worthless plurality

March 2nd, 2009

Behold, a valid sentence in Polish:

- Je.

In context:

- Co robi? (What's he doing?)
- Je. (He's eating.)*

In Polish verbs reflect the actor, so "je" is the singular, present form of eat. This makes saying "he's eating" (On je.) unnecessary because the he is already given in the form of the verb.

Behold, the same in French:

- Il mange. (He's eating.)
- Ils mangent. (They're eating.)

Same story? Not quite. You see, in Polish you pronounce every single letter. In French you don't. Il mange and Ils mangent sound exactly alike (singular and plural). Which means it's impossible to infer from that sentence alone what the hell is happening.

Let's step back and think about that for a while. Here you have all these verb forms that change depending on the pronoun. But they're pronounced the same anyway. So what the hell is the point? Ils mangent is no more insightful in speech than Ils mange would have been. It's only in writing that it makes a difference. And in writing there's obviously no need to have the special form because the pronoun is sitting right next to it!

Let's try the first sentence again:

- Mange. (Pronounced the same whether it's je, tu, il/elleils/elles.)

Now, despite the fact that you have all these different forms, the only thing you can rule out is that it isn't nous or vous. Very insightful, isn't it?


* Can also be "she" or "it".

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5 Responses to "worthless plurality"

  1. Graham Bae says:

    I think the only valid conclusion one can come to after reading your last couple of posts is that you need to create your own language, Martin :)

  2. erik says:

    I'm printing this and hanging it on the wall at the office. Beautiful.

  3. numerodix says:

    Except it's futile. People have tried to force language onto others lots of times, it never works. In what was perhaps the most promising effort, half of Poland would have been speaking Russian today, but they refused to accept it.

  4. Paul Matusiak says:


  5. I don't know, but I'm guessing, that the example you've given in French, to a person who speaks French as their native language would probably be a bit contrived. In that they would probably never actually use them in a conversation like that.

    For example:
    I always found articles in German (when I took it in college) to be ridiculous. After all English, in my opinion, does just fine with three that assume no gender: the, a, and an. But then I'm sure to a German the ridiculous way English speakers make things plural goes the same way. There is after all, no real way to predict how things become plural in English. It's rather absurd, yet we have absolutely no problem doing it as native speakers.

    Language blows.