Thursday, 9 January 2014

French Street Names in Jersey: Some Linguistic Considerations

Either the States seem to have been off too long over the Christmas holidays, or the silly season has come in the middle of winter rather than summer, demonstrating the random nature of climate change. Alternatively, the earthquake whose epicentre was in fact Philip Ozouf's house has had the result of addling his brains.

I refer, of course, in this roundabout way to Senator Ozouf's comments on street names:

"Treasury Minister Philip Ozouf wants to end the use of the French definite article - Le, La and Les - at the beginning of road names. According to the Senator, who studied in France and speaks French, using the definite article at the start of Jersey's French road names is categorically wrong. And, in the past, he has confirmed these inaccuracies with the Académie Française - a leading French organisation that deals with matters relating to the language. Senator Ozouf has been in talks with Jersey's parish Constables about addressing the problem and has also written to Jersey Post to ask if they will consider changing their database." (1)

So we have first of all the cost of replacing perfectly good and durable street names with new signage, at cost to either the tax payer or the rate payer, and the additional cost of updating all kinds of other lists, such as the electoral roll.

All the electoral registers would need changing as would the Liste du Rat not the mention the myriad of databases held by the States, States institutions, the banks, the Post Office etc.

And then there is the cost to businesses. Not only will they have to update their databases, book keeping software (customer and supplier addresses), they may well incur additional costs from letterheads, compliment slips etc, all of which will need changing, and for which no funding will come from the States because of one Senator's whim.

And what the Senator fails to see is that street names are signifiers, and as such are verbal elements separate from their use elsewhere, just as a name can be differently spelt. What matters in linguistics is the history of how use develops, and that in Jersey - and notably also in Guernsey - has a redundant prefix before some street names.

But redundancy is actually very common with a language. Let me give a very common example. How often are we asked about PIN numbers in shops? PIN stands for "Personal Identification Number", so PIN number is in expansion "Personal Identification Number Number". Now that is a case very much like the Senator's comment that it would be strange to say "The David Place", but it works the opposite way because in fact, no one has any problems saying "PIN number" - the phrase functions linguistically as a gestalt, and the unpacked version is irrelevant.

In terms of linguistics, "PIN", like almost all words in every language, has its own meaning which is divorced from its etymology (in this case, its origin as an acronym). It is a special case of the etymological fallacy, and for all Senator Ozouf's strictures about checking up with the Académie Française, he has fallen into exactly that trap.

Other examples are "LCD displays" and "ATM machines.", where again the phrase functions with a meaning which has been separated from its expanded original meaning.

A wider group of names of which those are a subset come under the term "pleonastic expressions". The language of law is replete with them, for example "null and void", "terms and conditions", "each and all", in this case also examples of multiple affirmation.

English lends itself to redundancy of this kind, and here are examples where the language becomes tautological.

"The La Brea tar pits are fascinating."
"Roast beef served with au jus."
"Please R.S.V.P."

With regard to place names this is very common, where a word in one language becomes the title of a place in another. These are known as tautological place names, and there is an extensive list on Wikipedia at:

Just as some place names in Jersey, while French sounding, have no analogues in any French dictionary or locale, because they are created by local people, so also one might surmise that place names in Jersey function rather like loan words from French, and hence the placement of Le or La is not inappropriate. It is only when they are considered from the point of view as if they had been streets named in France rather than Jersey, that Senator Ozouf would be right. One might as well expect argue that Jersey law should be consistent with French law, and they were to a point, but diverge significantly around the time of the Code Napoleon.

Incidentally, I might also note that the Jersey place names book seems to list some versions of names of the form "La Rue de." which date back at least to the 16th and 17th centuries; the notion that the nomenclature derives from a mistake in Perry's Guide seems to be a hasty and mistaken guess by Senator Ozouf.

There is a related problem with regard to pronunciation of French-sounding names. If we are going down the road of conformity to the Académie Française regarding spelling of street names, then to be consistent, we should also go down that path regarding pronunciation.

Now it is patently obvious that a number of French sounding Jersey names are not pronounced according to French analogues. For instance, Le Brun has a last "n" which is not silent, as does St Aubin. We say "Le Riches" with the "s" and not silent as it would be in French. Countless other instances could be given, and they show that the way in which words are pronounced has diverged between France and Jersey.

It is important to note that is not that one is right and one is wrong. They are both right, according to their geographical locale, and the historical divergence - similar phenomena can be seen in American English which is different in pronunciation from British English - think of Lieutenant Columbo, where the American version actually retains some of the original French more than the British.

But if it is conceded that historical divergence exists regarding pronunciation of French sounding names, why should not historical divergence also be conceded regarding spellings of street names? If we allow inconsistency in one, there are no grounds for inconsistency in the other.

In conclusion, to change street names because of the desire to conform to a French pattern betrays the very unique manner in which Jersey (and Guernsey) has diverged from France. It is a retrospective step, rather like the Latin prescriptivists who wanted to take Latin back to Classic forms, and purged it of later changes (and ended with a dead language as a result).

It is hankering after a purity which would involve considerable cost, and is not really necessary; the current nomenclature actually sets Jersey apart from France as "like but not like", just like the differences over some pronunciation. Certainly there may be inconsistencies, but we would do well to be cognisant of Emerson, who once said "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds".


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