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I would love to provide more examples in other grammar topics too but this requires time. Therefore I consider updating this question gradually.


Example 1:

Je te le donne (1) - I am giving it you

Je le lui donne (2) - I am giving it to him/her

In the first sentence the structure is:

subject + indirect object + direct object + verb

...while in the second sentence the structure is:

subject + direct object + indirect object + verb


Language evolves, that means rules and idioms change by time. But, while studying French I feel like I encounter 'different rules/structures on the same topic' quite often. Is it just me or can we say that French language is a little bit unstable or inconsistent in its current state?

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    This isn't just a feature of French — all natural languages have these inconsistencies. For example, in English, you can say I paid off the loan; but you can't say I paid off it, you have to say I paid it off. Jul 25 at 18:30
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    Placement of pronouns follow a rule and your examples are consistent to the rule (you will find numerous lessons and charts about that on the internet). It would be inconsistent if it didn't follow the rule. French grammar might have exceptions to rules but no more or less than English if you compare these two languages to German whose grammar is on the whole very regular. Anyway this sort of question doesn't fall within the scope of the site.
    – None
    Jul 25 at 18:47
  • @PeterShor Yes, you are right. I was going to ask the question mentioning other languages but decided not to, as there would be both more consistent and more inconsistent ones. So I kept it to French only. Do you feel like you come up with contradiction situations in French often?
    – Xfce4
    Jul 25 at 18:58
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    I’m voting to close this question because this question can apply to any language and is not about the French usage per se.
    – Lambie
    Jul 29 at 14:18
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    @Xfce4 Meta questions re languages are off topic. Here, and on other language-specific sites on SE we deal with specific questions not generalities about languages. I do not make the rules; SE does.
    – Lambie
    Jul 30 at 14:26
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This is more of a linguistics answer to a linguistics question, but TL;DR it depends on how you frame the rules.

"Rules" in popular grammar are not good analytical tools. They tend to be generalizations, i.e. just one step above observation. When we say thing like "In English, an object pronoun comes after the verb, but in French, it comes before the verb," we're not adding any understanding of language as such; we're just summarizing our observations. A true analysis would describe some underlying mechanism that allows us to predict the placement of object pronouns, issuing statements that are possible to falsify. (For example, an analysis might predict speakers' interpretations of je me te donne and je te me donne, where the status of the pronouns is ambiguous on the surface, or it might provide a coherent explanation for vous me le montrez but montrez-le-moi.)

I say all that to explain that the "rules" we use to describe grammar are of arbitrary scope. Since all they do is summarize observation, it's up to us to decide how much of what we observe will be included in the summary.

The less we include, the simpler the rule, but everything we've excluded becomes an "exception". The more we include, the more complicated the rule, but we do away with "exceptions".

In the examples you cite, we could write a simple rule that goes: "The direct object comes first." In that case, we'd have to list as exceptions me, te, se, nous vous. Alternatively, we could write a simple rule that goes: "The indirect object comes first." Then our exceptions would be le, la, les. (In both cases, things like me te require extra exceptions.)

On the other hand, we could decide that we don't like inconsistencies and exceptions and instead formulate the rule: "Singular direct objects of fewer than three letters and plural direct objects of fewer than four letters come second; all others come first." This rule is convoluted and arbitrary, yes... but it has zero exceptions!

So the "inconsistency" depends on our point of view. However, the assumption (in generative linguistics, at least) is that there is some deeper rule we haven't detected that determines the order. Perhaps it's phonological? Semantic? Syntactic? Historical, i.e. a cause that has disappeared while the effect remains? But this belief in a consistent underlying mechanism is not universal, and one might argue that even that mechanism is somehow inconsistent or random.

Note that while rules of this kind are not analytical, it's true that some give rise to better analytical directions than others. For example, a common rule you might see is: "Indirect object first, unless they both start with L, in which case do it alphabetically." This rule is both simple enough to memorize and it works simply because it happens to sort lui and leur after le/la/les. But at the same time it's very unlikely that the underlying mechanism takes account of our written alphabet (after all, illiterate people still use pronouns correctly). It's the kind of accidental rule that's discovered by machine learning, correlation without causation, and hence not a good research direction.

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  • Awesome answer. Thank you. This discussion is related with neurology too. The thing is the simpler the rule, the less resources uses the brain. That is why I expect simpler rules than rules with many details and exceptions. But who knows, maybe this not the case for the language areas in the brain. It might be that areas responsible for the formulations and the areas responsible for the language have different structures that results in the so called contradictions/inconsistencies.
    – Xfce4
    Jul 25 at 20:08
  • @Xfce4 Psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics have a lot to say about this and it's fascinating. Generative linguistics assumes a "language device" in the brain, common to everyone, that only needs to be parametrized to individual languages. But modelling the system is complex and somewhat speculative. Try to describe the components of a lexical entry, say "correlation". Is the definition stored, or is it derived from "correlate" + "tion"? Is the stressed syllable stored or does a rule about stress placement allow it to be derived? In French, is the gender stored or derived? etc.
    – Luke Sawczak
    Jul 25 at 20:59
  • Luke Sawczak, Much to be discovered.
    – Xfce4
    Jul 27 at 12:47
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Rather than thinking about the placement of French's pronouns in terms of word order, it's simpler to analyse its whole verbal complex as verbal template in the model of what would be done for e.g. the Quechuan languages:

R Lakämper, D Wunderlich, "Person marking in Quechua—A constraint-based minimalist analysis"

Each slot of this template can potentially be filled by one of several defined morpheme, that follow a rigid order and can't be intruded upon by another word.

Applied to French, this gives the following template: enter image description here

Where "syncretic P" encompasses the reflexive pronouns and those that are syncretic (i.e. identical) with them. For example, the 1S object pronoun doesn't change form when it's reflexive (je me lave), a non-reflexive direct object (il me voit) or a non-reflexive indirect object (elle me parle).

In contrast, the Acc P and Dat P columns include the pronouns that do change form according to their role: Il se lave, il le voit, elle lui parle.

In Quechua like in French, there are some idiosyncrasies like forbidden combination or contractions that'd we'd need to take into account to refine our model, but that falls outside the scope of the question.

When we try to fill our template with the two sentences in the question, it outputs the right order:

enter image description here

The advantage of this model is that it's simple, both to explain and to acquire. There's a limited amount of slots to the template, that can be filled by a limited number of morphemes (and always just one at max except in the derivational prefix slot).

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  • Very nice — an elegant rule and an example of the kind of decision I talked about in my answer.
    – Luke Sawczak
    Jul 29 at 22:37
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Your first example is not what you can term an inconsistency. There is, undoubtedly, an apparently contrived process to know in order to place the two objects correctly, but no contradiction; so, this example would have justified such a question as "Can we say that French language is a little bit contrived?". That is an entirely different subject.

However, in the way of inconsistencies we can come up with some real ones as full fledged candidates for the list. Why do the French say "la grand rue" when "rue" is feminine? — why do they say "Qu'est-ce que c'est?" when "Qu'est-ce?" means the exact same thing, and why do you never hear "Qu'est-ce?"?; why are they introducing in their language, as it is being done presently two nouns for each name of profession, one masculine and one feminine, when any profession is supposed to imply strictly the same functions and duties in both cases?
We can now speak about inconsistency. It is difficult to compare with other languages, as first of all it is quite difficult to master even as few as two languages: I have never heard any generalization in that vein of thinking. Studies in years to come will perhaps enlighten us on that subject, both on the level of each language per se and on the level of the compared worth of various languages; it's a matter of interest.

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    1: Because Je hisse la grand-voile à grand-peine, ma grand-tante a grand-faim après la grand-messe et la grande rue où habitait ma grand-mère croise la Grand-rue où habitait ma si grande mère avant de partir sur la grand-route. 2: The goal is to allow Qu'est-ce que c'est que ça ;-) 3: It's more a reinstatement than an introduction. Professions are gendered in French, only a few are epicènes (e.g. pilote). By the way, grand (formerly grant) used to be épicène too, ceci explique cela...
    – jlliagre
    Jul 26 at 1:38

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