We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

Though he was ambassador in London from 1898 to 1920, Cambon spoke not a word of English. During his meetings with Edward Grey (who spoke no French), he insisted that every utterance be translated into French, including easily recognised words such as ‘yes’. He firmly believed – like many members of the French elite – that French was the only language capable of articulating rational thought and he objected to the foundation of French schools in Britain on the eccentric grounds that French people raised in Britain tended to end up mentally retarded.

– Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers p193. While Sleepwalkers is clearly well-researched I am far from sure the research supports the conclusions i.e. that the First World War was all one big accident. I may blog more on this sometime but equally I may not.

18 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • Mr Ed

    He was a bureaucrat.

  • Mike Borgelt

    He may have a point. English is a truly horrible, heavily context based language with heaps of exceptions. The same word can mean many different things.
    Take “post”. This can mean (fence)post, post(mail), post(as in where the military says your job is). There are many other examples.
    Let alone regional variations. An example: My first few years of school were in the UK. At age 8 going on 9 we moved to Western Australia. So there I was at school assembly the first week and we all sang God Save the Queen followed by Waltzing Matilda. I remember thinking “I was told they spoke English here”, so what’s a swagman, a jumbuck, a coolabah tree and a billabong?

  • Zarba

    French people raised in Britain tended to end up mentally retarded.

    As opposed to French people raised in France? Pretty low bar, that.

  • Paul Marks

    It is one of the primary skills of a diplomat to know the language (and the customs) of the country he is sent to – therefore Mr Cambon did not have the basic skill set needed for his job (by the way many American Ambassadors are like this – they get their posts for other reasons than local knowledge, leaving the Res-Publica blind and deaf in many parts of the world).

    However, World War One…..

    German IDEOLOGY had unlimited dreams of power.

    Read the works of Ludwig Von Mises (such works as “Nation, State and Economy” and “Omnipotent Government”) – he knew the German academics and the political figures they educated.

    The German leadership also knew that the tide of history was turning against Germany – as time passed both France and Russia would grow in power (relative to Germany), they knew this.

    They were waiting for an opportunity to occur – they did NOT create it, but they were ready for an excuse for war (because they wanted more and more power – and they knew that the longer they waited the more things would turn against them).

    Look what happened when France hesitated to declare war on Germany even AFTER Germany made its statement concerning Russia (Russia – not just Serbia).

    Germany STAGED French attacks – French attacks which WERE REALLY GERMAN STUNTS were used as an excuse to declare war on France.

    This does not sound like an “accidental” war.

    By the way on French rationality…….

    Well I am ignorant of languages (I am no diplomat) – but it is true that French does not have some of the obvious weaknesses that English has, for example the English word “liberal” can mean (even in the 19th century) someone who wants a bir government (“liberality” – being open handed with public money, “liberal” – a broad interpretation of powers, as in “a liberal interpretation of the Constitution” – that meant statism even in the 19th century) as well as someone who wants a SMALLER government (liberal – liberty).

    I am told that the French word libre – can not be used in this wildly contradictory (indeed opposite) senses. The French language (again I am told) tends to insist that a word is used for a specific meaning – not that meaning and the exact opposite of that meaning (as the English language does with quite a few words – one is just supposed to know what the meaning really is in a particular context).

    And then their are the odd shades of meaning…

    For example, (at least in my part of England) “clever” is an insult (meaning twisted in reasoning “too clever by half”, and morally corrupt), “intelligent” (which might seem to mean the same thing) is a neutral descriptive word, and “wise” is a complement (although one that is very rarely used – I can go for years without hearing the words “wise” or “wisdom” applied to anybody).

    But as for French thinkers….

    Some French thinkers are wonderfully rational – such as Jacques Barzum, however I would love to take Mr Cambon through time to meet Satre and the other left bank scumbags.

    No rationality there.

  • Mike, from a non-native speaker: all true, and these are precisely the things that make English so wonderful. Plus, I hear that French is even “worse” in that regard, so perhaps the esteemed diplomat does not get a pass after all.

  • Paul Marks

    By the way – the French (traditionally) must have been doing something right.

    In recent centuries mass death by poverty was rare in France – unlike the United Kingdom where (for example) a third of the population of Ireland were lost in the 1840s (either by starvation, illness or emigration out of DESPERATION) – yet France had no government welfare (and the United Kingdom – including Ireland, did).

    If France was such a terrible place – why were (relatively) so few people desperate to leave France?

    Germans (and other such) going to America (and so on) were far more common.

    Also France (unlike Germany and Austria) did not have compulsory state education till the late 19th century (it was the creation of the Third Republic).

    Even in the First World War French economic policy was notably more “liberal” (in the French sense of the word) than policy was in Germany (where “State Socialism” – or “War Socialism” was already reality).

    Yet the French seem to hate their own liberal past (when they remember it at all). Instead it is the statist tradition in France (that of Charles the Great’s “just price” controls, or Louis the Spider, or Louis XIV (the “Sun King”) or the Jacobins of the French Revolution – this is what is honoured today.

    NOT Bastiat, not the Say family, not all the great economists and political writers (far better than the liberals in Britain) of the French “Liberal School”.

    I suspect it started with Zola – who took the defeat of the “Liberal Empire” (the France of Napoleon III) by Bismark and turned a military defeat into a cultural libel.

    Implying that the military defeat meant that liberalism was wrong – and collectivism was right.

    Although he wanted a “working class” form of collectivism – rather that the “top down” form of collectivism of Bismark (or Frederick the Great).

    About the only advantage of German law that I can think of is that it was less difficult to keep a farm together (it one had a lot of children) under German law (in theory there is division of inheritance under both French and German law – but under German law it is less difficult to keep a farm together if you want to, which is why the farmers Alsace were desperate to keep this aspect of German law after the First World War – and I believe they were allowed to keep it.

    Yet this is the one aspect of German practice that French politicians and so on were NOT interested in copying – they copied the statist stuff instead (as the British politicians did).

    State education, state welfare – indeed the French statists have taken the Welfare State to an extreme not seen in Germany.

    It is a very long way indeed from the one liberal France.

  • chuck

    “Jacques Barzum” I too admire the great Martian historian.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    Yes, the Germans were great believers in Darwinian evolution, in both world wars! Humans will find ways to turn theories into self-serving policies in any area, so we shouldn’t blame Darwin for what his adherents did to his ideas. What a shame the Germans didn’t think that it was the society of Britain, with it’s evolving government, that had made Britain great.

  • boy on a bike

    Thanks to Napoleon killing off so many frogs, there weren’t that many that needed feeding in the 1840s.

  • […] amusing quote of the day from Samizdata, reminding us why we love the French and French […]

  • Paul Marks

    Alisa – how about Finish?

    An entirely phonetic language in which (I am told) it is almost impossible to make mistakes. And Tolkien based High Elvan upon it (Sindarian is based upon Welsh).

    Now where did I leave my human ear collection album….

    boy on a bike.


    Two million death French in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic (first Napoleon) period.

    Yes I did leave out that detail…..

  • Russian writing is also entirely phonetic, Paul – but the possibilities for morphological mistakes are endless.

  • Mr Ed

    Paul, Finnish has, if I recall correctly, 14 case endings, so one word can be spelt 14 different ways depending on what is going on around it, whereas Latin gets by with 6, English with virtually none ‘whom’. If you are not born into this language and raised as a native, it may well be tricky. Another curious fact is that the Finnish language is like the Falkland Islands, in that it has no ‘b’s. (out loud). Finnish for ‘bank’, a loan word ‘pankki’. Finnish also has no gender in articles, so ‘he’ and ‘she’ are meaningless distinctions to monoglot Finns, even if referring to people (Swedish is the other language).

    My German teacher (who was English) could speak German in an Austrian accent well enough to fool a German. He enjoyed explaining to German speakers the sentence ‘He cut the tree down, and then he cut it up.’.

    Spanish is phonetic, and easier to pronounce than French (methinks), but it has many regional varieties and traps for the unwary. Most native Spaniards cannot pronounce ‘crisps’ due to the dearth of vowels and the ‘sps’.

    Portuguese is phonetic, but its alphabet has tildes that are hard to grasp, and rejections ‘ion’ as a word ending. ‘accion’ is ‘accao’ (no tildes, cedillas accents due to keyboard).

    Al least in Chinese and Japanese, you can learn the language without knowing a word of it, by symbols. I have seen Japanese and Chinese scientists break off a technical conversation (conversacao) in stilted English to write down in Kanji a concept, nod in agreement and revert to English, without either knowing what the other ‘said’ in either English or the other’s native tongue. The pictogram conveys the idea without the word being known. Just like traffic sign pictograms.

    So perhaps English is what we shall have until Kanji conquer the world.

  • veryretired

    I had a case ending once but I think I left it in a train station in Punxatawney.

    WW1 was the last gasp of the dying aristocratic culture that had ruled Europe for centuries, and took a good 2 centuries just to finally commit suicide in a spectacularly stupid and bloody way.

    I will say again that the history of europe and its endless conflicts is a record of small-minded provincialism and irrational stupidity unsurpassed in the annals of civilization.

    To kill millions for Herzo-Govina or some such speck on the global map is insanity beyond comprehension.

  • Bruce

    English is probably the greatest syncretic language in history.

    It is flexible, sometimes maddeningly so:

    Take the question:

    What is this thing called love?

    Now, start playing with timing, emphasis, idiom and punctuation.

    What? Is this thing called “Love”.

    What is THIS thing called, Love?

    And so on, ad whatever.

    Interestingly, Vietnamese was based on Chinese, after a fashion, and used to be written in a Chinese type “idiogram” script. Very few “peasants” could read the stuff. Along came Portuguese Jesuits who transliterated the entire language, complete with sundry diacritical marks for the various “tones”; high, low, rising, falling, rising AND falling, a weird sort of “Umlaut” equivalence, etc.

    The language rapidly took to print and education exploded. Even today, Vietnamese tend to be voracious readers.

    However, the language is not static; they even have a national committee to standardise the use of foreign words, both in spelling and pronunciation. For example: “beer” is “Bia”, “television” is “Tivi”. It is a somewhat different approach to the realities of linguistic change than that of their former colonial masters in Paris. Standard Vietnamese does not have a “letter Z”, but used a “d” that is “rolled” to the point that it sounds like a “Z” or, in some regions, a Scottish “R”. Oddly enough, and probably due to the perversities of Portuguese, to indicate a “D” sound you need to put a horizontal “slash” through the letter. What it actually sounded like 400 years ago is anyone’s guess.

    The Koreans, at least the “southern” ones, have also absorbed a lot of English words, on top of a LOT of Chinese and Japanese. It gets a bit interesting when words contain “R” or “L”, because in Korean the same character can be used for both but the sound changes depending on whether it is at the beginning of the end of the syllable. See: “I’m so rone-ry” in “Team America”

  • Mr Ed

    The ‘l’/’r’ issue crops up in Iberian languages. The Spanish word for ‘beach’, ‘playa’ is ‘praia’ in Portuguese, a change that occurs with other words. In some Spanish-speaking parts of South America, the word for soldier ‘soldado’, might be ‘sordado’ in the vulgar.

    Having house-shared with Japanese for a year, it seems that they simply cannot distinguish the sounds of those 2 letters in English.

    The First World War was surely a consequence primarily of German aggression and chauvinism, aided by an appalling disregard for human life in the Allies, but such is the way of government.

    French attitudes? There was an employment law case in the UK recently involving a French lycée which had argued that it was a mitigating factor in a discrimination case if you were French, as the staff could not be expected to be familiar with UK law and culture. Plus ça change!

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    The only language that is completely logical is Esperanto, and that seems to be dying out, as English becomes the unofficial world language.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Paul Marks @ August 15, 2013 at 9:02 pm:

    By the way – the French (traditionally) must have been doing something right.

    In recent centuries mass death by poverty was rare in France…

    Famines (and associated mass death) were frequent in France. We just don’t know as much about them because the French don’t obsess over them as anglophones do over the Irish Famine, and because what discussion there is of them is nearly all in French.


    There was a famine in France in 1811-1812, when grain prices doubled, and in 1816 (the “Year without a summer”), 1820, and 1830. Famine in the 1840s helped bring down the Orleans-Bourbon monarchy. (There was a political crisis over reducing tariffs on imported grain. Sound familiar?)

    There were 16 nationwide famines in the 1700s, including famine in the 1780s that brought on the French Revolution; 11 in the 1600s; and 13 in the 1500s.

    France is after all the country which gave the world Les Miserables as its iconic work of art.