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Thread: Illogical and irregular expressions in various languages

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    Post Illogical and irregular expressions in various languages



    I have long been perplexed by the inconsistencies of my mother tongue, French. This feeling has only been exacerbated by learning more languages, and spending a long time outside French-speaking countries.

    French is first of all a very irregular language. Why is it that normal plural take "-s" at the end, but some words take "-x" ? Why is it for instance that the plural of "cheval" (horse) is "chevaux", but the plural of "festival" is "festivals" ? A rule says that words ending in -au or -eu take "x", but with so many exceptions that it is hardly a rule anymore. E.g. we say "des yeux bleus" (blue eyes) and not "des yeux bleux". As we are at it, why does the plural of "oeil" (eye) become "yeux" ? It doesn't sound or look any similar !

    Irregularities abound in French, as much in spelling as in grammar. We write "oignon" but say "onion". English has taken this word from French in the Middle Ages, so I suppose the most usual spelling at the time was "onion", which fits perfectly the modern French pronuciation. So why did those stuck up Academiciens decide that the proper spelling had to be an antiquated "oignon" that does not fit modern pronuciation, while French is on the whole fairly regular when it comes to pronuciation ? (one vowel or group of vowels almost always has the same pronuciation, contrarily to English).

    But French is not just the most irregular language I know, it is also the most illogical. This is paradoxal as French people tend to be quite logical and rational people ("cartesien" as they say), and the structure of French language make it easy to express ideas logically.

    Let me illustrate this. "Sans doute" literally means "without doubt". So one could imagine it means "for sure" or "certainly". But it doesn't. Its meaning is more like "perhaps" or "maybe". So why say "without doubt" if you mean "peut-etre" (maybe) ?

    It is a very common tendency in French to change the meaning of French expressions (not even those of foreign words, as is usual in Japanese !).

    Some expressions are not really illogical, but for the least far fetched. "Rien a voir", literally means "nothing to see", but does not mean there is nothing to see. It means that it is "unrelated".

    These are not even metaphorical idioms. They abound in French like in English. For example, "prendre ses james a son coup" (lit. "to take one's legs to one's neck") means "to hurry". I have no problem with that. It's just an image - although some idioms have such an obscure origin that many native speakers even wonder what it means when they hear it. Some are so common that only learners of French may have problems with them (e.g. "ca me fait une belle jambe" literaly translates as "that makes me a nice leg", but means "it doesn't help" or "I don't care").

    Why is it that "bon sang !" (lit. "good blood") means "damm it !" ? Where does that come from ? A more colloquial version is "bon sang de bonsoir !", which is even worse : "good blood of good evening !"

    Worst of all, French is not really flexible (especially compared to English). There are some aberrations that I just can't accept. Why is it that there is no word for "cheap", or that the word "inconvenient" exist in French (same spelling, different pronuciation), but not "convenient" or even "inconvenience" ? The irony is that those English words came from Old French, but have disappeared in modern French ! There is not even a word for "convenience store" in French (except in Quebecois). How inconvenient in daily speech.

    There are many other examples of "missing words" in modern French. E.g. "ubiquitous", "conspicuous", "ravenous" and "promiscuous" all come from Latin or Old French, but have all disappeared from modern French. Why "kill off" useful daily words like that ? No wonder French ended up having 7x less words than English in total.

    After living in Japan, everytime I went back to Belgium or France, or watched French movies in Japan, I noticed that French was just full of such senseless (or at least weird or illogical) expressions. The list would be too exhaustive to put here. I never questioned these expressions before. But as my mind is more tuned to English or Japanese now, I can't help but notice how corrupted a language modern French is. In comparison, the meaning of words in English seem so logical and straightforward (apart from idiomatic expressions and varying pronuciation).

    Do you have similar comments to make about your language (other than English) ?
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    That's really interesting, what you have written! But... I'm afraid I can speak only French and English, so I can't make any comment...

    You are right that the French language is 'illogical' and 'irregular'... but, I don't know why, I still like it... maybe because my mind is illogical and irregular? do you think?

    It's surprising that you as a native speaker remark on it. Not surprising that you notice, but surprising that it seems to bug you (forgive me if I am wrong!) or at least cause you enough thought to make a long post. I notice the irregularities and irrational things in English, but to me it is only something to be amused about.

    I can't help but notice how corrupted a language modern French is.
    Aww, I wouldn't go so far as to say it's corrupted! *hugs modern French* (sorry, I just had to do that to bug people! XD) Aha, though, I think I can see what you are saying! It doesn't suit your logical mind at all! Naturally, it's annoying that the language doesn't meet your high standards but lags behind in its development and progress. Especially when words are missing. But my response feels different! It awakens in me the need to make new words and even new phrases where they are needed! Because I think language should be as flexible as possible... not leaving behind comprehension, though...

    I know I often use language badly, but... after all, I am one of the common people who can contribute to the language development in that way... ;) Although sometimes I think that I have too much abandonment in throwing letters and words around, and make a scene of chaos like after a child's party.

    In comparison, the meaning of words in English seem so logical and straightforward
    It seems? But I don't think so! Although I agree with you it's more logical and straightforward than French. But suppose... quite ordinary words:
    toast
    sock
    mug
    tack
    staple
    fan
    right
    light

    They have two meanings... easy words... But you have to know from context which meaning is intended. And that's not hard... but it could cause problems for someone learning the language.

    I seem to have made a long post for saying I can't contribute... sorry... I can say a little about Japanese as it's the other language I'm learning... my level is not very advanced, only beginner, but it seems that the verbs and adjectives at least obey the rules... so there are many rules to learn but once you have learned them... -->

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    What amazes me in French is that there is no word for "confusing" (confus only means "confused") but you have words like cucurbitaciste for a collector of melon labels and a molubdotenophile for someone who collects pencil sharpners (sic!).

    There are also verbs for the cries of dozens of animals, most of which don't even exist in English, to the best of my knowledge. For example, a dog barks, a cat meows, a lion roars, a horse neighs, a frog croaks and a goat bleats. But what does a camel do ? In French it is blaterer, and is used by ordinary people. What about a rabbit (clapir in French) ? And a fox (glapir in French) ?

    Some animals have unique words for their cries in French contrarily to English. In English, an elephant trumpets and a mouse squeaks... But these words have other usages. In French the verbs are respectively barrir and chicoter, and don't have any other meanings (and most people don't know these words).

    So how comes there are no words for "cheap", "convenient" or "confusing" in French ?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo
    but you have words like cucurbitaciste for a collector of melon labels and a molubdotenophile for someone who collects pencil sharpners (sic!).
    Wow! I am going to adopt those words into my English vocabulary! How have I managed for so long to get by without a word for a collector of melon labels?

    Plus "molubdotenophile" sounds gorgeous....

    So how comes there are no words for "cheap", "convenient" or "confusing" in French ?
    The most logical answer would be that they are not concepts that French people find themselves often wanting to express...
    Somehow I don't think that's the reason, though!

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    Quote Originally Posted by Kinsao
    The most logical answer would be that they are not concepts that French people find themselves often wanting to express...
    Somehow I don't think that's the reason, though!
    Neither do I. These concepts exist, they just don't have one particular word for it. That's the way languages develop. Maybe a word existed once, but for some reason another expression became trendy & the old word was forgotten or got a new meaning.


    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo
    So how comes there are no words for "cheap", "convenient" or "confusing" in French ?
    I'm confused.
    Isn't confusing déconcertant & convenient confortable (or, less frequently, commode or chaussant?
    I looked them up from the German translations of confusing & convenient, but this shouldn't pose much of a problem, I think.
    Perhaps it's an issue of Belgian French?


    When I first saw this thread I didn't think of such "irregularities", but I expected to find some criticism on "illogical" usage, as in double negations (which can get on my nerves, but that's just me) & such. That certain words are missing is so common that I wouldn't count that as irregular. Every language has this. Languages & their development do not follow logic.

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    Quote Originally Posted by bossel
    I'm confused.
    Isn't confusing déconcertant & convenient confortable (or, less frequently, commode or chaussant?
    This is what happens when you look up words in a dictionary without taking the real usage into account. déconcertant is quite formal, like the English "disconcerting", not so common and does not equal exactly the term "confusing" (I would say it is stronger than "confusing"). Nobody is going to say "ce que tu as ecrit est deconcertant" (what you wrote is disconcerting), except if they mean "emotionally disturbing" rather than "not clear". We could always say "ce n'est pas clair", but it doesn't work in every case, and also does not mean exactly the same (maybe it is clear, but still confusing because of misleading information). What I find strange is that there is the verb "confondre" (to confuse) and the adj. "confused" (confus) in French, but the participe present "confusant" doesn't exist.

    confortable means comfortable (only). commode may mean "convenient", but will never be used in a sentence like "it's convenient to take the metro to work" or "it's convenient to have a supermarket near your house". chaussant is so rare that I have never used it or heard anyone use it.

    I looked them up from the German translations of confusing & convenient, but this shouldn't pose much of a problem, I think.
    Perhaps it's an issue of Belgian French?
    FYI, Belgian French is so-to-say identical to the French of France. It's certainly more similar than any two varieties of British English (e.g. R.P. vs . Estuary English)

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    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo
    This is what happens when you look up words in a dictionary without taking the real usage into account.
    Pretty much what I expected.

    déconcertant is quite formal, like the English "disconcerting", not so common and does not equal exactly the term "confusing" (I would say it is stronger than "confusing").
    Thanks for the clarification.
    Since I'm no native French speaker I can't really argue here, but the German translation for déconcertant is only verwirrend. Translating verwirrend into English brings back a number of results (20 to be exact), one of them confusing. Translating confusing back into German gives 2 results only (one of them in Schwytzerdütsch). Hence it seems that English has a number of possibilities to express this concept, while French & German are limited here (though not as limited as it seems, I'm sure there are a number of ways to express the concept of being confused).

    confortable means comfortable (only).
    The problem is that both convenient & comfortable have several meanings. They are partly synonyms, exactly the part that I would usually identify with both: comfort. The German term bequem comes first to mind as a translation for both & is the 1st translation I would use for confortable as well. Although, admittedly I would identify confortable more with living conditions / personal environment.

    FYI, Belgian French is so-to-say identical to the French of France. It's certainly more similar than any two varieties of British English (e.g. R.P. vs . Estuary English)
    Being no expert here either, but isn't it more like the relation between Dutch & Belgian Dutch: while what you learn at school is virtually the same, actual usage varies?

    I think, convenient is a good example that what you see as illogical or irregular is pretty normal. You will find varying concepts for one word or varying words for one concept in every language. It's just a matter how individual languages develop whether the one or the other way is realised. Even such close languages as German & Dutch may have great variation.
    Eg. AFAIK, a single word like the German überhaupt (depending on usage there is no English translation, closest would be "at all") didn't really exist in Dutch, now they simply took the German word, because it's so convenient.

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    Quote Originally Posted by bossel
    Being no expert here either, but isn't it more like the relation between Dutch & Belgian Dutch: while what you learn at school is virtually the same, actual usage varies?
    The relation between Dutch and "Belgian Dutch" (Flemish) is more like the one between British and American English, or even Hochdeutsch and some German dialects (the ones closest to Hochdeutsch I guess). In fact, each Flemish town has its own version of Flemish, not always intelligible to other Flemish speakers (a bit like Swiss German within Switzerland, but less extreme I think).

    French language has been standardised for a longer time than other European languages. Dialects are hardly spoken anymore in France and French-speaking Belgium. Comparing to the situation in Britain, we could say that the vast majority of French speakers in France and Belgium speaks something like R.P. (Received Pronuciation). The South of France is where dialects (like Provencal) or even other languages (Catalan, Occitan, Basque...) survive the most. There is a dialect of French in Wallonia called "Walloon" (3 regional varieties), but almost only elderly people (and farmers) speak it.

    Belgian French differs less from standard French than any other variety of French. When I go to the South of France, where they speak standard French with a Provencal or Occitan accent, they ask me if I am from the North, or from Paris. There are maybe a dozen words that differ between Belgian French and standard French, i.e. less than between any two varieties of British English, or any two variety of North American English, or even between Australian cities. These few differences are almost only in usage, and do not pose any problem for mutual understanding (e.g. Belgians says "nonante" for 90, while the French say "quatre-vingt-dix", but they understand each others, as "nonante" used to be standard in France and is the logical word to use).

    Eg. AFAIK, a single word like the German überhaupt (depending on usage there is no English translation, closest would be "at all") didn't really exist in Dutch, now they simply took the German word, because it's so convenient.
    That is what is ironic, because the word "convenient" in English originally comes from French ! Worse, all French speakers understand what I mean when I say convenient with a French pronuciation, as if it was a French word (just the opposite of "inconvenient", which is French). They just find it funny. Then when I ask them if they know another word that means the same in that particular case, they keep thinking but don't find anything (sometimes "pratique" or "commode" can be used).

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    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo
    The relation between Dutch and "Belgian Dutch" (Flemish) is more like the one between British and American English, or even Hochdeutsch and some German dialects (the ones closest to Hochdeutsch I guess). In fact, each Flemish town has its own version of Flemish, not always intelligible to other Flemish speakers (a bit like Swiss German within Switzerland, but less extreme I think).
    The latter is a common phenomenon all over the world, this only changes for the modern media. In Germany every village had its own "dialect" as well. But what I meant is not "dialect", but standard language. The use of the standard differs, though of course not only between Belgium & the Netherlands but also within those countries.

    BTW, Hochdeutsch is a German dialect, only one that made it to the standard.

    That is what is ironic, because the word "convenient" in English originally comes from French !
    Actually, I just looked it up & if I'm correctly informed, it is derived from Latin (convenientem). Hence it would not be as surprising as it seems that French doesn't have that particular word. But as you said, obviously French is taking convenient from English & the gap will be closed sooner or later. Languages follow illogical ways.

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    In English you can be ruthless, but not ruthfull.

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    Quote Originally Posted by sabro
    In English you can be ruthless, but not ruthfull.
    Same goes for aimless, doesn't it? Some other words with the suffix -less come to mind. But Maciamo didn't want to have English examples, I think.
    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo
    Do you have similar comments to make about your language (other than English) ?
    Then I have similar words for German, -los means virtually the same as English -less, -voll is the same as -ful:
    ruchlos (heinous), but no ruchvoll
    grundlos (baseless)
    widerstandslos (unresisting)
    a.s.o.

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    Quote Originally Posted by sabro
    In English you can be ruthless, but not ruthfull.
    This is the same in all the European languages I know. In fact, often it is separated in two words. For example in French "ruthless" is "sans pitie" and "merciless" is "sans merci", which is literally "without pity/mercy". In Italian, you can also say "senza pieta" or "spietato" ("s-" means "dis-" and "pietato" means "pitied", so "dispitied"), while in Spanish, it is "despiadado".

    In both cases, there is no positive form ("pietato" or "piadado"). In Latin languages, you have to use another adjective : misericordieux (French) or misericordioso (Italian/Spanish) for merciful. It does not mean that there is no word for it. There is one, and I personally don't care whether it uses the linguistic opposite of "-ful", "-less" or whatever. What bothers me in French is that there is no word in common usage with the meaning of "convenient" or "confusing", which are words used on a daily basis in English.

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    Quote Originally Posted by bossel
    The latter is a common phenomenon all over the world, this only changes for the modern media. In Germany every village had its own "dialect" as well. But what I meant is not "dialect", but standard language. The use of the standard differs, though of course not only between Belgium & the Netherlands but also within those countries.
    In that case, the variety of Dutch learnt at school and used for writing in Belgium is basically the same as in the Netherlands. The pronunciation is noticeably different though, especially the "g" and the "r". Flemish "g" are closer to the French or German version, but also in the Southern Netherlands. In the North (e.g. Amsterdam), they sound a bit like a German "ch" (like in "doch") or a Spanish "j". Flemish and southern Dutch "r" are similar to French, while in the north, they are rolled like in Spanish.

    Actually, I just looked it up & if I'm correctly informed, it is derived from Latin (convenientem). Hence it would not be as surprising as it seems that French doesn't have that particular word. But as you said, obviously French is taking convenient from English & the gap will be closed sooner or later. Languages follow illogical ways.
    Of course, ultimately, most French words are derived from Latin as well. But in Latin, as you pointed out it is spelled "convenientem", while in French it would be exactly "convenient". I will start using "convenient" in French, and hope that people adopt it (anyway everybody understands this word).

    There was also a "missing word" of that kind in English, but I can't remember which one right now. It is probable that I have used it on this forum, only to be told by someone later that it didn't exist in English, although everyone understands it.

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    I found that there was no word in French for "avoidance", although there is the verb "avoid" ("éviter"). I wanted to talk about the concept of "uncertainty avoidance" (see this thread), but this expression is untranslatable in French.

    Nevertheless, there are two words in French for "prejudice" : préjugé and prejudice. In some articles (e.g. this one), I talked about the Japanese being "prejudiced" towards foreigners. This has caused some confusion, as the word has three similar, but quite different meanings in English.

    1 preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or experience.
    2 unjust behaviour formed on such a basis.
    3 chiefly Law harm that may result from some action or judgement.

    I meant the first one, which is préjugé (lit. prejudged or prejudgement) in French (closer in meaning to "misconceptions" or "false stereotypes"). No 2 and 3 are translated as préjudice in French (closer in meaning to "harm" or "damage").

    All this to show that there are always some deficiencies in all languages (yes, even English !).

    What I find strange is that the noun for "certain" ("certain" in French) is "certainty" or "certitude" in English, but only "certitude" in French. If I say "certainté" in French, everybody understands, but it's not in the dictionary. There are many such cases between English and French, and almost always English is the one that accepts more "versions" of a same word, sometimes adding nuances. That's why I find English more flexible and versatile than French.
    Last edited by Maciamo; 20-02-11 at 09:52.

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    Quote Originally Posted by bossel
    Eg. AFAIK, a single word like the German überhaupt (depending on usage there is no English translation, closest would be "at all") didn't really exist in Dutch, now they simply took the German word, because it's so convenient.
    I can relate!!! Since Danish is very similar to German in many ways (Germanic language)....

    überhaupt is "Overhovedet" in Danish, meaning "at all" in English too. However, the strict translation would be: "over head."

    Another weird illogical saying in Danish is: "Bjoernetjeneste" = "doing a bear's favour." Hence, it is impossible to translate directly into English, but the meaning of the term in Danish is: believing you are doing a favour, but the favour is doing more harm than good.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Miss_apollo7
    Another weird illogical saying in Danish is: "Bjoernetjeneste" = "doing a bear's favour." Hence, it is impossible to translate directly into English, but the meaning of the term in Danish is: believing you are doing a favour, but the favour is doing more harm than good.
    That's not what I meant by illogical expression. This is just an idiomatic phrase, which by definition doesn't make sense if you don't know what it means. There are thousands of them in English too (e.g. "to be over the moon", "to be under the weather", "to rain cats and dogs"...). I have a full textbook only for such idioms in British English (as many are not the same in American English).

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    oh, excuse me...You mentioned idioms in your first post, so I thought I could come up with at least one in Danish.....

    I can at this thinking stage only contribute with one example, maybe more will come up later this weekend...

    In Danish we can say "unde", which is a verb very similar to "oenske" (meaning to wish or hope for something or someone).

    However, if I put the negative description "mis" before this particular verb, most would guess it would then mean the opposite; i.e. "not to wish for something," but in fact, the verb becomes into another verb, which can be translated into "being jealous."

    The intention and meaning of these two verbs are comprehended exactly as being opposites one another; e.g. "to wish for someone to have a big house," or "to be jealous that someone has a big house."
    Although, the latter sentence can be comprehended to mean the same as "not wish for someone has a big house."
    So, of course it is not entirely illogical. However, the small illogical part, if I must say, about the verb is why it doesn't change into "to not wish for" directly with the negative.....

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    In English you can be invincible, but not vincible.

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    Quote Originally Posted by sabro
    In English you can be invincible, but not vincible.
    That's fairly obvious, isn't it ? Everybody is "vincible" by default.

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    Quote Originally Posted by sabro
    In English you can be invincible, but not vincible.
    That's fairly obvious, isn't it ? Everybody is "vincible" by default. I don't call that an "illogical" expression. That's just a word missing because it's never used.
    Last edited by Maciamo; 15-01-06 at 13:25.

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    Funny enough, French Danger de mort translates Lebensgefähr in German, which means the opposite, a concerather hard to grasp concept when you learn German.

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