The Curious Incident at the Faculty Club


            Charles M. Carlton, Professor of French and Romance Linguistics at the University of Rochester, has from time to time -- like me -- written "Letters-to-the-Editor" of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.  Unlike most other letter-writers -- like me – Professor Carlton does not pretend omniscience, but tends to write his letters only when a question of linguistics or Gallic culture somehow comes up in the popular press.  At the time of which I tell, seven or eight years ago, he had just published a letter which began, "It is no fun arguing with a fellow academic..."  I expect he didn't mean quite that, but I fear he did mean the rest of what he wrote.

            His letter was a reply to a professor of psychology at a nearby college (Geneseo), who had objected, also in a letter-to-the-editor, to a certain deliberate misuse of English in an advertisement for Kraft cheese products.  "More cheesier" was, I believe, the objectionable phrase.  Professor Carlton, opposing the psychologist, argued that the quoted phrase is probably an effective attention catcher, and that Kraft is entitled to say what it pleases, grammatical or not.

            So much is undeniable in a free country where there is no Commissar of Linguistics to enforce syntactical virtue; but the rest of Professor Carlton's message went a bit further. "The 'rules' of a language," he wrote, "are not prescriptions as to what is Right and what is Wrong -- except as its speakers misunderstand each other."  Notice especially the quotation marks around "rules."  They are the Professor's; he used them twice in his letter, to indicate how little he values such shackles upon our freedom of expression.  The rules, say the quotation marks, are only so-called rules, and not to be taken as binding.  Notice also the mockery implicit in the professor's capitalization of "right" and "wrong" in this connection.  

            I have heard such sentiments many times, and not only from linguistic scholars.  It is as if the only choice anyone has is between sweet liberty and some ghastly species of Merriam-Webster fundamentalism. Of course the choice, put thus, must be for liberty.  Communication, man, thass where it's at; and don't let nobody tell you no different.

            Just the same, I'd like to report on a curious incident that took place on campus a year or two later.  Our campus, where Professor Carlton and I are colleagues.  I had just written a short piece for The New York Times Educational Supplement.  My article took its cue from an aphorism, "To teach is to learn twice," written by the little-known essayist Joseph Joubert (1754-1824).  "To teach is to learn twice" is of course the English for what Joubert had written, but the notion so charmed me that when I first quoted it in my own piece I followed by writing, "Quelle belle sentiment!", as a sort of homage to its French author.

            Any Frenchman reading this would instantly have understood that I meant to say "What a beautiful idea (or sentiment)!" since there is no question about what my three French words meant.  But this Frenchman would just as instantly have also recognized that my mastery of the French language lacked a little something of perfection, since the French noun "sentiment" is of the masculine, not feminine, gender, and should have been qualified by articles and adjectives suitably formed, viz. "Quel beau sentiment!"

            My error had slipped by the Times editors too, and was now printed for all the world to see.  It did, too; it is perfectly amazing how many academics read the Times on Sundays. There was no shortage, the following day, of people to come up and correct me.  Or, following Professor Carlton, I should say there was no shortage of those who wished to 'correct' me, since there is really no Right or Wrong in these matters, provided only that one has made oneself understood.  Now here is the curious incident I was alluding to.

            The very first person, or maybe it was the second, to come to me in the Faculty Club at lunch time that day, to explain to me with a smile that I wasn't as good at French as I might think, and that "belle sentiment" was incorrect (excuse me, 'incorrect'), was this very Professor Carlton.

            There was of course no reason for me to be put out at this.  Whoever would teach (i.e. "learn twice"), like me, should also be happy to learn once, even in a subject not his own.  I have over the years learned a great deal on all subjects from colleagues in the Faculty Club.  I was particularly grateful to this old colleague, the Professor of French and Romance Linguistics, because he went on to explain what I should have known more generally, that all French nouns are masculine that end in "...ment”, changement, for example, and fondement.

            What a handy rule!  Quel beau regle!  Learning a foreign language is never easy, and knowing a thing like this can clear away a lot of the labor of memorization.

            But now I have a second thought:  I do believe that I must have misunderstood, that day, the true import of what Professor Carlton was saying.  He wasn't correcting me at all, by golly.  He must have been smiling with me, not at me, joining me in laughing at those silly pedants who think "belle sentiment" is somehow Wrong.  And his mention of the "rule" that nouns ending in "ment" are masculine was of course a mere lesson in Laroussean metaphysics, not a serious instruction in 20th Century style.  At least, that must have been his attitude if he believed in what he had been writing in the newspaper about the virtues of "more cheesier."

            On the other hand, a man who can write "It is no fun arguing with a fellow academic" can believe anything.

Ralph A. Raimi

Ca 1990