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.
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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.