Down the hill comes a bear rug: the non-autonomy of syntax

French people are not rude, and syntax is not autonomous.


I’m walking up the hill to the lab the other day.  It’s a long hill, and I’m old and fat, so I usually stop to catch my breath halfway up.  I’m standing in my usual spot when down the hill comes a man who (I hope) looks even older than I do.  (Down the hill comes an old man…explained in the English notes below.)  Snow-white hair, snow-white beard, and a serious snow-white bear rug rising up out of his coat to merge with his beard.  He and his well-behaved dog walk up to me.  Good morning.  Are you OK?  I take my earphones out.  Oh, yes, thank you–I’m just resting a bit.  You know, there’s a nice path through the forest–the road that you’re going up isn’t really very interesting.  He points out the entrance to the path, but I can’t quite make it out for the trees.  He and his dog walk a bit back down the hill with me and take me right to the beginning of the path.  Go straight for a while–then you can turn left and go down to the town, or turn right and go up to the campus.  My dog likes to walk here–it’s really pretty.  I thank him, I start down the path, and he and his dog head back up the hill.

I get up to “the plateau,” the top of the hill, where the campus is located.  I have only the vaguest idea where I am.  I wander down a little side street, thinking that it might lead to the lab, and pass a construction vehicle.  I hear a voice calling me, and turn back.  Good morning, mister, the construction worker says.  Your earphones are hanging out of your back pocket.  …and he’s right, they are!  I thank him, ask the way to my building, brush the dirt off, and go back to listening to whatever I was listening to.

Google rude french and you will find countless web pages, YouTube videos, etc., on the subject of French rudeness.  Um…seriously??  Not from where I’m standing.  Have I ever had a run-in with a rude lady at the phone company?  Sure–just like in the US.  Have I had enormous numbers of entirely pleasant interactions with  random French strangers?  Sure–just like in the US.  The countries are, in some ways, very, very different–but, the people aren’t any more or less nice in either.  You just have to know how to recognize the very different forms of American and French politeness when you see them–and how to be polite, in both the American and the French ways, yourself.

Here’s a really good explanation of some of the ways that things can go wrong for typical Americans interacting with typical French people in a typical French context–because we mistake French politeness for rudeness.  Note: no one is completely typical.  

English notes

…down the hill comes an old man…: There’s a lot going on here.  I’ll try to unpack it (I think that’s what the kids say these days)–let’s start with looking at the sentence and its context:

I’m walking up the hill to the lab the other day.  It’s a long hill, and I’m old and fat, so I usually stop to catch my breath halfway up.  I’m standing in my usual spot when down the hill comes a man who (I hope) looks even older than I do.

The first thing that you probably notice is the unusual word order–not an old man comes down the hill, but down the hill comes an old man.  This phenomenon goes by a couple of names–a good one is subject-locative inversion.  That is: you are inverting the positions of the subject of the sentence and of a phrase that conveys something that is more or less a location.  (Down the hill is a direction, not a location, but let’s stick with the “simple” name for the moment.)

You probably already understand the sentence, but if you’re not a native speaker, may not be at all clear on when one could use it.  I’m going to draw on this excellent discussion (which itself draws on the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language) and on Wikipedia in trying to explain it.

First of all: as far as I know, you would only use this construction in telling a story.  Much like the passé simple in 20th-century French, this isn’t something that you would use in every-day spoken language.  You can certainly say it out loud, and news reporters often use it to describe a scene when they’re reporting “on location.”  But, you’re not going to stick your head into your wife’s office and say On the table is dinner.  

The circumstances under which you can use this depend on aspects of what we call discourse structure, which you could think of as the way that things that are said form a coherent whole.  We talked the other day about discourse connectives–words and expressions like because, even though, and as a result that establish how the ideas behind two sentences (or whatever) are related to each other.  When talking about subject-locative inversion, there needs to be a particular relationship between the subject (the old man in my sentence) and the locative phrase (down the hill).  The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language specifies that relationship like this:

i. The preposed phrase must not represent information that is less familiar in the discourse than that represented by the postposed NP.

(Preposed means moved to an earlier position.  Postposed means moved to a later position.  An NP is a noun phrase, a group of words that is focussed on a noun.)

Does Cambridge’s claim hold?  Let’s look at the post again.

I’m walking up the hill to the lab the other day.  It’s a long hill, and I’m old and fat, so I usually stop to catch my breath halfway up.  I’m standing in my usual spot when down the hill comes a man who (I hope) looks even older than I do.

We’ve established that there’s a hill involved in whatever it is that I’m going to tell you about: I’m walking up the hill to the lab the other day.  So, in down the hill comes a man, it is indeed the case that the preposed phrase (down the hill) does not represent information that is less “familiar in the discourse” than the postposed noun phrase (a man).  The claim is not falsified by my data.

Back to the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language:

iii. The verb must not represent information that is new to the discourse.

…and back to the post again:

I’m walking up the hill to the lab the other day.  It’s a long hill, and I’m old and fat, so I usually stop to catch my breath halfway up.  I’m standing in my usual spot when down the hill comes a man who (I hope) looks even older than I do.

Is it, in fact, the case that the verb does not represent information that is new to “the discourse?”  Actually, I don’t know how you would evaluate that, one way or the other.  Certainly the whole “discourse” up to that point has been about my movement, so I guess you could say that the verb to come is not “new”–it’s in the same lexical field.  However, if you accept that analysis, then unless you insist that the verb be identical to some preceding one, I don’t know how you could demonstrate that the verb did represent information that’s “new to the discourse.”

(You might have noticed that my quotes from the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language went straight from (i) to (iii).  This is because I don’t know what the hell (ii) is talking about.  See this page if you want to see it for yourself.)

This kind of phenomenon turns out to be important in one of the deep theoretical issues in linguistics.  For various and sundry reasons, Chomsky and his ilk would like to posit what they call “the autonomy of syntax”–the idea that syntax is a part of human linguistic knowledge (the kind that we all have unconsciously, not the kind that people like me get in graduate school) is “autonomous”–that is, that it operates independently of the rest of language.  When you have a situation like we see with subject-locative inversion, where the syntax is dependent on something else–in this case, on the structure of the discourse, or more specifically, whether something is “old information” or “new information”–it makes it tough to argue that syntax is autonomous.

9 thoughts on “Down the hill comes a bear rug: the non-autonomy of syntax”

  1. Ainsi parlait Zarathoustra (Also sprach Zarathustra) . Sur la route, s’avançaient deux voitures . Du ciel tombent des flocons . These inversions are legions in classical literature, to the point that in the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries texts they can happen more often than the opposite way . Still now when writing we can easily use them . Christian rituals end like this : Ainsi soit-il (So be it ?) I don’t know enough English literature to see if it is equivalent .

    Yes, if when abroad you behave like a human and more, if you feel like a human, you’ll be able to meet humans . Only humans admittedly, but let’s not be too picky for a start .

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Cool–I’ll look for it in French. However, right now I’m reading “Zazie dans le métro”—sorta the opposite, from a stylistic point of view. “Il se met à me faire des papouilles zozées,” “Oh voui, msieu,” “Ah! les jitrouas, rgardez-moi cqu’elle avait voulu mfaucher.” I still haven’t figured out “les jitrouas”….

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It is J3, the French letter J is said Jee for you . It meant teenagers in the immediate post WWII . The Nazi occupation, although wonderful, had a few downsides, one of them being there was no food, no medicines nor heating . Hence a severe rationing system using tickets . On the tickets age categories were noted, V for vieillards, J for jeunes, and J1, J2, J3 from babies to teens .

        Very good you read this Queneau’s book, it became a “cult book” . I like the first word of the book “Doukipudonktan?” (if you fully catch this one bravo) . That’s what I like in writing and also in French spirit, freely mixing the highest levels of language with slang, colloquialisms and even complete neologisms . The French Academy is accepted because we want official rules for all but we also want to do what we want regarding these laws . This is French and I love life like that .
        Queneau was a high writer, poems, novels, essays, politics, member of the surrealist group and of the Oulipo (ouvroir de littérature populaire- populaire meaning for the working class) . He belonged to the last period when France was still France in my eyes, before the US steamroller imported money makers shit and universal dumbing . The genius Pasolini had made the same constatation about Italy way before I did for France . Watching the 60s TV he said” There is no Italy anymore” . When I say there is no France anymore it is not like the brainless sheep who split on immigrants, it is entirely oriented towards the US of ânes .
        I told you one day about another writer, Jules Romains, boringly serious who made in the same time two extremely funny books, “Knock” and ‘Les Copains” . “Les Copains” and “Zazie” are bedside books for me .
        Sorry I went far away one more time . Don’t scruple to tell me if it bothers you but I noticed that despite your breeding place you could seem duly human most of the time .

        Liked by 1 person

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