Comment parler à un alien ?

Aliens land. How do you communicate with them? Read this book on language and linguistics in science fiction by Roland Lehoucq.

I got this message this morning via an email list for francophone specialists in natural language processing, the use of computers to do things with language.  If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll probably find it interesting, and it has some grammatical constructions and vocabulary items that I don’t understand, so if you’re an anglophone reader, you might learn something from it, as I did… I’ve interspersed my comments with the text of the email, and the vocabulary notes show up at the end of the post, after the email.

 Date: Thu, 18 Oct 2018 11:25:52 +0200
From: Frederic Landragin <>
Message-ID: <>

Chers collègues,Le livre “Comment parler à un alien ? Langage et linguistique dans la
science-fiction” vient de paraître aux éditions du Bélial’, dans la
collection de vulgarisation “Parallaxe”, dirigée par Roland Lehoucq.

Is the family name Lehoucq composed of le + houcq? Not as far as I can tell—I haven’t found dictionary entries for houcq, houc, or houq.  If it is, indeed, so composed, apparently the h of houcq was an h aspiré, or we would see l’houcq, right??

Imaginez : les extraterrestres sont là ! Sur Terre. À côté de chez
vous… Et d’emblée se pose la question cruciale qui accompagne
l’extraordinaire événement : comment leur parler ? Comment s’en faire
comprendre ? Le langage sera sans doute d’une importance cruciale. La
science-fiction, domaine réflexif par essence, l’a compris depuis ses
origines et en a fait l’un de ses sujets de prédilection, tant au cinéma
qu’en littérature, de “Babel 17” à “Premier Contact”, de
“L’Enchâssement” aux “Langages de Pao”.

This paragraph contains lots of instances of that pronimal bugaboo of us anglophones, en. S’en faire comprendre: where does that en come from?  Is it an anaphor for “by them”?  Native speakers?  The en of La science fiction…en a fait l’un de ses sujets de predilection seems straightforward-ish: I think it refers back to le langage in the preceding sentence.  (By the way: most computer programs for “resolving” anaphora would get this one wrong, basically because they typically don’t look as far back as the beginning of a preceding sentence, or if they do, they tend to prefer to guess that the referent is at the end of the preceding sentence, if there is a candidate (in this case, une importance cruciale) at the end of the preceding sentence as well as one at the beginning. 

Sommaire :
– Avant-propos
– Introduction
– Chapitre 1 : De la science-fiction à la linguistique-fiction
– Chapitre 2 : Origine et évolution des langues naturelles
– Chapitre 3 : Des langues artificielles, mais pour quoi faire
– Chapitre 4 : Les éléments constitutifs d’une langue
– Chapitre 5 : Premier contact avec des extraterrestres
– Anticipons !
– Notes,  – Bibliographie

What does pour quoi faire mean in the title of Chapter 3?  I have no idea.  If it’s “why make artificial languages,” wouldn’t that be pourquoi en faire ? As I said: en really screws up us anglophones…

La collection : la parallaxe est un changement de perception de notre
environnement dû à un changement de point de vue. En utilisant le
“cognitive estrangement”, la science-fiction observe notre monde sous un
angle différent et l’interroge. L’ambition de la collection Parallaxe
est de montrer qu’il est possible de faire un détour par l’imaginaire
pour parler de sciences et comprendre notre monde.

Question: as far as I know, French—unlike English, where it’s possible but definitely optional–generally repeats the preposition when there’s a conjoined phrase “to talk about science and understand our world”); if I’m right about that, then why does the paragraph contain pour parler de sciences et comprendre notre monde, rather than pour parler de sciences et pour comprendre notre monde, which is what I would have expected?

Bien cordialement,
Frédéric Landragin.

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French vocabulary:

 enchâssement: encastrement dans une châsse (

The English translation of this word on WordReference makes no sense to me, but I never pass up an opportunity to use the word châsse. 

encastrement: insertion d’un objet dans un autre ( Nous avons opté pour l’encastrement de l’électro-ménager dans les meubles de notre cuisine. (Example sentence also from WordReference)

 The English translation on WordReference seems right for their example sentence, but not for their French-language definition of enchâssement.  Maybe châsse has a meaning besides the one that I know, which is a synonym of reliquaire?  Not according to WordReference, whose English-language translation is, once again, at odds with their French-language definition: the French-language definition is coffret pour reliques précieuses, but they translate châsse into English as shrine, when it should be reliquary.    



7 thoughts on “Comment parler à un alien ?”

  1. I am no linguist and it has been a while since I took apart French to translate it, but I suppose I’ve been exposed long enough for certain meanings to seep their way into my brain as if by osmosis. ‘Pour quoi faire’ suggests a different meaning and emphasis than ‘pourquoi en faire’: ‘So as to do what?’ rather than ‘why do it?’ As for enchâssement, it seems to involve substituting words of a phrase for another. But you probably already knew that!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. OK, several questions here . First, easy, “Lehoucq”: in several regional “proto-French”that became “patois” the “h” was often “aspiré” . My grand always pronounced it when he said ” hil de pute”( son of a bitch) in its patois from the South-West . The name Lehoucq originated in a very old time

    “Pour quoi” (for what) is a different word than “pourquoi” (why). Des langues artificielle”pour quoi faire”= to do what with them, for what purpose, or also in some cases to use them in what way, how will you use them and for what intention . It’s a complete different meaning than “why ?”.

    The precious “en” . In the first example, “comment s’en faire comprendre”,”en” refers to the ETs, how being understood by them . We can say “se faire comprendre par eux” but better because lighter ” se faire comprendre d’eux”. And you know “en” is often “de + pronoun” like “y” is “à + pronoun” .
    You are right, in “la SF en a fait …” “en “refers to le langage, or even further to the problem of how communicating with them, “comment leur parler et s’en faire comprendre” . You see, French is an intellectual language (even if many modern French are not) so un element such as “en” can refer to a whole concept included in several phrases . You know what a lapsus is, right ? As a French child I was told about “lapsus linguae” and “lapsus calami” a more serious lapsus .

    French is free, we can say “pour parler de sciences et comprendre notre monde”as well as “pour parler de sciences et pour comprendre notre monde”. It is “une question de style”,which feeling does the speaker or the writer want to create, fluid or weighty .

    Une châsse is “un coffret”, usually made of precious material, that contains religious relics . With time “une châsse” became used for non religious stuff too, but always precious, like jewels, a treasure, an antique book, Charlemagne’s crown, anything of this kind . Enchâsser means “inserting something in a “châsse”but in linguistics enchâssement has a special meaning . I’m not a linguist and I can’t find several examples on the web. I could see they associate it with recursivité . It seems related to complexification of sentences, inserting complete phrases or even sentences inside an other complete sentence . And I found a site giving a simple example . “Marie a vu ce qui s’est passé . Elle l’a raconté à Pierre . Pierre me l’a dit .” Un enchâssement makes ” Pierre m’a dit que Marie lui avait raconté ce qui s’est passé” . Search sites like Universalis, hoping you’ll find more tracks .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for all of this! In memory of your grandfather, I will be calling EVERYONE a “hil de pute” from now on.

      Interesting about “enchâssement” in a linguistic context. At work we sometimes use “emboîtement” to talk about a similar phenomenon which is also a recursive process, and I’m guessing that enchâssement could be used in the same context, from what you’re saying.

      We often talk about “embedding” of one concept within another. For example, you’ve got a concept of:


      …which is embedded within the concept

      cell migration

      ….which is embedded within the concept

      regulation of cell migration

      Do you think that “enchâssement” would work equally well here, terminologically? I would LOVE to have more opportunities to use “châsse”–it’s one of my favorite French words…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sorry I did not understand your example with a cell, too many missing notions I guess .
        You will have few opportunities to use “châsse” unless you create them I’m fraid .
        My peasant grand often only said “Lou hil !”‘The son …” .”Lou” is Occitan or patois for “le”, initial “h” pronounced of course and I suppose this short version avoided the open wording of a swear word that was anyway implied for everybody . I quite liked this “Lou hil!”with the long “h” strongly emphatized, I liked this sound with his loud voice and his angry tone .

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Actually, from my perspective as someone who works with language and computers, one of the benefits of working with biomedical data is exactly the fact that because non-biomedical people don’t understand the texts, it is easier to convince them that the texts are difficult for computers to understand, too!
    “Air,” “air conditioning,” and “adjustment of air conditioning” are no easier or harder for a computer to understand than “cell,” “cell migration,” and “regulation of cell migration”–it’s the same “embeddings,” or emboîtement, or enchâssement–but, for a human, the interpretations of air/air conditioning/adjustment of air conditioning seem so obvious that it’s often (even “usually”) difficult to convince them that those would be in any way difficult for a computer. But, if you show them the exactly equivalent cell/cell migration/regulation of cell migration examples, they can more easily grasp that it would be difficult for a computer to process, since it’s difficult for THEM to process (unless they’re physicians or biologists, in which case you have to come up with something entirely different!).

    “Lou hil”–I gotta remember that. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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