Roommates, Mars landings, and the descriptive/prescriptive contrast in linguistics

In which I take a rare turn towards prescriptivism and advocate for the French verb amarsir: to land on Mars.

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The ultimate descriptivist shoulder-shrug. Picture source: https://xkcd.com/1483/.

The topic of conversation over lunch today: is there, or is there not, a feminine form of the word for “roommate?”  Someone used the word colocatrice, someone objected that it’s invariant colocataire, and we were off to the races.  (This and other American English expressions explained in the English notes.)  It was a nice example of a stereotypical French behavior: engaging in heated discussions of the French language.

The first day of a Linguistics 101 class, you teach your students the difference between descriptive and prescriptive approaches to language.  Prescriptive approaches to language, ethics, or whatever are approaches based on the goal of telling people what to do or how to do it.  In English-language schools, all instruction concerning the English language is prescriptive: we’re taught that ending a sentence with a preposition is wrong, that you must say I don’t have rather than I don’t got, and that you’re supposed to say Mary and I, not Mary and me. 

In contrast, descriptive approaches to language seek to describe language–what actually happens in it–and to understand the implications of what happens in a language for our understanding of language in general.  (French has separate words for these–langue and langage, respectively–and the more that I (start to) understand them, the more that I wish that we had them in English.)

I’m a linguist by training, by profession, and by nature, and linguists are entirely descriptivists.  (You could make an argument for an exception to this in the case of issues of language and gender, but for a linguist, prescriptive statements along the lines of encouraging gender neutrality in language are always preceded by data on the subject.)  For me, as a linguist, the idea of something linguistic being right or wrong, correct or incorrect, has no more meaning than the notion of a particular variant in mosquito wing beat rates being right or wrong to an entomologist–for me, it’s all data, and I just want to know what the facts are, and then figure out what the facts mean for our understanding of language.  It’s not that I don’t care whether or not you end sentences with a preposition–rather, I want to know how often you do or don’t end a sentence with a preposition, and how that frequency varies depending on who you’re speaking to when you do it,  whether you’re speaking or just writing, what your power relationship is with the person to whom you’re speaking, whether or not you’re the same gender as that person, what gender you are to begin with, where you grew up, what your social aspirations are, how you identify yourself, how long the sentence is, how long the noun phrase that the preposition modifies is, whether or not the noun phrase was mentioned earlier in the conversation, etc., etc., etc.  Ultimately, my expectation is that I’ll end up with a bunch of numbers, and then I’ll draw a graph, or build a regression model, or something.  The notions of correct and incorrect don’t enter it.  Just not relevant to anything that I care about as a linguist.

So, it should come as a surprise to you–and it certainly comes as a surprise to me–that right here and now, I am going to advocate that you use a particular verb.  As you may be aware, some days ago the European ExoMars Schiaparelli lander went silent during its descent toward the Red Planet and was later photographed in pieces on the ground.  This sad event followed a period of considerable excitement in the local geekosphere, but this being France, also occasioned some linguistic anxiety.  The burning question: what verb do you use to refer to a landing on Mars?

French is quite well equipped with words that refer to the action of landing on or touching down on–on purpose or otherwise–something.  In particular, you have the following:

  • atterrir: to land; to end up, to wind up; figuratively, to come back down to earth.
  • alunir: to land on the moon.
  • amerrir: to land on the sea; to splash down.

What might not be immediately evident is that all of these verbs incorporate the noun referring to the thing that is landed on.  Here are the three nouns and the verbs that are derived from them:

What you’re landing on Incorporated noun Verb
Earth la Terre (Earth) atterrir
the moon la lune (moon) alunir
the ocean la mer (sea) amerrir

So, while in English you use the verb to land and then have the option of also specifying what exactly what landed on, in French you use a variety of different verbs.  I’ve gotten examples by using the Sketch Engine web site, which lets me search for words in French and gives me the English translation of the French sentence:

  • En cas de problème moins de 30 mn après le décollage, faites demi-tour et amerrissez.  If you should develop motor trouble within a half hour after leaving the Hornet, fly back to the ship and land in the water.
  • Si on amerrit maintenant, on aurait peut-être la chance d’être repêchés.  If we land on the water now, we might have a rescue.
  • Hier, un engin spatial américain a amerri au large des côtes de Californie.  Yesterday, a U. S. spacecraft splashed down off the Southern California coast.
  • Amerrissez là.  Land here.
  • On amerrit.  We’ re ditching.
  • Le 6 octobre de l’année dernière, c’est ici que j’ai amerri pour prendre Tim et Amie.  On October 6 last year, this is the spot here at Kaflia Lake where I pulled in to pick up Tim and Amie.
moon-lander-se-pose-xvmfb059012-c5d7-11e5-a73a-0308cf460797
Le Figaro hashed through a similar question at the time of the 1966 Luna IX landing on the moon. They were on the wrong side of history. Picture source: http://i.f1g.fr/media/figaro/805x453_crop/2016/02/02/XVMfb059012-c5d7-11e5-a73a-0308cf460797.jpg

For landing on the moon, there’s a different verb: alunir.

  • On n’a pas aluni.  We didn’ t land on the moon.
  • Malheureusement, on n’alunit pas.  Well, unfortunately, we’re not landing on the moon, are we?
  • Le LEM est conçu pour alunir, pas pour faire des corrections de trajectoire.  We designed the LEM to land on the moon, not fire the engine out there for course corrections.
  • Apollo a-t-elle vraiment aluni ?  Did the Apollo really land on the moon?
  • Six équipes à deux hommes ont fait alunisage et ont rapporté divers prélèvements.   Six two-man teams landed on the moon and returned various samples.
There’s another sense of the English verb to land, in the sense of troops, an explorer, or something like that landing somewhere after an ocean voyage: débarquer.  (We have an English cognate: to debark.)
  • Le site du bassin Brown est chargé d’histoire puisque c’est là que débarquèrent les soldats britanniques du général Wolfe en 1759. The Brown Basin site is laden with history, because this is where General Wolfe’s British soldiers landed in 1759.
  • …des poissons et produits de la pêche qu’ilsdéclarent les quantités débarquées, transbordées, mises en vente ou achetées. …fish and fishery products should be required to declare the quantities landed, transhipped, offered for sale or purchased.
  • À la fin du 15e siècle, quand les Européens débarquent officiellement en Amérique du Nord avec Christophe Colomb en tête…  At the end of the 15th century, when Europeans first officially landed in North America, led by Christopher Columbus and then John
  • Comment mes troupes peuvent-elles debarquer sur Midway si les avions et les batteries de cote ennemis ne sont pas neutraIises?  How am I expected to land my invasion forces on Midway, unless the enemy airfields and shore batteries have been neutralized?

Now, bombs and rockets can land, too, in English.  French has a verb for this one: tomber.  Remember that tomber uses être for the passé composé:

  • Une roquette taliban est tombée dans le fleuve lors de la première semaine de construction, mais autrement, le chantier… A Taliban rocket landed in the river nearby during the first week of construction, but the site has not been attacked.
  • Toutes les bombes sont tombées sur leurs cibles et toute la moitié ouest du village semblait s’élever dans les airs.  All bombs landed where they were aimed for and the entire west half of the village seemed to rise into the air.
There’s something that I like about these three verbs, which is this: they are all regular IR-class verbs.  Now, about 80% of French verbs fall into the regular ER-class, and it’s said that the ER-class is the only one that’s productive.  What “productive” means: in this case, it means that it’s the only class that modern speakers are creating new verbs for.  When a new verb is needed–tweeter, chunker, télécharger–it goes into the ER-class.
This takes us back to the European Mars lander.  The question in French is: when all of your verbs for landing a vehicle lexicalize what you’re landing on–atterrir for the Earth, alunir for the moon, and amerrir for the sea–don’t you need a new verb for landing on Mars?  Lots of people feel that you do, and that it would naturally follow the pattern for verbs that encode what you’re landing on.  Those are IR-class verbs.  So, if we get a new verb for landing on Mars, it will be amarsir, and then we’ll have something quite unusual: a new IR-class verb.  And IR-class verbs are cool!
Why IR-class verbs are cool:
  • Unlike the more common ER-class verbs, they have a real subjunctive.  J’atterris, but que j’atterrisse; on alunit, but qu’on alunisse. 
  • The present participle requires -ss– : tout en atterrissant.
  • Same for the imperfect tense: nous amerrissions.

Now, “cool” is not a technical description.  But, seriously: what’s not to love?  Although to a linguist, inconsistency is boring, as a language learner, I find it charming.  (This blog post, Linguists versus normal people, explains why irregularities in a language aren’t particularly interesting to linguists, in general. I love a good irregular verb–but as a civilian, so to speak, not as a linguist.)

So: although in my professional life–and in my thinking about language in general–I’m very much a descriptivist, I’m going to break with my norms and take a prescriptivist stance: we should all be saying amarsir to describe landing on Mars. 

Now, that stalwart of prescriptivism, Le Figaro, disagrees with me here.  It takes a typical prescriptivist approach to the question of how to refer to landing on Mars: in a recent essay on the subject, Alice Develey examines a number of dictionaries.  Finding no dictionary that lists amarsir but an on-line one, and multiple traditional dictionaries that define atterrir as “to land” without any specification of what’s being landed on, she concludes that a Mars landing should be referred to with the verb atterrir, as well.

Si l’on se fie donc aux dictionnaires, les Terriens et les Martiens ont la même légitimité à atterrir sur le sol de la planète bleue que celui de la planète rouge!

“Thus, if one trusts in dictionaries, Earthlings and Martians have the same right to atterrir on the Blue Planet as on the Red Planet!” …and prescriptivists pretty much always “trust in dictionaries.”  Certainly it’s true that if you look at naturally occurring data, you will see that atterrir is used for landing on all kinds of things, such as aircraft carriers.  However, there’s been use of amarsir, as well–going back to 189t, according to Wiktionnarie.  In this particular case, I can at least excuse my shameful prescriptiveness with a bit of empirical data.  Sadly, the failed Mars landing keeps refusing to come up in conversation, and I haven’t been able to create facts on the ground by casually using it.  I’m not dead yet, though…
Coincidentally, my email today contained a notice about the book Language between description and prescription: Verbs and verb categories in nineteenth-century grammars of English, by Lieselotte Anderwald.  Check it out and let us know how you liked it…

English notes

  • to be off to the races: to have started something, to have reached a state of successfully performing an activity.  The Free Dictionary gives this definition: an expression characterizing the activity or excitement that is just beginning. Wiktionary gives this: In or into a process of energetic engagement in some activity; in or into a phase of conspicuously increasing satisfaction or success.   Notice that in both of them, there’s a crucial element of change–of beginning something, or of having a notable increase in something.  How it was used in the post: Someone used the word colocatrice, someone objected that it’s invariant colocataire, and we were off to the races.  The meaning is that someone did something, someone else reacted, and that was the beginning of engagement in the activity of talking about language.

18 thoughts on “Roommates, Mars landings, and the descriptive/prescriptive contrast in linguistics”

  1. And my husband got a smack in the face yesterday for pulling me up when I typed immobilière instead of immobilier into a google for a house search. He is undoubtedly more French than English and I asked God for a Gatling Gun!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m having trouble catching up with the times. I just love the whiff of poetry you get from amerrir, but alunir reminds me of something else (lunatic maybe?) and I definitely don’t like amarsir. Why am I craving a Mars bar all of a sudden?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The French “lunatique” has not the same meaning as the English lunatic . In French it means temperamental, exactly cyclothimic, for people whose mood is capricious and impossible to predict . It comes from la lune, supposed to rule our deep emotions and affect the tide of the seas and the mood of women, as we all know …

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Glad to be useful sometimes . Cyclothymique comes from cycles of the thymus because the Ancients’ knowledge said that this gland close to the heart had a deep influence on our emotions . And it’s possibly still true, even if modern mental configuration forgot many things .

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  3. 1)I remember when people started creating and trying to use “alunir”, which was judged improper at the beginning . So as “alunir” became somehow accepted (at least in casual language) I find logical to create amarsir, although I don’t like the sound . But what will we do with”ajupiterrir” or assaturnir” ?

    2) Another “landing” possible translation : accoster . Not the same meaning as débarquer . Accoster is OK for a ship that reaches the coast, and drops its anchor there . Whether the crew “débarque” or not is irrelevant . An interesting and frequent point is this kind of verbs always keep the old French form, close to the Latin root as Spanish or Italian still do . Accoster comes from “coste”, the pre-Renaissance version of our modern “côte” .

    3) I don’t know if you know that but there are two regular conjugations in French : -er verbs and a category of -ir verbs . Atterrir belongs to these . To detect if a verb belonged to the regular -ir form ( called second group verbs, the first group being -er verbs and the third group gathering all the rest, the mass of all irregular ), we were taught in old school schools to conjugate with “nous”, or with the present participle . When an -ir verb did “nous …issons” or “en …issant” we knew it was a second group verb . Nous atterrissons, en finissant . This second group conjugation is totally regular, another regular system to learn beside -er verbs .

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Very interesting. I’m struck by accoster–like atterrir, alunir, and amerrir, it “lexicalizes” the thing that you end up at.

      Thanks for the observations about the IR-class verbs. (I can never remember whether they’re groups or classes, let alone the numbers.)

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      1. When French schooling still existed they were called groupes, and there are 3 groupes . I never heard of “-ir verbs” before I started browsing the Anglophone internet . It’s totally irrelevant since the 2° groupe ( finir) is regular while all irregular “-ir verbs” have a lunatic conjugation like -dre, -oir, etc verbs . By this time I thought this “-ir verbs” invention said a lot about the relationship of Anglophones with “le langage” .

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello ! It should be aplutonir, for Pluton ends with an “n” . But I doubt Earthlings aplutonissent in the future since this ex-planet has been downgraded recently to the status of a dwarf planet . I’m enraged because I had bought a wide piece of land there in a financial speculative intention and now my money is lost !

      Liked by 2 people

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