Opposites in language and in the world

The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.

–Fran Lebowitz

Picture source: https://media.licdn.com/mpr/mpr/p/6/005/09d/26a/15c95ea.jpg.
The Learn French Avec Moi blog just published a nice post about opposites in French–in particular, mostly words that you could think of as adverbial opposites relating expressions of temporality (the time of occurrence of an event):

  • déjà (already) versus pas encore (not yet)
  • encore (still) versus ne…plus (not anymore)

…and quantificational opposites relating expressions of quantity or expressions of part/whole relations:

  • et (and) versus ni…ni (neither…nor)
  • aussi (also) versus non plus (neither [in the sense of “also not”])

What does it mean to be an “opposite”?  Let’s look up opposite in a few dictionaries:

  • diametrically different (as in nature or character) <opposite meanings> (m-w.com, definition 2.b)
  • being the other of a pair that are corresponding or complementary in position, function, or nature <members of the opposite sex> (m-w.com, definition 4)
  • Being the other of two complementary or mutually exclusive things (thefreedictionary.com, definition 3)

What strikes me about this is that the definitions all refer to things in the world.  However, I don’t know of any way to define a binary relation of oppositeness in the world, as such.  Rather, oppositeness is a property of words.  It’s what we call in linguistics a lexical relation–a relationship between two words, per se.  So, in English, or at least in American English, it makes some sense to say that up is the opposite of down (the link goes to the antonym entry for up in WordNet), or that bad is the opposite of good (again, the link is to WordNet).  But, these are relationships between the word up and the word down, between the word good and the word bad–there isn’t any clear way to define a notion of opposite between things, as opposed to between words. 

We’ve talked a fair amount about ontologies in this blog–models of the things in the world and the relationships between them.  If you look at ontologies–you can find hundreds of them here, all specializing in the biomedical domain–you’ll see that these models of things and the relationships between them have no notion of oppositeness.  If you want to find the idea of oppositeness encoded, you have to look at models not of things, but of the words of a language, such as the WordNet entries that are linked to above.  It’s entirely relevant here that many ontologists insist vociferously that WordNet is not an ontology.  (Why you would wax vociferous over the question of what is and isn’t an ontology, I don’t actually know–there seems to be a certain religious element to the field…)

People act as if they think that other people have mental models that include some notion of being an opposite of something else.  You can see this in metalanguage–talking about language (all quotes from brainyquote.com):

The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.  –Fran Lebowitz

 I have a very strong feeling that the opposite of love is not hate – it’s apathy. It’s not giving a damn.  –Leo Buscaglia
The opposite of bravery is not cowardice but conformity.  –Robert Anthony
It strikes me as significant that Lebowitz, Buscaglia, and Anthony all are aware of oppositeness–but, they see it as something that you could be wrong about.  This strikes me as an implicit awareness that oppositeness is not a property of the world–not something that you can measure, not something that you can quantify, not something that is obvious.  If it’s not about the world, then what is it?  Ultimately, being an opposite is a fact about the language that we use to talk about the world.  We can talk about whether language has a role in reinforcing how we think about the world–does the fact that English only has two words referring to genders have the effect of constructing a binary opposition where there are actually many genders?  Does language play into supporting dichotomies like colonizer/colonized, male/female, capitalism/Communism?  Maybe.  That doesn’t change the essence of the fact that oppositeness isn’t a property of the world.  A property of systems, quite possibly–indeed, it’s a fundamental notion of structuralism, not just in linguistics but in the many relatives and descendants of structuralism in anthropology, sociology, literary criticism, psychoanalysis–on and on.  Certainly we talk about those systems with language.  But, that doesn’t change the fact that the opposites exist in how we conceive of and talk about those things–not in the things themselves.
Translating the word opposite from English to French is a tough one.  There are different corresponding words for things, locations, directions–I stumble over them fairly frequently.  One option for saying that something is the opposite of something else is l’opposé de or à l’opposé de.  I don’t know when you would use one or the other.  Here are some examples of each from the linguee.fr web site:


In fact, I think that taking life is the opposite of reproductive health.
Je pense d’ailleurs que la suppression d’une vie est à l’opposé de la santé génésique. (europarl.europa.eu)
The result is an attitude which is the opposite of true supporters and allies.
Avec pour résultat une attitude à l’opposé des fidèles soutiens et alliés. (esisc.net)
Red is the opposite of green, blue is the opposite of yellow and white is the opposite of black. Le rouge est l’opposé du vert, le bleu est l’opposé du jaune et le blanc est l’opposé du noir. (thinkfirst.ca)
A “terroir” wine is the opposite of a technological wine.

Un vin de terroir est à l’opposé d’un vin technologique. (cave-cleebourg.com)

 This is the opposite of what many people are now used to in other environments. fdisk(8) does not warn before saving the changes…
C’est l’opposé de ce que beaucoup de gens peuvent voir sous d’autres environnements. fdisk(8) ne demandera aucune confirmation… (openbsd.gr)
In this situation, branches are the opposite of “land rich and cash poor”.

Dans cette situation, les filiales sont l’opposé de ”riches en terrain et pauvres en argent”. (legion.ca)

 The color example is a good one: Red is the opposite of green, blue is the opposite of yellow and white is the opposite of black.  Red clearly isn’t the opposite of green in any scientific sense.  Cultural sense?  Sure.  Blue and yellow?  Not that I know of.  Not even white and black?  No–black has the same relation to red, green, and blue as it does to any other color.
I memorized the Learn French Avec Moi post on opposites–it’s a very useful linguistic concept.  Check it out!

7 thoughts on “Opposites in language and in the world”

  1. Thinking of opposites in the Creation and not only in human description, what about “absence” ? Like ” darkness is the absence of light” . In the same mood, what about “Being” and “Non-Being”?

    More trivially, the difference between “l’opposé de” and “à l’opposé de” is the difference of point of view, I mean the difference of relative location between the speaker and the object which is spoken of . If one says “Son attitude est l’opposée de celle de Marc” the speaker considers both attitudes as two things, two objects of perception . If one says “Son attitude est à l’opposé de celle de Marc” the speaker doesn’t look straight at both attitudes as two things, but takes an inner step back ( we say “prendre du recul”, one of my favorite expressions, and actions too) in order to have a panoramic view of the whole landscape, the people involved, the common behaviour, the possible causes and consequences, etc…
    This difference of approach is not always clearly conscious but it is nevertheless implied and caught by a French listener . It’s the kind of things I call ( maybe wrongly ?) meta language, a way to convey far more informations than what is basically said, and the richness of French syntax provides many a possibility to play like this . Mastering this could be the mark of a complete achievement in learning French language for a foreigner.

    What do you do with “le contraire de”, “l’inverse de”, “l’antithèse de” ? There are more words than “opposé” .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for explaining the difference between l’opposé de and à l’opposé de–that’s very subtle.

      I don’t know any other ways to say it yet–I’m of the “write about what you don’t know” school of thought when it comes to the French language stuff that you see on this blog!


  2. On a really down-to-earth evel – but I daresay of interest to you – in language training, challenging people to quickly think up opposites and put them in sentences is a sure-fire way to help them memorize vocabulary ….

    Liked by 1 person

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