoriser selon sa ressemblance avec un élément central de la catégorie, appelé son prototype.  “…an object is categorized according to its resemblance to a central element of the category, called its prototype.”  Prototype theory has its own problems, though–la notion de ressemblance de famille est trop vague…  Si le modèle des CNS semble trop rigide pour rendre compte de la catégorisation, le modèle du prototype ne semble pour sa part pas être suffisamment contrait.  “The notion of family resemblance is too vague…  If the model of the necessary and sufficient conditions seems too rigid to account for categorization, the prototype model, for its part, doesn’t seem to be sufficiently constrained.”

Crap–700 words, and I still haven’t worked my way back to that chair.  So, here’s a promissory note: so far, we’ve been talking about things.  Next time, we’ll move on to words, particularly sememic analysis.  Here are some of the words that I needed to look up in order to get this far.  (Definitions from

  • vague: vague.  If it’s a noun: “wave.”
  • présupposer: to presuppose, to assume, to presume.
  • par ailleurs: besides, moreover, for that matter.

Scroll down just a bit and you’ll see an excerpt from the transcription of the Matins de France culture story.  Try to figure out the necessary and sufficient conditions for being a chair, and be sure that they exclude being a sofa/couch, a stool, or a recliner.  Then try to do it for a mug, and be sure that they exclude being a cup.  Good luck!

Screenshot 2016-03-04 10.34.51
Picture source: screen shot from

3 thoughts on “Necessary and sufficient conditions for being a chair”

  1. Hi this was better than reading the Sunday paper, though you almost lost me with your prototype theory! Thanks for mentioning my last year’s post on the Immortels, the whole concept of the Académie fascinates me, though I’d never actually stopped to ponder the nature of their armchairs 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s