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July 9, 2012


Stephen Menn

You can get pannekoeken in France, though--at least in Lille, might be worth trying in Paris too. My vague memory (haven't looked it up) is that "peas" or "pease" used to be a collective noun in English, and that the singular "pea" is a back-formation.

Tommi Uschanov

In my native language, Finnish, the construction "he or she has..." ("hänellä on") can be used to make a variety of statements which would use completely different constructions in English:

"hänellä on syöpä" = 'he has [a] cancer'
"hänellä on nälkä" = 'he is hungry'
"hänellä on kylmä" = 'he feels cold'
"hänellä on hätä" = 'he is distressed'
"hänellä on kiire" = 'he is in a hurry'

There are no articles in Finnish, but all these are definite grammatically. On the basis of these examples, you might think that Finnish speakers think of not just cancer, but also hunger, coldness, etc., as "solid, well-defined, easily individuated entit[ies]", as you suggest the French do with cancer. But there's more. In Finnish, you can also say for instance:

"hänellä on kiirettä" = 'he is in a hurry'

While the grammar of "hänellä on kiire" would be translated as "he has a hurry" (or "he has a haste"), "hänellä on kiirettä" would be translated as "he has some hurry", "he has a given amount of hurry" - as if hurry is now suddenly turned from a count noun into a mass noun. The two expressions are synonymous to the point of being practically interchangeable, but there is a slight difference in nuance: "hänellä on kiirettä" is often used to mean something like 'he is going through a busy period' or 'he's quite preoccupied right now'. So, while the influence of natural languages on the metaphysics of individuation is interesting, I would be deterred from drawing hasty conclusions from count nouns and mass nouns, because in some cases they're interchangeable without the meaning being affected.

Similarly, the Finnish "helle" = 'hot weather' is definite, just like "la canicule", but it nevertheless means precisely "a long-term, stable condition of the atmosphere, much like a season", which you characterize "hot weather" as being in contrast to "la canicule". It can be put into plural, "helteet" ("the hot weathers of July"), but it can also be turned into a "hot weather"-like mass noun by putting it into the partitive case, "hellettä" ("a quantity of hot weather"). Maybe it is characteristic of Indo-European languages to be affected by the metaphysics of individuation, while at least some other language families are immune.

(Isn't "heat wave" the reified English version of "hot weather", by the way? The first French-English dictionary I checked in fact offered "heat wave" and "hot wave" for "canicule", but not "hot weather".)

Tommi Uschanov

I felt like adding that what you write about food and language is very well put. My day job is in document translation, including restaurant menus, and part of the job is finding workarounds to circumvent the kinds of absurdities you mention. But sadly there isn't always a really good one to be found.

Here in Finland, by the way, "pannukakku" is thick, baked in an oven, and cut into quadrangular sections. It's often served (in schools, cafeterias and the like) together with pea soup on Thursdays. Finnish actually has indigenous terms for BOTH flapjack ("lettu", "räiskäle") AND crêpe ("ohukainen"), yet the loan word "pannukakku" means neither of these two but something quite different.

Yasmine Seale

I'm not really convinced by the point about 'canicule', which really means a bout or spell of unusually hot weather, and would best be translated as 'heatwave', which is just as individuated in English as it is in French, and comes and goes in the way you describe. If it were just a normal ('long-term, stable') instance of hot weather, I don't think the French wouldn't individuate it any more than the English would.

I like 'dough+culture', though!


American pancakes may not be like crêpes, but British ones are. French English usually follows British English usage.

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