Auguste Vestris


Essais / Esssays

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The One and the Many - When the Many is One too Much
2 mars 2012

Printable version / Version imprimable   |  2155 visits / visites

Before any Frenchman take offence at the remarks below, he is asked to bear in mind that similar – indeed worse – can be written of our contemporaries’ English. Our topic is a particular issue in the French, proliferation of the Many versus the One, that leads to interesting considerations.

Anyone familiar with the modern French language cannot but be unsettled by the disappearance of consonant sounds. Words that several hundred years ago enjoyed a neat beginning and a brisk (consonantal) end, now taper off vaguely into the middle-distance.

Thus, not only does the singular of the word RAT (which means what it does in English), sound like “Ra”. So does its plural, RATS.

This makes understanding spoken French something of a bumpy ride, including for Frenchmen. The reasons are complex, but have to do with the phenomenon that standard modern French – unlike earlier and dialectal forms - invariably places the stress (accent tonique) on the final syllable of each word, and on the final word of each sentence.

Consonants being the springboard or trampoline, of speech, highly-inflected tongues with a developed speech music, such as Russian or German, will bound or bounce from one consonant to another, as the voice moves through a range of well over an octave. The standard French speaking voice however, is easily bounded by a single octave. In this “policed” and rather effete environment, consonants, those shaggy unshorn frontiersmen, get the boot. In retaliation, the they ricochet back against the vowels, to a degree, that ; like the ubiquitous SingleWorldCompany Microsoft, the SingleVowelSystem is upon us. Ever hear of a country called La FRONCE ? A thirst for revenge called la REVONCHE ? … or three decades referred to as TRONTE ONS … listen to radio or television …

As we know from other branches of science, a change to any part of the system will unleash further change throughout the system. Speech being, first and foremost, a music meant to be listened to by other human beings, whereby its patterns and tones convey meaning before any word soever take shape, if it lose musicality, the parts of speech must needs be affected. Because the spoken will invariably prevail over the written, if a sound be lost, inflection will be affected as well. And whose head will first meet the chopping block ? Verbs. The most vulnerable part of speech will always be verbs and the related adverbial forms, these being the most complex, conceptual and therefore, the most highly-inflected. Put another way, shrink a language to the rock music Tonic/Dominant hee-haw and one after the other, its parts of speech will wither away.

While earlier hominids were happy with grunting high or low - rock-musician lingo if you like - parts of speech were invented by Homo Sapiens for good reason : they are the elemental means for assigning a ranking-order to the categories of discrete artefacts (words) that man uses to express thought. The hierarchy resembles that of the human anatomy,

1/ Verbs : doing and thinking (the central nervous and circulatory system)

2/ Adverbs : how does one do and think ? (the peripheral nervous system)

3/ Pronouns : who is behind all this doing and thinking ? (the skeleton)

4/ Nouns : let us lend a name to objects in the visible and invisible realm (the musculature, membrane and cartilage)

5/ Articles, definite and indefinite : which, and were they one or many ? (tendons and ligaments)

6/ Adjectives : ornamental, but not critical to life (hair).

That the French language no longer recognise the singular has the effect, that the Frenchman will struggle to recognise the real existence of notions beyond where his next meal is coming from. The language has also virtually ceased to recognise the subjunctive mood, which concerns the mind’s apprehending that greater part of reality which is invisible or unknown. An issue we shall get to in a forthcoming article.

Why is this important ? Since the inkwell and pen were binned along with basic calligraphy forty years ago, no-one in Western Europe knows how to write his own name. Learning penmanship - how to write beautifully - is a child’s first and exciting experience with creating light and shadow, proportions and relations - manual labour applied to the creating of beauty and meaning. Instead, we stab at a page with a greasy ballpoint, resenting having to do so at all. Like the nib-pen and inkwell, speech is an artefact, “manufactured” by tens of thousands of years of hard-thinking by individuals. It did not just grow, it was “growed”. And like all that waxes, it may also wane.

What passes for speech today is the equivalent of stabbing at paper with a ballpoint : an activity no longer able to convey the way in which thoughts are formed in the human mind. In a vicious circle, that inadequacy itself further diminishes the cognitive means by which one may recognise a singularity, if it suddenly walk into the room.

Do not doubt, but that there are consequences in the material world. The word “economics” refers simply to the science of producing what produces Man – food, clothing, shelter, schools and hospitals, scientific laboratories, physical infrastructure. Whether progress occur in each such domain depends on the personal inventiveness of millions of individuals, a potential determined in early childhood through acquiring a powerful and adequate vehicle of expression, whether this be in the form of speech, classical music or dance. Therefore, Government is under a positive duty to teach every child how to speak and write properly and beautifully – not as a string of rules, but as the why-and-wherefore of deep grammar to free that child’s power of invention.

From Sonnet 129, on Lust,

“Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight ;
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad :
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so ;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme ;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe ;
Before, a joy proposed ; behind, a dream.”

Those seething waves of verbs and verbal forms were penned by the man who invented Modern English. The eight lines build a single sentence, and hold no less than thirteen verbal forms, a density in space-time akin to music. Relentless in effect, the lines stick in the soul’s gullet like a thorn – as he intended.

Note that all the nouns appear in the singular, otherwise, thought would disperse and flail about impotently. More generally, incessant, muddle-headed use of the plural will prevent one from grasping the abstractness of a notion, the form behind any multitude of forms.

In classical philosophy, “The One and the Many” refers to whether the mind arrive at a notion snail-like, collating countless items into a One, or whether it move by leaps and bounds, hypothesising a “thought-object” or nested range of thought-objects, from which the Many and its attendant items proceed. Through its efficacy in the real world, the Socratic School has sufficiently proven that new and original notions arise from the One, rather than from an entomologist’s collection of the Many.

Let us now turn to a concrete example, drawn from a list that the reader will find below.

What are we to make of marges de manoeuvres, as opposed to the classical, marge de manoeuvre ? To most readers today, skip it ! But whether the manoeuvre be military, or civilian, a difference there is indeed. Marge de manoeuvre means “manoeuvring room”, a single, abstract concept, which must necessarily be in the singular. Currently, we find it replaced by the plural marges de manoeuvres, which, if it mean anything at all, might correspond to “marginal topographical areas where a multitude of counting-items (manoeuvres) may be pursued” ! Plainly, though, the term marge de manoeuvre is a singular, being a notion that covers all possible series of manoeuvres, military or otherwise.

To do away with the singular, is to do away with the distinctions that allow the mind to recognise, and act on, a singularity – the unexpected.

And so it is that the author of these lines, who would otherwise be too disorderly to draw up lists, has drawn up a little list.

Navires à voiles
Journaux papiers
Chutes de cheveux
Pochettes coins
Sac à mains
Salle de bains
Evènements chocs
Enveloppes surprises
Déménagement d’entreprises
Marges de manœuvres
Chèvres fermiers
Loyers plafonds
Gels douches
Recettes minceurs
Codes barres
Fous rires
Menus vapeurs
Ils font des études sur les pommes de terres, leurs qualités sanitaires, leurs goûts
Yeux en amandes
Enfants modèles
Mots clés
Toiles d’araignées
Conflits d’intérêts
Il faut acheter des labels rouges
Déficits publics
Il y a moins d’entrées en conventions de reclassement
Dirigeants d’entreprises
Crêpes maisons
Des chaussures hommes
Produits phares
Risques de se blesser
Statue en pieds
Séries cultes
Yaourts natures
Bouillon de poissons
Maisons témoins
Eyeliners stars
Pommes grenailles
Chaussures miroirs
Idées menus
Clefs de voûtes
Eaux de toilettes (délice des sens !)
Jeux d’anches
Jeux de fonds
(the last two being from organ-building terminology)

I/ The Adverbial phrase, thrust aside by the adjective

The adjective is an extremely primitive part of speech. Being descriptive, it means nothing outwith its verbal context. Since ancient times, the power of sophistry – politics, the mass-media and public relations – has rested wholly upon the emotional colour lent an object by shedding adjectives upon it.

Typical of a culprit-plural, is the term produits phares. Literally, this translates as “products that are a lighthouse”. Might a packet of detergent, or a pot of yoghurt, also be a lighthouse, a new, and thrilling chapter of the Ovidian Metamorphoses perhaps ? One fears not. One fears that the utterer is merely pointing to products that sell well, i.e. “des produits qui font office d’un phare”. The clause in italics, is an adverbial phrase.

Evènements chocs corresponds to « des évènements qui sont susceptibles de produire un choc » (events likely to provoke a shock). As for enveloppes surprises, although the utterer no doubt means « des envelopes qui pourraient contenir une surprise » (envelopes that may contain a surprise), this actually indicates envelopes that have themselves become surprises. Chaussures hommes is perhaps the Frog-Prince – the very shoe that every spinster longs to meet at Ferragamo’s. Ovid, bring on Zeus to our Io, and carry us away ! And what are we to make of chaussures miroirs ! Shoes so well-shined by some alchemist, that they’ve undergone a physical-chemical shift, and turned into a looking-glass ! Dr. Faustus, what of thy grapes in winter ? Or clefs de voûtes (keystone), which ipso facto can be but One, and never the Many ?

In the meantime, wandering without a compass, mots clés (mot-clef), has gone lost in the etymology-free zone (clé instead of the classical clef) …

In each sentence, one observes that the noun, so comically made to do duty as an adjective - « phares », « chocs » « surprises » … in fact corresponds to a phrase that translates into one or more verbs and verbal forms. Twenty, perhaps even ten years ago, one would have read produits-phare, évènements-choc, enveloppes-surprise, where the hyphen and singular, made it plain that one was faced with an elliptical expression. Such ellipsis, once typical of newspaper by-lines, first invaded so-called everyday speech, before collapsing into the prevailing, decadent forms.

II/ Yeux en amandes

Here, another twist on the problem. Speech, that relies upon discrete artefacts known as “words”, is metaphoric by nature. No word can truly represent an object per se, but only point to a field of references, whether physical, or spiritual. Think of the meanings behind the word “bread” !

Illustration to the poem Jabberwocky

So when we say that someone has des yeux en amande, we mean that their eyes are almond-shaped. But if we say yeux en amandes, we are looking at a fruit generally eaten dried and salted. Yummy ! And it would be funny, save for the nagging fact that “yeux en amandes” is an example of a (see picture).

For en amandes is neither an adverbial phrase, since only en amande, in meaning, corresponds to “almond-shaped”, nor can it be an adjectival phrase, since a pile of almonds hardly qualifies as an adjective. So what is this ? A Jabberwock.

What of the hybrid beast, chèvres fermiers ? The reality to which this refers, is a foodstuff, goat cheese, produced not in an industrial dairy, but on a farm.

However, chèvres fermiers is a goat of another colour – here, our cloven-hoof friends have become farmers, wont to make cheese from their own milk. There’s no keeping a good man down, the more so, as the word “chèvre”, in French, is invariable, and feminine ! Why not chèvres fermières, while we’re at it ? An adverbial phrase des fromages de chèvre qui sont produits non en laiterie industrielle mais sur une ferme”, turned into an adjectival phrase so absurd, that even a horselaugh would scarce be brazen enough.

As for the oft-seen, fromages de chèvres, as opposed to fromage de chèvre, this means not “goat cheese”, which is what the utterer wishes to say, but rather “there are cheeses out there being made by countless goats”. The utterer may be trying to tell us something, but just as in the Parmenides paradox, he will never get there amongst the herds of rutting goats. Bouillons de poissons, is another howler of the same ilk.

III/ Gels douches

All of this being rather steamy, one heads for the shower. And what lurks behind the curtain ? Shower gels, spraying tous azimuts, having evolved into a shower-head ! Rather than gels-douche, the elliptical form of the adverbial phrase “des gels qui sont suffisamment peu concentrés en actifs pour convenir à la douche plutôt qu’au bain”, the word douche, although appearing in the syntactical position of an adjective, no longer knows whether it is being used as a noun, an adverbial or an adjectival phrase. Speaking, and writing, with that degree of topological confusion does the brain no good at all.

IV/ Journaux papiers, Crayons papiers

On to the incomprehensible. Journaux papiers is, one imagines, intended to mean “des journaux imprimés sur support papier plutôt que d’être publiés sur Internet” (printed newspapers, rather than Internet news-publications). Here, papiers has been deployed as an adjective. What can this ever mean ? Given the editorial content, it would be fair to surmise “journals that are wastepaper”. The delightful crayons papiers (once crayon à papier, or lead pencils), which translates as “pencils made out of paper” (!), is of the same ilk.

V/ One potato, two potato…

One potato, two potato, three potato, four,
five potato, six potato, seven potato more.
Icha bacha, soda cracker,
Icha bacha boo.
Icha bacha, soda cracker, out goes Y-O-U !

What need of a plural, with singulars like this ?

And Ah, the potato ! Seen at the Paris underground station named after the agronomist Antoine Parmentier,

« On y fait des études sur les pommes de terres, leurs qualités sanitaires, leurs goûts … »

The potato now boasts opinions – tastes, even ! And emerges not from the earth, but from earths. Erf, swallow me up !

What the utterer meant would likely be, “des études sur les variétés de la pomme de terre, portant à la fois sur le goût, et sur leurs qualités sanitaires” (research into potato-varities, that bear both on taste and on resistance to disease).

I well recall the day when this madness began. ‘Twas about fifteen years ago, with

Sac à mains, i.e. handbag, formerly known as a sac à main, now sold complete with its own set of little hands !

Salle de bains. Formerly a room where one bathed, viz., a salle de bain, now a space where baths fortuitously occur. Unclear whether bains refers to public baths, or bathwater spontaneously gushing into an array of tubs !

Statue en pieds.

Rather than a full-length standing statue, one admires a statue that has acquired feet – and doubtless rhythm as well, a veritable centipede doing the Cakewalk.

Dîtes non aux chutes de cheveux !

Look out below ! The mental image is of hair not falling out, but fa-a-a-a-lling. Great whopping logs of hair falling out !

Déménagements d’entreprises

A transport firm, having shed all spatial reference, all notion that events occur in irreversible time. Somewhere in a shapeless, frontierless universe, furniture and equipment charge about from one set of premises to another. Once upon a time, though, the concept was simple and clear : a transport company’s business involved déménagement d’entreprise. Being a notion, it must be in the singular.

Recettes minceurs (the erstwhile recettes-minceur, namely recipes, designed for people who wish to lose weight). Laced into an adjective’s corset, the noun minceur. Does the utterer mean that the recipes themselves are slim ? Well, we shall starve him out. Rather than a menu-vapeur, where the dishes are cooked in steam, we shall present him with menus vapeurs, where everything has either gone up in steam or perhaps, we of the weaker sex get the vapours and faint away, at seeing how little there is to eat !

Onwards or rather downwards, to idées menus. The French language has already got an adjective, thank you, menu, which means “minute” in the sense of “very small”, or “slender”. It also boasts the adverbial par le menu, which means “in detail”, and a noun, menu, which means a detailed list or schedule, or a restaurant menu.

He who penned idées menus likely meant “ideas to help the housewife design the weekly meal-plan”. What we get, is a muddle of adverbial expression, noun and adjective. Idées menues, would mean “tiny little ideas”, idées-menu would be a newspaper byline for menu-ideas, while idées menus means nothing at all.

Given the tenor of the times, the plural today will often be trotted out for the purpose of sophistry, to disguise a thought which, if baldly stated, were certain to cause unrest. Thus, déficits publics will now be heard in the plural, in relating the condition of State finances. Howsoever the sophists would have it, the proper term remains déficit public nonetheless, the public deficit, a notion specific to government accountancy, where a State’s total expenditure exceeds revenue. Were the nation given the leisure to reflect upon the notion of a déficit public, the truth would out – the State must incur a deficit, to invest in the infrastructure on which the future depends. By adding a superfluous plural, the sophists pull the wool over our eyes, and persuade us that the public deficit is raging out of control here there and everywhere – whereas all that is raging, is the ongoing bailout of the banks.

VI/ News bulletin : the human race has been successfully done away with.

Rather more awkward, because more elusive conceptually :

Il y a moins d’entrées en conventions de reclassement (seen in a recent issue of Les Echos or La Tribune)

More than any other phenomenon perhaps, what typifies both contemporary French, and so-called “business English”, is the drive to evacuate the existence of actual human beings, the plural proving a handy tool :


« Il y a moins d’entrées en conventions de reclassement », rather than, « moins de personnes ayant été licenciées pour motif économique ont choisi de signer une convention de reclassement » (fewer redundant employees have chosen to enter into a resettlement agreement). The string of plural nouns serves to dehumanise the circumstance, and give the impression that whatever is going on, it has nothing to do with human beings who have been made redundant.

Rid of the verb and its subject, rid of the causal agent, rid of the problem. No-one has caused redundancies to occur. They just happen.

To end on a jocular note – the French mass media have taken to describing themselves as médias. What a laugh ! Media is the plural form of the Latin “medium”. Médias, a double plural, means, appropriately enough, nothing.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son !
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch !
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch !”

Katharine Kanter, July 2010