The prescriptivist candidate (French style)

(This is a translated version of my post ‘Les travers du candidat au prescriptivisme‘.)

Tuesday, March 29th 2016: I’m home from a day of teaching, during which I have endeavoured to initiate students of all levels to the intricacies and subtleties of language and linguistics. While I wait for the kettle to boil, I absentmindedly flip the pages of M, the magazine edition of Le Monde, which has been sitting on the kitchen table since Saturday, waiting for five minutes of quasi idleness. There, Lucien Jedwab’s column catches my eye; the former chief copyeditor of Le Monde has evidently taken over the position of defender of la bonne langue, previously held by journalist Dominique Pourquery.

I am no assiduous reader of Le Monde magazine, but I had rather liked Mr Jedwab’s latest column, in which he relativized the threat of English borrowings on French and cited a few well known examples of the reverse phenomenon, i.e. words borrowed from French into English. He might even have added that the first full-blown dictionary to be published in England, compiled by Samuel Johnson over nine years and printed in 1755, overtly aimed at curing the English tongue of the excessive gallicization that ailed it—ironic evidence that linguistic xenophobia isn’t a recent invention, knows no borders and may take opposite directions depending on the current balance of power. As a lecturer and researcher in English, convinced that a language lives and thrives through contact and exchange with others, I rejoiced at reading  a nuanced take on that issue in the French mainstream media.

Which is why I wasn’t a little disappointed when Mr Jedwab, following in Mr Pourquery’s footsteps, lashed out at a word, the verb candidater (‘apply for a position’), on the sole grounds that he does not like it. His diatribe displays all the flaws of linguistic prescriptivism, that current of opinion which has informed attitudes towards language since time immemorial.

The first of these flaws is to pass appreciative judgment on the word: the verb candidater is allegedly incorrect because it is exécrable (‘dreadful’) and vilain (‘ugly’). Of course, one may legitimately dislike this or that word for any reason whatsoever: what is not legitimate is to jump to the conclusion that the word in incorrect, or indeed ‘not French’—unless you’re really writing a fashion column.

The second flaw consists in calling up the etymological argument. To claim, like the article from the Académie française that Lucien Jedwab quotes, that one cannot turn the noun candidat (‘candidate’) into a verb because it comes from a Latin adjective is utter fallacy. To start with, we don’t speak Latin but French, which should suffice; if every language had to obey the morphosyntactic and semantic rules of its ancestors, we should all still be speaking Proto-Indo-European. As for arguing, as the Académie does, that candidater should not exist because *lauréater (from Fr. lauréat, ‘laureate’) and *avocater (from Fr. avocat, ‘attorney’) do not, that is entirely dishonest: if there was any value to that principle, then  we should also exclude candidature (‘candidacy’), since there is no *lauréature (*’laureacy’) in the dictionary.

Here comes the third flaw: to aver that candidater does not exist because it is not in the dictionary. At this point, the author entangles himself in his own argument. By definition, a dictionary cannot include a word considered as emergent, as its role (if it is honest) is to record the lexicon which is representative of a linguistic community at the time of its publication. The dictionary argument, on closer inspection, results in circular reasoning: let us banish from usage any word that does not appear in the dictionary, and deny entry into the dictionary to any such banished word. From that viewpoint, it is quite useless to keep on editing dictionaries, and lexicographers are an endangered species.

Finally, as a last resort, Lucien Jedwab comes up with the notion that candidater is a ‘barbarism’. By doing so, he ignores that candidater follows rules which are wholly in keeping with the ‘genius’ (in this case, the derivational rules) of the French tongue: deriving verbs from nouns or adjectives is commonplace even in French, and produces the denominal and deadjectival verbs which populate the pages of all dictionaries, including that of the Académie. On may even find candidater to have the virtue of conciseness, since the verbal form allows one to dispense with the periphrasis faire acte de (candidature).

If it is no barbarism, would it be a neologism? It does seem relatively recent:

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 14.22.27

Judging from that chart, computed from the Google Books Ngram Corpus (source), its use has been gaining ground in French writings since the early 1980’s—not that 40 years is that young… But candidater is also the target of a comment in the 1931 issue of the Revue de philologie française et de littérature—not exactly yesterday. The rational and scientific seriousness of that note, by the way, is rather amusing:


Lucien Jedwab aptly notes that no candidate in the right-wing primaries to the French presidential election has yet candidaté (that is, used the verb in any statement); further on, he points out that the verb is particularly fashionable in higher education, and derails that corporation’s appetite for acronyms. In that I have to second him, although it must be said that acronymania is a typically French ailment which goes right across all sectors of employment. And this is the point: with barely 0.03 word per million (compared with 2.5 per million for the preferred verb postuler), candidater is far from contaminating general French. A quick perusal of Google Books hits shows that it does indeed, for the most part, belong to a certain jargon of l’Education Nationale and l’Enseignement Supérieur—but what profession does not have its jargon, made up of words with different meanings or which simply ‘don’t exist’ outside it? Beside dialectal or sociolectal varieties, every language also has occupational varieties whose syntax, lexicon, semantics, etc. differ from the standard (look at the overrepresentation of the passive voice in scientific writings, for example). From these two observations, it appears that it is quite pointless to be alarmed at candidater as, though one may abhor it, that word remains within the confines of its domain of origin.

All in all, that column of Mr Jedwab’s confirms the two main mistakes that prescriptivists of all ages and eras make when it comes to language—mistakes that are repeatedly pointed out by renowned lexicographers and linguists such as Michael Rundell (chief editor of Macmillan’s English Dictionary) or Geoffrey K. Pullum (co-author of the monumental Cambridge Grammar of the English Language) among others. The first one consists in not seeing that a language is a living, flexible organism, infinitely varied and unavoidably variable, remarkable in its ability to adapt to necessities brought on by varied and variable circumstances; that the only languages that do not evolve are dead languages. The second one is to believe that language belongs to an select assembly of co-opted pundits, taken to hold some magical power to legislate on usage: past experience shows that it is vain to prescribe; the Académie française is no more capable of fixing French in some ideal state than Johnson, Swift, Defoe and their ilk have succeeded in ‘improving and ascertaining‘ English. A language is the inalienable property of the community of its speakers, and their innovations are so many attempts to make it fit their needs: some of them are stillborn, others stick on. It is one very banal thing not to like some of those innovations; it is another, intellectually dishonest, to try to impose taste as scientific truth.


One thought on “The prescriptivist candidate (French style)

  1. Pingback: Link love: language (67) | Sentence first

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