The LINGUIST List is dedicated to providing information on language and language analysis, and to providing the discipline of linguistics with the infrastructure necessary to function in the digital world. LINGUIST is a free resource, run by linguistics students and faculty, and supported primarily by your donations. Please support LINGUIST List during the 2016 Fund Drive.
Ask-A-Linguist Message Details
|Subject:||How the heck is 'on' used for 'nous' in French (The 'Egocentric On')|
|Question:||Hi Guys, I'm trying to figure out how ''on + (3rd p. sing verb)'' functions as a replacement for ''nous + (1st p. plural verb)'' in French. « On est sur le point de partir. » ''We are about to go.'' (Versus « Nous sommes sur le point de partir. » ) « Nous, on est américains, et vous, vous êtes français. » ''We are American, and you are French.'' (Versus « Nous sommes américains, et vous, vous êtes français. » I understand how the word ''on'' developed to mean ''someone''. I also understand how you can refer to your self in the 3rd person (Tarzan like Jane!). I also understand that we use ''you'' to mean ''someone'' in English: ''How do you (does one) say ___ in French''. However, I don't see how you can make a singular ''someone'' work for a plural ''we''. I heard the origin is from ''working class'' French. I also heard that it could be that conjugating verbs with ''on'' is easier than with ''nous'' (Saves a syllable?). Perhaps its easier for an immigrant to use ''on'' than ''nous''? I agree it makes it easier for me to learn French. If, in English, someone asked ''Are you and your wife going home for Christmas'' and I answered ''yes, someone is'' they would be pretty confused. However, I can try to make it work in English: A mother telling a child: ''Someone is going to Disney World!'' means ''You (We) are going to Disney World!'' but this is a playful construction. A husband telling a wife ''Someone loves you'' meaning ''I love you'' is also playful. Obviously context makes the meaning clear in both cases, and I'm sure context makes it clear in French, too. ''on = nous'' still doesn't makes sense to me. Any thoughts? Wiktionary Reference for convenience: From Old French hom, reduced form of Old French homme (“man”) used as a pronoun, from Latin hominem, accusative form of homō (“man”). Its pronominal use is of Germanic origin. Compare Old English man (“one, they, people”), reduced form of Old English mann (“man, person”); German man (“one, they, people”); Dutch men (“one, they, people”). Pronoun on 1. One, people, you, someone (an unspecified individual: indefinite personal pronoun). On ne peut pas pêcher ici You can't fish here 2. (informal) We. On s'est amusé We had fun|
|Reply:||I believe that the 1st-person-plural element of verbal conjugations is virtually obsolete in spoken French; they learn it at school, and it is good in the written language, but they just don't use it in colloquial talking. The pronoun "on", which takes third-person-singular verbs, is used instead. The logical problem you describe seems to me to be a bit of a fiction, arising from the fact that the nearest English equivalent to French "on" is the word "one", which obviously is also the word for the number 1, so it seems wrong for it to stand for a group. But "on" doesn't mean 1; the French for 1 is "un". "On" just means "someone, people, subject unspecified". Geoffrey Sampson|
|Reply From:||Geoffrey Richard Sampson click here to access email|