Sunday, May 15, 2016

When I say "I", I mean "you": public service hortatives in French

A lot of languages - Indonesian, for instance - make a rather useful distinction between two 1st person plural pronouns: "we (including you)" and "we (excluding you)". A few languages, such as Nivkh, extend this distinction to the singular, sort of, having a dual 1st person inclusive pronoun "I and you" alongside a singular 1st person exclusive pronoun "I" (and no other duals). But a 1st person singular inclusive pronoun, strictly speaking, is a contradiction in terms: it would have to be a pronoun referring to only one person which included both the speaker and the addressee.

Or is it? There are a couple of ways in which this apparent contradiction could be resolved. The most obvious would be if you had a special pronoun used only when the speaker was also the addressee; but, as such a form would be used only in talking to oneself, it would be unlikely to catch on enough to become part of the language. Less obviously, however, you could have a singular pronoun being used in a sufficiently vague way to refer to both the speaker and the addressee (but not to an uninvolved third person.)

Soon after moving to France, I realised that, in public announcements, this is in fact what French does with its 1st person singular pronoun je. The realisation was prompted by a poster in a medical insurance office saying, in big letters, something like:

Je choisis le générique, je ne fais pas d'avance de frais.
(I choose generic drugs, I pay no advance.)

This was clearly not a piece of self-observation someone had put up; rather, it was intended to tell us "Choose generic drugs, and pay no advance". Over the following days, I noticed that concealed exhortations of this form were everywhere: Oui je vote (Yes I vote), En car comme en voiture, je boucle ma ceinture (In a coach as in a car, I buckle my seatbelt), ... All easily understandable as conveying the message is "I do this, and so should you". But in English, you consistently cast such messages in the imperative, with no "I" at all: "Please take a moment to cast your vote in this important election" or "Buckle up, it's the law", and so on. One obvious side effect is that the slogan "Je suis Charlie" has at least one reading directly accessible to French speakers but not to English speakers who understand it word for word: namely, "I am Charlie, and you'd better be Charlie too".

The difference between the two languages in this respect is at the level of pragmatics, for now. But if such hortatives become sufficiently common in French, one could well imagine the construction grammaticalising further and even eventually becoming distinct from ordinary 1st person marking. In that case, we might end up with a true 1st person singular inclusive pronoun: a pronoun that simultaneously means "I" and "you", while taking strict singular agreement. Give it another 500 years...

Are you familiar with another language that does this?

29 comments:

Anonymus said...

All example you mentioned could be in Hebrew like they are in French:
Choose generic drugs, and pay no advance - "אני בוחר בתרופות גנריות, אני משלם פחות"
In a coach as in a car, I buckle my seatbelt - "במכונית ובאוטובוס אני חוגר חגורת בטיחות"
It cannot be used in conversation but is used a lot in ads.

John Cowan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Cowan said...

"I is the first letter of the alphabet, the first word of the language, the first thought of the mind, the first object of affection. In grammar it is a pronoun of the first person and singular number. Its plural is said to be We, but how there can be more than one myself is doubtless clearer to the grammarians than it is to the author of this incomparable dictionary. Conception of two myselves is difficult, but fine. The frank yet graceful use of "I" distinguishes a good writer from a bad; the latter carries it with the manner of a thief trying to cloak his loot." —Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

Sophie Paine said...

Thank you. As a French native speaker, it had not struck me we used "I" in most of public messages including advertising until I moved to Italy and was constantly addressed with "tu" the second singular person which I found aggressive and rude at first: why single "me" and how come they use the familiar "tu" as if they knew me already.
A public message with "you" would not sound as effective in French maybe because of a kind of indifference towards others or a strong individualism embedded in the language? A message needs to use "I" in order to attract attention.

nycguy said...

Anither one of life's little linguistic mysteries solved!

I always wondered why my heavy-duty plastic carryall from a store that operates in both the US and Canada says "Think Green" in English and "Moi, je pense vert" inFrench

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Anonymus: Thanks - I wonder how the habit spread between the languages? Perhaps via Russian or Polish?

John: Unsurprisingly but amusingly, one of the clearest genuine linguistic universals seems to be the non-existence of genuine 1st person plurals (1+1+1+... rather than 1+2+2...+3+3...)

Sophie: Interesting interpretation. I kind of saw it more as evidence for the strong individualism of English-speaking cultures: my first reaction to such messages tended to be "and why should the fact that you choose generic drugs make any difference to me"?

nycguy: Aha, so they do this in Quebec too! Wonder when it first started?

nycguy said...

German finesses the awkward question of whether to use informal or formal verb forms in commands or exhortations by using the infinitive instead. I wonder if the French first-person syntax is a similar strategy.

David Marjanović said...

French uses the infinitive a lot for this, too. The 1st-person construction is clearly meant to suggest role models talking about themselves and thus about the ideal state of affairs.

Benjamin Geer said...

My sense is that this construction is used only to encourage people to change or adopt habitual behaviours. I don't think the instructions on a parking meter could possibly say "Je paye €2".

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

nycguy, David: as you say, the infinitive is already available for that - but the fact that this construction does let you avoid formality marking is probably useful too...

Ben: Not sure about that. I think "Je paye €2" is infelicitous there for the same reason "You should pay €2" would be: it implies you have more of a choice than you do. I can easily imagine a slogan "Je vote Oui" for, say, an EU membership referendum, even if it were a strictly one-time event (though I'd need to check that with a native speaker).

Alex said...

It's kind of passive-aggressive: "Well, *I* am Charlie". "*I* chose the generic drugs, I don't know what SOME PEOPLE might have done."

Benjamin Geer said...

Lameen: yes, I think you're right, I can certainly imagine "Je vote oui." About people having a choice, perhaps the important thing is not whether they legally have a choice (which they don't in the seat belt example either, it's required by law), but whether they do in practice, e.g. because the law is hard to enforce. So people are told they should wear seat belts because it's the right thing to do. Whereas in the situation with the parking meter, you won't get the ticket unless you pay first, so there's no need for moral pressure.

per incuriam said...

If that reading really applies to the likes of "Je suis Charlie" then all sorts of interesting vistas open up. "L’État, c’est moi", for example, is no longer an assertion of absolutism but an appeal for civic-mindedness, shedding a whole new light on the Sun King. We may also need to revisit Descartes ("Je pense donc je suis" becomes a self-help slogan, a sort of 17th-century "use it or lose it"), Zola ("J'accuse" a call for whistleblowers), Flaubert ("Madame Bovary, c'est moi" an incitement to adultery) etc.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Ben: That sounds right - moral pressure seems to be the key element here.

per incuriam: Very funny, but apart from probably being anachronistic, that reading doesn't work contextually for most of these. It does work quite nicely in Zola's case, however: he was trying to get a mass movement going, so he certainly did intend to communicate that "I accuse (the establishment of jailing an innocent man under false pretences), and so should you". Whether that's evidence for the construction's antiquity or just an illustration of the sort of rhetoric from which it developed is a question I'll leave to specialists.

David Marjanović said...

It's kind of passive-aggressive: "Well, *I* am Charlie". "*I* chose the generic drugs, I don't know what SOME PEOPLE might have done."

Correct.

per incuriam said...

It's kind of passive-aggressive: "Well, *I* am Charlie". "*I* chose the generic drugs, I don't know what SOME PEOPLE might have done."

Not sure about this analysis. For me, that sort of emphasis calls for a "moi" (as in nycguy's example above).

David Marjanović said...

Not if the aggression is passive enough :-)

petre said...

Doesn't the English hortative just use the plural, rather than the singular. Rather famously, "We kneel at this point".

petre said...

My bad, but when the "Je suis Charlie" thing was current, and my monolingual English sister asked me what it meant, I without reflection replied "We are all Charlie".

Elthamist said...

As a lapsed francophonist, it has just struck me that :
" Je suis " is a double-entendre, translatable as 'I follow', as well as 'I am' !

This arises in Arnold Bremond "Vivarais Terre Ardente" 1967 not to hand.
A vivid pen portrait of a southern highland province -
An elderly protestant lady, a lay preacher, declares:
"Je suis Isaie" which the author explicitates with a footnote:
"suis - du verbe suivre" lest anyone read her as claiming identity with
the OT prophet instead of relying on his authority.

Ce qui n'est pas clair n'est pas francais ? Laissez moi rire !

Moubarik Belkasim said...

I remember a promotional ad on Moroccan state-owned TV channels that used this I-form to promote registering and voting in Morocco's sham and unpopular elections. They used both Berber and Moroccan Darija-Arabic in 2 separate TV ads.

For example: Ɣadi nemci .... غادي نمشي
(meaning: I will go .... [do this and this])

In the video, the actor is staring at the camera while he's talking in 1st person and future tense!

The idea is of course: Do as I do!

Maybe they copied that stuff from French practice, or not.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Petre: Not a bad translation...

Elthamist: After "Je suis Charlie" became a thing, a number of Francophone Muslims started using the slogan "Je suis Muhammad (PSSL)". The next day everyone was talking about how this slogan was unintentionally blasphemous because you can't claim to be a prophet, and the day after that everyone was firing back that no, it's intended to mean "follow" not "am". Interesting to know that that double entendre's been a problem in Christian contexts too...

Moubarik: Under those circumstances, I'll unhesitatingly bet on "copied from French practice".

petre said...

Elthamist: That would never have occurred to me. Talk about back-pedalling!

petre said...

Thanks, Lameen. As professional interpreters/translators, we just churn out the words, and are as surprised as anybody else when someone reads something 'deep' into it. Not that we're insensitive to such things, not at all my dear, we just have to put a cap on it or else go mad, I tell you mad!!!

petre said...

"Ce qui n'est pas clair n'est pas francais."

I adore that. Put it on my tombstone, or the tombstone of the French language, whichever comes first.

Aren't the French adorable? The way they can be so clear-sightedly self-deceptive.

David Marjanović said...

To be fair, that quote is from the 18th century.

petre said...

Nous sommes les petits pois.

From the 1970s, if I mistake me not.

David Marjanović said...

On the train today: "Wir steigen bitte in Fahrtrichtung rechts aus" – 'we', not including the conductor who said it, will please get out on the right side of the direction of travel.

petre said...

I think I remembe you ive++++






I think I remember you live in Austria, David. We just get "Fahrtrichtung rechts aussteigen", and count ourselves lucky if there's a "bitte" in there somewhere.








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