I was waiting in line at the boulangerie the other day. Outside, a nicely dressed woman sat and sipped a coffee while the rain poured down.
Suddenly the rain stopped. The lady popped in the door, put her empty coffee cup and some money on the counter, and said: I’m going to leave before it starts raining again. She dashed across the street, and I went home happy. Why?
In the United States, I can tell quite a bit about you as soon as you open your mouth. It’s not that I’m an expert in American speech–I’m not. But, I can give a pretty good guess about the following, and I would guess that most Americans can, too:
- Your probable ethnic self-identity
- What kind of music you’re likely to listen to
- Possibly part of the country that you’re from
- Whether or not you went to college
- Whether you’re more likely to vote for Hillary, or for Trump
In contrast: in France, hearing you speak gives me no insight into you whatsoever. The director of the research institute where I hang out when I’m in France, the kid working the counter in the cafe outside the train station, a drunk panhandling by the ATM across the street from my apartment–their French all sounds the same to me. Marine Le Pen, my radical colleague–if there’s a difference in their French, I can’t hear it. In English, though…well, let me just say that if you have a high front tense rounded vowel in the word who’d, I’ll bet you’re voting for Trump (and that you would spell that sentence I’ll bet your voting for Trump).
Even I could tell that the woman who had her coffee spoke French quite elegantly, though. Here’s how she said “before it starts raining again:” avant qu’il ne repleuve. What’s so special about that: the tiny little ne.
The first thing that you have to know about that tiny little ne is that it’s not a negation marker. What it does: it makes your speech sound more elegant, more formal. That’s the explanation that I’ve gotten from every native speaker that’s brought it up with me, at any rate. It’s called the ne explétif, or (in English) expletive ne.
One of the cool things about the ne explétif is that as far as I can tell, it’s always used with the subjunctive. Now, one of the cool things about that is that although we are taught in school to think of the subjunctive as being triggered by verbs, in a number of cases we see the ne explétif + subjonctif being triggered by other parts of speech (none of which I can actually describe very well, PhD in linguistics or no PhD in linguistics!). One set of them connects clauses (more or less, sentences):
- Les médias boudent le Front National … à moins que ce ne soit l’inverse? “The media give the cold shoulder to the National Front–unless it’s the other way around?” (see the news story here)
- A moins que Maurice Szafran ne bascule dans un Antihollandisme aigu… “Unless Maurice Szafran swings toward an intense anti-Hollandeism…” (see the comment here)
You can find more of these on the Lawless French web site.
Another cool thing about this ne is that although the subjunctive will always be there when you use it, you don’t use it every time that you use the subjunctive–rather, it’s used only in very specific constructions. You can’t make your speech more refined and elegant by just sprinkling it with ne‘s willy-nilly. If you use it when you’re not supposed to, that just shows that you’re trying to be one of the refined, elegant people—but, you’re not. And that’s where I get into trouble–I’m sure that I tend to use the expletive ne when I shouldn’t. There’s a name for the phenomenon of trying to speak more elegantly, but screwing it up exactly by trying to be more formal. It’s called hypercorrection. Here’s the definition from Wikipedia:
In linguistics or usage, hypercorrection is a non-standard usage that results from the over-application of a perceived rule of grammar or a usage prescription. A speaker or writer who produces a hypercorrection generally believes that the form is correct through misunderstanding of these rules, often combined with a desire to appear formal or educated.
The example that we were always given in linguist school was the pronunciation of the t in often. If you’re not a native speaker, let me point out that that t is silent. But, you’ll sometimes hear native speakers who are making an extra effort to try to speak “correctly” pronounce it.
The “perceived rule” that they’re applying: typically, if there’s an ft sequence in the pronunciation of a word, then the word is spelt with an ft sequence.
Sometimes, though, you come across words that don’t have a t in their pronunciation, but they’re written with one, like in these consonant clusters:
For more words with silent ts, see this list. Often is a word in which the t is silent, and it’s rarely pronounced with the t. Take someone who’s insecure about how they sound, though, and put them in a formal situation, and that t in often might show up in their pronunciation. Someone who’s not insecure about how they sound in formal situations? Probably not. Someone who’s insecure about how they sound in formal situations, but is not actually in a formal situation at the moment? Also probably not–no t in often. It’s just the mix of insecurity and a specific context that brings it out. (This is laid out very nicely in the French Wikipedia page on hypercorrection.)
So, why do I not call out Wikipedia for calling this “non-standard” and using the word “incorrect” to refer to the pronunciation of often with a t, when as a linguist, “correct” and “incorrect” are not meaningful concepts to me? It’s the pattern of variation. The reasoning might be circular, but I will ‘fess up to that and explain it to you.
- The speaker typically doesn’t use the t-pronunciation all the time: there is variability.
- The speaker typically doesn’t use the t-pronunciation when speaking informally.
- The speaker typically uses the t-pronunciation only when speaking formally.
- Other speakers don’t use the t-pronunciation. Notice that I’m not saying that higher-class speakers don’t use it, or that lower-class speakers don’t use it, or that educated people don’t use it: I’m asserting that other speakers don’t typically use it at all, regardless of the formality of the situation.
Do native speakers of French make hypercorrective uses of the ne expletif? Of the subjunctive? I would predict that they do, but I haven’t been able to find any data on this. Native speakers, can you tell us anything about this?
Why that tiny little incident made me happy: I like it when I can see some of the huge complexity that is any language–French or otherwise–being reflected in the small things of life. That lady just wanted to take off in a hurry before it started raining again. She had probably already forgotten about that tiny little moment in her life before she ever got home–setting her coffee cup and some money on the counter, with a hurried explanation as she dashed out the door. For me, though, it was a little point of contact with some of the larger mysteries of French that are waiting for me; a sign of some progress (I hope) in that I was able to recognize sophisticated speech when I heard it; a source of questions about how to describe the structures that can trigger the use of the expletive ne, and you know how much I enjoy that kind of shit; hours of thought, really, and a bit of positive feedback on my language-learning adventure.
French details: See this page on the Lawless French web site for more fun things that can happen with ne in French–I had no clue!
English details: here are some moderately obscure words and expressions from this post.
to panhandle: this is a verb that means to beg, typically by sticking out your hand or a receptacle of some sort. If someone were sitting on the sidewalk with a cup, you would probably be more likely to call that begging. If someone were walking down the street asking strangers for money, you would probably call that panhandling.
willy-nilly: haphazardly; without any plan; randomly. According to the definitions that I found on the web, it has another meaning: under compulsion, without having a choice in the matter. I’ve never heard the word used in this sense, but I can attest that that is, indeed, the origin of the word, and I picked it specifically for this post because it has an old negative in it. The original form was willan-nillan. In Old/Middle English, willan was the verb to want, and nillan was the negative–to not want. So, willy-nilly was whether he wants to or not.
to lay out: this idiom can have many meanings.
- to display, arrange, and/or explain very clearly and systematically. That’s the sense in which I used it in this post: This is laid out very nicely in the French Wikipedia page on hypercorrection.
- to knock unconscious, or at least to hit so hard that the person is lying on the floor afterwards. I laid that motherfucker out. Asshole.
- of a person: to lay out in the sun is to spend time sunbathing. She would lie out for hours every day.
- of a thing in a location: to be left unattended and not taken care of. My toy rifle laid out in the playground overnight. When my father found out, he made me stand attention while he broke it across his knee.
See this page on the Merriam-Webster web site for some others.