de Beauvoir’s critique of ontology, and French numbers

I can talk about ontology in French, but I can’t tell the difference between “two euros” and “twelve euros.” You, neither? Here’s help.

Picture source:

The Internet is full of web pages, blog posts, and out-and-out screeds on the subject of How you can tell that you’ve become French/Parisian/Provençal/name-your-region-of-choice.  One of the common themes: you no longer struggle with numbers.

I find that French speakers often have trouble buying this, but it’s true (to buy in this weird sense explained in the English notes below): I can have a conversation in French about Marx’s critique of ontology versus Simone de Beauvoir’s critique of the same and why the latter is relevant to computational bioscience but the former isn’t–but, I can’t even begin to understand French numbers.  (Marx: what you should be doing is trying to change reality, not trying to understand it, and besides, it’s completely determined by economics, so what’s the question?  Not relevant to computational bioscience.  Simone de Beauvoir: ontology is inherently essentialist, but being a woman is a matter of contingency, not essence; ontology gets misused to relegate women to a secondary status.  Relevant to computational bioscience, which takes gender as essential (and binary, but we can get into that another time).  My interpretation–your mileage may vary.)

This difficulty with French numbers has real consequences for my life.  For example: at work, we use quantitative measures of system performance.  Someone will be discussing their approach, and they’ll give a number for the results of their most recent experiment, and by the time I figure out whether it’s a big number or a little number, 15 seconds have gone by and I’ve lost the thread of the conversation.

The comic that you see above captures the feelings of much of the anglophone population of France, as far as I can tell from reading countless memoirs of the expat experience in this amazing country.  History?  Forget it–by the time I figure out whether we’re talking about the 1800s or the 1900s, the last two numbers have long gone by.  This evening I was listening to a podcast of La méthode scientifique on the question of the origins of life, and they were tossing around times on the scales of billions of years, and it was practically impossible.  (As far as I could tell, milliard is used both for “thousands” and “billion.”  They’re not: as Laura Lawless explained it to me, Nope. 🙂 You’re mixing up “milliards” (billions) and “milliers” (thousands).)  Honestly, I could go on and on (and on and on) about this, but I think you get the point.

What to do?  I suggest the sound files on the Lawless French web site.  Scroll down towards the bottom of this page and you’ll find links to a number of sets of random numbers, including some that are all years, all prices (if I had a nickle for every time I’ve confused deux euros and douze euros…), etc.  In a kind world, YouTube would be filled with videos of smiling native speakers reading random numbers and then holding up signs with the answer, but until that happy day arrives, Laura Lawless is your savior in this matter.

Want to read more about Anglophone struggles with French numbers?  Check out the next post.

English notes

to buy: besides the basic meaning, this can also mean to believe or to accept a claim.  Some examples from Twitter:

  • I don’t buy the idea that people are walking around saying things they don’t mean. At some point, after repeated repetition, they mean them.  (What the writer doesn’t believe: the claim that “people are walking around saying things (that) they don’t mean.”)
  • I really agree with this. I keep seeing her described as a weak candidate and I don’t buy it.  (What the writer doesn’t believe: the claim that an unspecified female is a weak candidate.)
  • that’s what I tried to tell him. He didn’t buy it. (What “he” didn’t believe: whatever @anonymized had claimed, which the writer of this tweet also claimed, in a conversation with “him.”  OK: you’re on your own for the rest, but feel free to ask questions in the Comments section.)
  • One of the panelists said she doesn’t buy that the ad agency is dead or on its way there.
  • my mom’s just jealous cause her sister had blonde hair & not her. She doesn’t buy that God made a mistake w me 😦
  • My wife is so beautiful that when I saw her comin up 2 the N tower (Livingston) I had 2look away. She doesn’t buy that story.
  • Oh God just had a flashback to being in a seminar and a woman saying she doesn’t “buy” that there are other genders in other cultures o m g
  • didn’t give me permission to get into school because I was really late to school. I was sick for fck’s sake but he didn’t buy my excuse
  • I just tackled a guy in a football jersey but the police didn’t buy my excuse of “Look at how he was dressed, he was asking for it.”

How it was used in the post: I find that French speakers often have trouble buying this, but it’s true: I can have a conversation in French about Marx’s critique of ontology versus Simone de Beauvoir’s critique of the same and why the latter is relevant to computational bioscience but the former isn’t–but, I can’t even begin to understand numbers. 

17 thoughts on “de Beauvoir’s critique of ontology, and French numbers”

  1. Interesting article! Thanks for the link.

    >>As far as I can tell, milliard is used both for “thousands” and “billion.”

    Nope. 🙂 You’re mixing up “milliards” (billions) and “milliers” (thousands).

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Oddly I can deal with numbers and I can even do basic arithmetic quite easily in French but bark a phone number at me and I get all of a dither …. it must be as simple as the fact that they will say 92 rather than 9 pause 2 and my brain is hard wired to the latter but the number of times I have called the wrong number because I’ve written it all wrong is humiliating to say the least!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. American phone numbers follow a pattern: three numbers, pause, three numbers, pause, four numbers. In Britain, there doesn’t seem to be any set pattern, and I struggle to hear them at all, although English (of a sort) is my native language.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I was raised in England so it’s hard wired that there is no pattern. American I deal with no problem at all though for a while I wasn’t sure if they used O or it had to be 0 but both seem acceptable. France on the other hand just scares me!!!

        Liked by 3 people

  3. Interesting Chez Nous; Trevor can instantly understand & say French numbers
    I have to think & compose anything over 100, yet my vocab & grammar is now superior to his? TBH, Trevor’s very act of being refutes all labels, assumptions, generalities, data research and suppositions, He really IS from another planet

    Liked by 3 people

  4. It happens that I don’t clearly hear a number, often with noise around or because of the speaker’s elocution, but instantly French folks in my case ask loudly “Douze ? ou deux ?” for instance, so nobody even remembers the problem the next day . And to give phone numbers people often say 8-0-1-2 you know .
    But it happened to me in English too due to the same causes, between 14 and 40 for instance . For sure, the better you master the language the less this happens, but it still does, even for natives .
    These annoyances are not the worst . English and French share the same logic about numbers . I often have difficulties to figure a number out when I travel in Arabophone countries, because to say 32 they say 2 and 30 . Add this to the same difficulties as above ( because these happen in every language) it can turn as a problem, specially when you bargain and need to be quick and look smart.
    Even Hegel’s countrymen count like that : 52 is two and fifty, one more proof that Germans are a Semitic people ha ha .
    So you’re interested in studying the Being ( onto- logie), the essence and the existence, substance and conscience ? Nice to know, but beware this will look suspect in modern America . Sure you’re not a kind of Commie , or a fag ?

    Liked by 3 people

  5. This is not just a problem of french. Here are some examples of possible confusion with english:
    three-hundred: 300 vs 3 100
    twenty-five hundred: 2500 vs 25 100
    What makes the latter case even more confusing is that the first number (2500) can also be expressed as two thousand five hundred.
    I would also argue that nineteen and ninty are just as similar as milliers and millards.

    And don’t get me started on the whole imperial unit mess…

    Liked by 1 person

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