Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Question of the Day

Here's a question to which I would seriously like to know the answer. This morning Sarkozy said:
"Comment voulez-vous que les gens achètent leurs journaux en kiosque s'il est gratuit sur Internet ?" Notice that in this sentence he consecrated the accepted French usage of "Internet" as a noun that must not be used with the definite article. Why is this the case? In English we would say, "Why would people buy their newspapers at the newsstand when they can get them for free on the Internet?" Since "we" invented the Internet any way you look at it (whether you think it was Vinton Cerf or Al Gore or DARPA or Tim Berners-Lee who deserves the credit), shouldn't English usage be decisive here? How did "Internet" lose the "le" in France? Speculation welcome.

I will pass over in silence the fact that the president used the singular pronoun "il" to refer to the plural noun "leurs journaux." It is the solecism of a nation that concerns me this morning, not the solecism of the individual who incarnates the nation.

25 comments:

kirkmc said...

It's always been treated as a proper noun: I never see "sur l'Internet" in French.

Kirk

Unknown said...

But why? You're just repeating the question in the guise of an answer. Anyway, proper nouns can sometimes take articles: il aime la Bruni comme il aime la France.

Jeannette E. Miller said...

I asked this same question to my French teacher when I was taking a language class in Paris a few years ago. Her response was it depends how we view our relationship to the internet. More distance means an article. But more familiarity means no article, like a friend. She explained this was sometimes a generational gap. Often it's the "younger" crowd who is more closely acquainted with the internet and thus see it with less distance and use the "sur internet." I haven't asked my friends here about this nor listened carefully enough. In your example above, I wonder if part of the reason is parallelism. To the francophone side of my ear, this sounds more formal and puts more distance between M. et Mme Sarkozy.

kirkmc said...

Well, you wouldn't say "sur la Mars". I don't think that's any better of an answer, but I think it's just one of those things that doesn't have a cut-and-dried answer.

The "la Bruni" example is a bit different; the article is used as a special type of modifier. As for "la France", yes, that's the way it is; all countries (unless I'm mistaken; I can't think of any that don't) get articles.

I don't see this in any way as a generational thing; I don't see how distance would mean an article, since the default is to use an article (for non-proper nouns).

Arthur, I wouldn't read too much into it. It's a valid question, but as I've learned over the years, there are not always valid answers (I happen to have a master's in applied linguistics, and taught EFL for a long time, and was often confronted with this type of question regarding English).

Kirk

Unknown said...

Yes, indeed, there may not be an answer. Sometimes there isn't. But I was, and remain, curious if there might be in this case. For instance, in English, one is supposed to say "I went to Ukraine," not "I went to the Ukraine," although some people say the latter. Why? Because the word "Ukraine" includes the article; it means "the Marches." As for "la France," yes, but we also say "en France." Why? Because that's the way it is. Maybe that's the only answer for "Internet," but I find it strange. I also note that there is some variability in the pronunciation of "Internet" in French. For some the initial syllable rhymes with "ain" in "forain," whereas for others it rhymes with "in" in "mine."

Anonymous said...

I agree that "la Bruni" is a separate issue; here it is, in fact, a derogatory use of the article, as opposed to the Italianate usage in the expression "le Tasse". "La France" is a different story again; this is the common usage for place names when used in the absolute, as opposed to their use in the particular, "Je viens de France."
But to get back to the original question, I read "sur Internet" the way I read "sur disque" or "sur papier". "Internet" is seen as a means by which something is conveyed to the consumer, not a place as in "au café" or "à la librairie". That's my 2 centimes d'euro's worth.

Unknown said...

David,
An excellent suggestion, but what about "à la radio" or "dans le journal"? In any case, the Internet is a place through which we must navigate. Logically, I would think, it is more placelike than mediumlike. But of course natural language is only partly logical, as generations of computational linguists have discovered to their chagrin.

Anonymous said...

Arthur,
Of course, you're right. As I was writing, "à la radio" and "à la télé" came to mind, and just now I'm thinking of "à l’écran" ...
You suggested a linguistic interference, such as with "in Ukraine", and you might be on to something here. It makes sense that, as "Internet" is always capitalized in French (I'm less sure about in English), and as it is considered, rightly so, a foreign (place) name, that no article is used in French.
I think I'm now up to 4 centimes.
david

Unknown said...

Oddly enough, we say in English "I saw him on television" when we refer to the medium in general. "I saw him on the television" refers to a specific television set rather than to the medium. Now, "the Internet" is both a concrete thing and an abstract medium, so one could apply either logic here. I guess English is no more reasonable than French, so maybe I should just agree with Kirk that this question has no logical answer. But there still might be a historical answer: Who was the first to say "sur Internet" in France, and why did others follow? Was there ever a time when "sur Internet" and "sur l'Internet" both appeared in public sources with some frequency, or did the one always outstrip the other?

Anonymous said...

For what it is worth they say "sur Internet" but "sur le web".

Unknown said...

Good point. Sur le web, e.g.:
http://support.apple.com/kb/HT1227?viewlocale=fr_FR
But "sur la toile," e.g.,
http://www.sur-la-toile.com/

Curious.

TexExile said...

I agree that the internet is more place-like than medium-like, and one thing one knows about place names in French is that they are used with or without the article, depending on context, preposition etc. Thus, feminine place names with "en" do not need it (en France, en Angleterre) bu masculine ones do (au Japon, au Royaume Uni). And so on.

Anyhow, I have the sense that usage is changing. A quick google search of just one phrase reveals that "développement de l'Internet" appears roughly as often as "développement d'Internet" -- and both are to be found in sources where one would expect good French (including government reports, serious press outlets, etc). Even my Normalien office neighbour, who is admirably pedantic about French usage, hesitated for some time before concluding that it is generally better to drop the article when speaking of the internet. However, he noted that one sees and hears the "l'" more and more these days and that in some contexts it now sounds more or less correct, while in others it still just sounds wrong.

"Sur Internet", though, seems natural to me not because Internet is a proper name but because it echoes "sur place".

In any case, in my experience, the search for logic in matters of article use tends to be an unrewarding occupation in any language. The rules never seem wholly consistent.

The really intriguing question, therefore, is your other one: how did Internet come to enter French as a proper name (which my very recent Robert Collins assures me it still is)? I can find no trace of it as a proper name in English (though some networks were given proper names -- academics in the US used to refer to JANET in the 1980s by name rather than with an article). I'd be very interested to know if anyone knows how Internet came to be treated as a proper name in French.

kirkmc said...

A quick Google search suggests that the Canadians say "sur l'Internet", though perhaps not exclusively. More than one million hits for it, compared to 29 million for "sur Internet". FWIW...

Kirk

Unknown said...

Well, I was sort of there at the inception: my MIT classmate Bob Metcalfe invented the Ethernet, which if memory serves was at first a sort of engineer's jargon before it became a trade name. Only later was it banalized as a household word, like Scotch tape. It came more trippingly off the tongue than some of its competitors in any case, like Token Ring. "The Internet" almost certainly began in an engineering document as the "internet protocol" or "internetworking protocol," now famous as the IP in "IP address" and "TCP/IP" (TCP, the transmission control protocol, seems to have suffered the ignominious fate of being shorn away, as GNU has been shorn from GNU/Linux except in the ever-umbrageous mind of Richard Stallman). Exactly when the humbly descriptive term "internet" (a technical means of connecting local networks operating on different protocols into wider intercommunicating networks) metamorphosed into "the Internet" is probably a question that can be answered by historians of technology. I was one of the first people to be "on the Internet" outside the walls of the military and university, back in the days when one had to acquire one's own "TCP/IP stack" in order to link a PC to "the net," as it was called then. There were competing nets, too, such as "uunet," which has gone the way of the dodo, as have such extinct fauna as WAIS and Archie. There was a world before Google and Blogger, and no doubt some of today's linguistic usages can be traced back to it.

Jim Hanlon said...

Perhaps the answer to your query lies in an analogy with the British and American uses of "hospital." British: "I spent a week in hospital." American: "I spent a week in the hospital."

Unknown said...

Thanks, that hadn't occurred to me. It seems that there's no accounting for these niceties of language.

Leo said...

Art, let me turn back the question on you:

How come Americans say the Internet and referred to its forefather, ARPANET without an article?

To several others: There is no comparison with using EN as in "en France". EN is just a distortion of "dans la" just as AU is a distortion of "dans le" as in 'je vais au Brésil". If you are linguists, sorry for using the word distorsion which is probably inappropriate.

But of course then, why are some countries feminine an others masculine?

Finally,the French language is replete with idiosyncrasies. For example, I have always wondered why we should say le département DE Vaucluse and not DU Vaucluse. Go figure.

Unknown said...

Right, good observations. I think kirkmc and TexExile have focused attention on two interesting points. The difference between "sur Internet" and "développer l'Internet" suggests that the key element here has to do with the speaker's relation to the thing, whether as user or shaper, while the fact that Canadians favor "sur l'Internet" suggests that whatever language instinct is involved in the former distinction can be outweighed by proximity to usage in another language if there are enough speakers who use both frequently.

Anonymous said...

my 2 centimes: i have frequently seen "sur le net" autant que "sur internet" --

who knows.

David in Setouchi said...

French teacher here.
First of all, I love your blog that I recently discovered.

So to make a long answer short, the answer is that there's no answer. What we have here is a typical example of an expression started by one person (or a small group, let's say the very first francophones who used the net) and that caught up until reaching the entire population. Why did these first people didn't use an article? No idea and nobody will ever know except themselves.
Why did it caught up this way and nobody added an article? Impossible to tell.
One theory that can have some validity is that without an article it kinda sounds like a brand name (at least at first), and that might have made it easier to popularize that name (I don't know if I'm very clear here).

More generally speaking, remember that the French language is one of the least logical language around, and that asking "why" about a language always brings "there's no why" as an answer...

Anonymous said...

I might be shooting in the dark here, but is there anyway that it was influenced by "Interpol"?

Leo said...

to Avistew.

Maybe, but we say la CIA :)

Anonymous said...

Internet with a capital I is considered as a brand name.

You would say : je vole sur Air France, but : je flotte sur l'air.

Anonymous said...

Didn't people used to say "sur le minitel"? Or was it "sur minitel"? Can't remember.

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