Saturday, April 19, 2014

"au cou long" or "au long cou"?

Commenter "Bob" over at ROK Drop attempts a friendly correction of my French, but he has committed the mortal sin of providing me with an unnecessary correction, i.e., he's "correcting" me when I'm not wrong. The situation: blog author "GI Korea" had posted one of his "Korea Finder" pictures, this time not of a place (he normally shows pictures of locales, and commenters race to provide the correct answer as to which locale is pictured), but of a person—Fleur Pellerin, a Korean adoptee and government official (read more about her here).

I wasn't the first to post a comment, and when I tried, I didn't make any effort to get it right. I simply wrote, "La bonne dame au cou long"—the lady with the long neck. I had thought about writing "la bonne dame au long cou," since short adjectives like long are normally placed before the nouns they modify (in French, the general rule is to place adjectives after the nouns they modify). But I also know that quite a few adjectives can be placed before or after the noun with no damage to the intended meaning. Long was one such adjective.*

But Bob swooped in with his "correction" all the same, writing:

…et on dit “au long cou” (donc, “long” est une épithète antéposée). C’est bien simple. “Long cou” est une quasi-collocation et, d’habitude, les adjectifs épithètes brefs et fréquents sont antéposés.

—basically quoting to me the grammatical rule that I already knew. (The word "épithète," which Bob uses above, means "modifier" or "qualifier" in this context. And as you might guess, the adjective "antéposé" means "placed in front of.")

In his response to my comment, Bob's delineation of the grammatical rule in question is impeccably correct. In fact, I applaud his knowledge. But by offering a "correction" at all, he's implying that my locution is incorrect and/or impossible. It is neither. To prove my point, all I have to do is troll Google for evidence that au cou long exists.

See here: 166,000 results, including results from actual French people, not just non-French people "misspeaking." Examples:

1. Artwork titled "Tortue au cou long" (Long-necked tortoise), in Paris.
2. French website: "Bec au cou long" here.
3. A French translation of a page from the American Association for the Advancement of Science journal website mentions "Un prédateur marin au cou long originaire de la Chine"—here. The phrase "cou long" is used several times.
4. The Lexilogos French online dictionary has this to say:

c) Postposé. Qui se caractérise par sa longueur, souvent p. oppos. à un modèle normal, courant. Robe longue; chandail à manches longues; cheveux longs; avoir le cou trop long.

5. The Internaute dictionary leads to an encyclopedia entry for the idiomatic expression avoir le bras long (to have far-reaching influence).
6. A French professor of linguistics notes here that long can be pre- or postpositioned.

I suppose I could provide 166,000 more examples, but I think I've made my point, which is essentially that au cou long is neither grammatically impossible nor grammatically incorrect. Long can be placed after a noun. Ergo, I was not in need of correction.

Bob could respond that Google results for au long cou number 506,000—much more than for au cou long. True, but completely irrelevant: Bob was attempting to say that my locution was incorrect, when in fact it appears in thousands of instances, many examples of which are from native French-speakers.

Bob could switch tactics and adopt a strict "Académie Française" stance, the stance of a purist, clinging more tightly to the rule he quoted and telling me that my construction is "not strictly correct"... but if he did so, he would throw his lot in with the prescriptivists and sacrifice whatever vestiges of linguistic descriptivism he may retain (he would also be flat-out wrong, given the Lexilogos dictionary definition I quoted above). When a person ceases to be in touch with how language is actually written and spoken, his critiques lose their legitimacy. Although I consider myself a language Nazi in both English and French, I don't go so far as to be a full-on prescriptivist. That's just silly: language is a living human phenomenon; it evolves and doesn't always conform to strict rules. I recognize this.

Conclusion: thanks, but no correction was necessary, because I wasn't wrong.

*Some French adjectives can be placed before and after nouns, but they change in meaning. Un homme grand is not the same as un grand homme, and mon ancien prof is not the same as mon prof ancien. But some nouns are like long in that they can be placed either before or after a noun with no substantial change in meaning. Another such adjective is bref. Un discours bref and un bref discours are two locutions that mean the same thing. The nuance here is that, in the latter case, the brevity is being slightly stressed. But only slightly.


1 comment:

John said...

I have no idea why I enjoyed this post as much as I did.

Perhaps Bob is a racist?