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cross-linguistic polysemy, even sometimes intra

September 10, 2010
I sent The Young Lady for her very first day as a secondary school pupil a week ago. Which in the UK implies with an “upgraded” uniform including mandatory tie and blazer. So while she was quite excited about the new school and even a bit about this new uniform, once the tie on and the first bottom of the shirt tied, we went very quickly from the “That’s good to be back home”, on the day before, to “I would have preferred to go back to school in France”, on the first morning. But at the end of the school day, when I picked her up, it was another discourse. First thing she said to me was “Don’t I look smart in my uniform?”.
Obviously my hippie self could not have ignored the opportunity to lecture her on the fact that looking smart is not being smart and nobody’s intelligence/personality should be evaluated based on their appearance and blablabla (that’s amazing how she does not learn to avoid subject that can make me ramble for hours; oh wait, there is no subject that would not do so…). And then it occurred to me, and stopped being a personal story to become a linguistic one.
The French equivalents to one or another meaning of smart don’t carry the same polysemy. So I started thinking in Sapir-Whorf terms, imagining how this kind of polysemy is not helping English speakers to overcome the importance of appearance in first impressions. And went on pondering this idea with a regular etymological one, where culture would have tailored this polysemy, a prevalence of appearance in first impressions would have been prior and language therefore would have evolved. And I was getting ready to post about how this reflects some shallowness of the English speaking culture and blablabla, always eager to use an opportunity to bitch on more than observe this culture.
But actually I was slightly wrong, as I learnt that there is not really a polysemy here: smart meaning elegant is a British English usage whereas smart meaning intelligent is an American English one. The polysemy, if there is any, is in my head. As a learner of English I used to watch, and still do, many American TV shows/films in English, but not so many of them coming from the UK. I had therefore built up a concept of smart that was very much similar to my French-influenced concept of intelligent. I guess however it is not so clear either in British people’s head, as their culture is swimming in American productions much more than the inverse.
Anyway, where this story is really interesting is that I has been thinking for quite a while to do at least a post, if not a small series, on what French teachers of English call faux-amis [false friends]. library, for example, is a faux-ami: despite sounding and looking very much like librairie it does not mean the same; they share the same root, their meanings are not that different but they are not similar enough to be confounded (the French one in this example actually means bookshop whereas the word for library is bibliothèque). Faux-amis are false friends because they are tricky: they seem helpful and willing to help you in the process of translating but they actually make you trip yet on a Frenchism (or Englicism, as I can easily imagine English speakers learning French would be confronted to the same confusion). Faux-amis rely on different evolution of French and English (I quite like to believe there is very few, if any, cases of faux-amis within the Latin languages family, but correct me if I am wrong), which is totally fair when you speak about two different languages, let alone sharing some roots but belonging to two different families.
But with the case of smart I realized that English actually contains some of them within itself: English have evolved differently between the different cultures where it is spoken to an extent that you do not observe in French. There are genuine differences between the French language in France, Belgium, Switzerland or Africa, but it seems to me that it never involves different concepts [NB: I am volontarily ignoring the case of Canadian French here as it might actually be the only case, though my feeling now is that it is all related to swearing :-D]. French speaking Belgians and Swiss have different words for numbers from 60 to 99, and this in a much more logical way I must say. Swiss people say things weird to us, such as farewell [adieu] for bye, when farewell in France French is much more about never seeing again the person. But I cannot think of a difference that would regard qualities or categories.
Between American and British English, there are such differences and you can imagine how it is worse than what I would like to call cross-linguistic polysemy (the state of the fluent/bilingual holding in his mind phonologically close but semantically apart words, due to knowing two languages). In the latter case the context and/or your knowledge are pragmatic cues telling you to use much more inferences to understand what a foreign/native speaker (if you are a native/foreign one) is telling you. You know you need to be vigilant and not take everything literally. But when Americans and British people start speaking, their community of language inhibits, or at least does not signal any need for pragmatics and inferences (well, I have met a lot of people who forget they should use their pragmatic skills when speaking with me as a foreign speaker, but that’s another story) and misunderstanding can arise pretty easily.
Anyway I am pretty sure I am rambling over something somebody has already researched. If not, it seems to me like yet another idea to put down in my Science book. As if one day I will have time to test it…
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