Asterix and Language Change.

The Argus-eyed John Cowan sent me a link to ‘Talent borrows, genius steals’: Asterix, translation and the evolution of language, over at Word Jazz, and it’s an enjoyable read, especially if you enjoy Astérix (which we’ve discussed here at LH more than once: 2004, 2013); there’s a fairly detailed discussion of “the latest film adaptation of Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix and Obelix comic books: ‘Astérix et Obélix: Au Service De Sa Majesté’.” There’s also stuff about the Spanish-speaking community of New York City and the Norman French dialect Guernésiais (mentioned here in 2008).

I should warn readers, however, that the final section, about the alleged language-transforming powers of Aleksandr Pushkin, is complete nonsense. I don’t know where the author got the idea that Pushkin created любомудрие [lyubomudrie], a native equivalent of философия [filosofiya] ‘philosophy,’ and детский сад [detskii sad] ‘kindergarten,’ but the former had been used for a century before him (e.g., Archbishop Feofan in 1716: “Ныне же что храбростию, любомудрием…”) and the latter was not created until after his death.


  1. marie-lucie says

    Astérix chez les Bretons is a riot to read in French, and putting it into English while maintaining foreignness must have been a challenge.

    The article quotes a study about the effect of English on French spoken outside France, but every time I read Le Monde online I find a lot of English influence on French within France! These effects are not just the borrowing of words or the calquing of English phrases, but what shocks me most is the effect of English syntax. I am sure a whole book could be written about that aspect, but I have other things to do than tackle such a project.

  2. The same can be said of Hebrew: blogs especially often read like Hebglish to me, with calques galore, English syntactic constructions lifted wholesale, etc. I’d assumed this was due to the relative youth of Modern Hebrew as a language, so I’m surprised that it’s true of French.

  3. I find it easy to read medieval Latin inscriptions in churches. I assume that’s because they are written using English word order. I suppose I should test that theory by trying to read a few in France or Italy.

  4. marie-lucie says

    dearieme, I am not in a position to test if this is true or not, but Medieval French (especially Old French) often used a different, freer word order from Modern French, apparently because of a still-lingering Frankish influence.

  5. I find it easy to read medieval Latin inscriptions in churches. I assume that’s because they are written using English word order.

    I don’t know if you’re familiar with Eileen Gooder’s Latin for Local History: An Introduction, but I recommend it for anyone dealing with English Latin. Gooder assumes no knowledge of Latin, so some of the material may be superfluous, but she has lots of texts and a useful word list at the end.

  6. marie-lucie says

    Sounds good!

  7. Old French, like Middle English, was a verb-second language, as the other Germanic languages are still. It also had explicit case inflections on nouns, which of course allows for more word-order flexibility, though not as much as Latin had.

  8. Thanks, Hat. When I say “easy”, I mean that I don’t need to do much of the “parse first, construe second” approach. I just read it. It tends to have another merit: it’s about neither warfare nor bee-keeping.

  9. Oops. That comment was supposed to go in “Counting and Telling II”.

  10. I can find only a weak example now, but I recall reading the lyrics of certain Cajun songs, presumably written only in English, and sensing something French about them. Something about the structure or perhaps the rhythms.

  11. Oops. That comment was supposed to go in “Counting and Telling II”.

    I moved it there with my Hattic powers.

  12. I’ll get round to this one day soon. But, verb-second, verb-first, verb-wherever. Languages are far more interesting.

  13. Asterix in Picard sold 3000 copies.

    Marie-Lucie: I find myself a bit shocked that institutions like Le Monde and Le Figaro show this English influence. “Le verdict a impacté sur l’audience.” sort of thing seems to have become much more prevalent in the last couple of years…

  14. Sir, the verb “impact” is no part of respectable English, never mind respectable French. I presume its main appeal is to ignoramuses who can’t distinguish affect from effect.

  15. Let’s not forget that English underwent a huge French influence a few centuries back. Turnabout is fair play (or, as the French say, tournoyer, c’est blanc jeu).

  16. marie-lucie says

    It is true that english underwent a huge French influence, but that was because England was taken over by French speakers (of Viking origin!). Even though there are huge numbers of English speakers in France (some of them working, many retired, many with vacation houses), they are not the reason why French is becoming so English. I think that the reason is that a lot of information you see in the media is (often badly) translated from English. People get used to reading English syntax with French words and little by little get used to it. As a result, the greater freedom of traditional French syntax is disappearing, and sentence structure is getting plainer and more rigid. As for vocabulary, I don’t mind a verb like “impacter” (the noun “l’impact” has been used for a long time), but “l’audience” used to mean ‘(legal) court session’ or ‘semi-public meeting held by an important person (such as the Pope)’, not the people attending such functions (which would be “l’assistance”.

  17. marie-lucie says

    LH: as the French say, tournoyer, c’est blanc jeu

    I am sure you are joking, but are these from Google Translate?

    Tournoyer means to move in a circular motion, typically like something lightweight caught in a wind (like dead leaves in the fall) or eddy. It can also be said of couples dancing the Viennese waltz, all moving gracefully in circles, the women’s wide skirts accentuating the motion.

    Fair play = franc jeu, but that is probably obsolete now.

  18. I am sure you are joking

    Yes, and I make my own jokes without the aid of Mr. Google.

  19. How well is grammar taught in French schools, before students start learning English? A lot of my high school classmates said they learned English grammar in Latin or Spanish class, but of course none of us actually became proficient at reading Spanish or Latin until college if ever, so it could scarcely affect our writing. I assume students in France start English earlier and learn it better than we did our foreign languages, is it possible students are inadvertently being taught English syntax instead of French?

  20. marie-lucie says

    Apparently, grammar is no longer well-taught in French schools, but when I started elementary school (in now ancient times!), once everyone could read we were taught to analyze sentences, not from the general point of view of syntax but how words belonged together, as in: les petites filles jouent dans la cour ‘the little girls are playing in the yard’: les article défini, pluriel, se rapporte au nom filles; petites, adjectif qualificatif, féminin pluriel, se rapporte au nom filles; jouent, verbe jouer, présent de l’indicatif, troisième personne du pluriel; s’accorde avec le sujet filles; dans, préposition, etc. This was indispensable in order to learn to spell properly (adding the usually silent letters) and make sure that words “agree” with each other. After a few years of this (continued in secondary school), with more and more complex sentences, we knew all the parts of speech, the verb tenses, the parts of a sentence (including relative and subordinate clauses) and how they fit together, along with associated concepts such as complément circonstanciel (as in dans la cour), etc. I was never conscious of learning “English grammar” as such, except that of course differences with French were pointed out (eg articles and adjectives do not agree with nouns).

  21. As TR noted, English loans and calques are widespread in Hebrew, but my impression is that, say, a young Tel Aviv entrepreneur is much more likely to use them than a car mechanic in a small town. In newspaper websites, I find it more pervasive in the tech and finance sections than in the news or sports. Just a general impression.

    A few things have really entered the language everywhere. I think pretty much everyone now uses the 2nd person singular as a generic pronoun. This is a development of the last generation, which I am sure is under English influence, but now has entered the language of even the older generations.

    M.-L., How widespread is the use of this Anglicized French? Do you read or hear it in Canadian french as well?

  22. Getting back to Asterix, I wonder how the man who served as a translator for the Roman Army could translate the name of this Egyptian recruit:

  23. mollymooly says

    “putting it into English while maintaining foreignness must have been a challenge.”

    The Britons in anglophone Asterix all speak in a jolly-good-show toodle-pip-old-boy variety familiar from many stereotypical Upper Class Twits. Once that initial decision had been made, I guess it was pretty straightforward.

  24. marie-lucie says

    molly, Surely that does not give an impression of “foreignness”, but of course English readers would not expect Britons to speak like foreigners – it should be the Gauls that sound foreign to them! In the French original that is how the British speak too, except using exclusively French words. English is translated word for word, including idioms, as in “I say, old boy!” = Je dis, vieux garçon!, which sounds particularly funny because in French un vieux garçon is the male equivalent of une vieille fille ‘old maid’, neither of which can be a term of address.

  25. marie-lucie says

    M.-L., How widespread is the use of this Anglicized French? Do you read or hear it in Canadian french as well?

    I don’t have much contact with Canadian French, but in general educated French Canadians take pains to avoid anglicisms as much as possible (although some of them have passed into local French), while in France people are proud to show off their (usually limited) English. Also, many French Canadians speak good English and can recognize English structures and avoid them, while in France many people have been taught English in school and might even be reasonably fluent but are not necessarily aware of subtle differences between the two languages. In the press, quotations from English-speaking public figures are often translated quite literally, which makes them sound stilted and unnatural to me, but not necessarily now to French people who have become accustomed to this style. In scholarly works, quotations from English are often translated by authors barely competent in English. As a result, we see things in the press that would have got bad marks in the writing of anglophone students, and meanwhile French idiomatic structures which have no direct equivalent in English are disappearing.

  26. Surely that does not give an impression of “foreignness”, but of course English readers would not expect Britons to speak like foreigners – it should be the Gauls that sound foreign to them!

    to an Irish child the Britons sounded foreign, but I take your point. Of course the Gauls speak Standard English (Standard Comic English). There was an apology from the authors in the foreword of “Asterix in Britain”: it was the French authors apologizing for the stereotypes, not the translators apologizing for ducking the challenge of preserving the Britons’ foreignness.

    There must be many examples of the same challenge in e.g. dubbed US TV and movies: how does Inspector Clouseau sound en français; Hollywood Nazis auf Deutsch, ….?

  27. John Cowan says

    Ptenisnet is definitely one of those places where the English is an improvement over the French Courdeténis, which does not look even vaguely Egyptian.

  28. marie-lucie says

    I agree.

  29. Dearieme, the verb impact is eminently respectable, being first recorded in English in 1601, in Holland’s translation of Pliny, no less. Go to your dentist and tell him he has lost your respect for speaking of impacted wisdom teeth, and see what happens to you. You’ll be lucky if he doesn’t set the canines on you.

    But perhaps you speak of the intransitive sense ‘to come forcibly into contact with’? In that case, 1916 gives us “Something impacted with a soft thud against Lingard’s temple.” Or if your objection is only to the figurative sense, we hear already in 1935 of things “impacting on one’s consciousness”. Hardly a man is now left alive who remembers either of those famous years. (Well, perhaps fifty million out of seven billion, but what’s a few octogenarians-and-up between friends?)

  30. >John Cowan
    Yes, of course. I was only joking about the apparent hieroglyphic (although phonological) way used by the Egyptian recruit to say his name.

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