Tag Archives: French

An artesian reform of the French numbering system


Descartes artésien

Twice in my life, I have been at a meeting where a French person has stood up and said very seriously that it is obvious that French should be the global form of communication since French is the most logical of all languages.
To this, I have a number of replies, but one will suffice:



Anyone with even an elementary knowledge of French (as spoken in France) will be aware of the fact that in order to say ninety-seven one has to crawl through mathematical hoops and phrase it as “four-twenty-seventeen” (quatre-vingt-dix-sept). I could in fact have picked any number from eighty to ninety-nine to make the same point. The sequence goes from four-twenties (80) through four-twenty-six (86) and four-twenty-eleven (91) all the way to four-twenty nineteen (99). Actually, this whole business starts even earlier, in the seventies, which start with sixty-ten (70) and end with sixty-nineteen (79).
Now, this doesn’t sound like the kind of thing you would want in a country which glories in being “Cartesian”, even though Descartes himself entangled himself in many intractable problems; “Descartes et des échecs” (cards and chess or Descartes and failures) as the once-famous but now almost forgotten 18th Century philosophe Jean-Jacques Klaxx once quipped. This bizarre numbering system would fit in much better with the many oddities the English are proudly afflicted with (except that if this had happened in English they would also have made sure that the spelling and/or the pronunciation would be inconsistent too. For example, Four-twenty (80), Fourenty-one (81), Frenty-twoo (82) and so on.  Read more…

Montaigne berates his “membre”










“One commonly notices the unruly independence of this member, interjecting itself so inopportunely when we have no need for it and failing us so inopportunely when we most need it, and contending so imperiously for authority with our will, so haughtily and stubbornly rejecting our urgings, both mental and manual.”

(“On a raison de remarquer l’indocile liberté de ce membre, s’ingerant si importunement, lors que nous n’en avons que faire, et defaillant si importunement, lors que nous en avons le plus affaire, et contestant de l’authorité si imperieusement U avec nostre volonté, refusant avec tant de fierté et d’obstination noz solicitations et mentales et manuelles.“)

I can’t think of anyone who could have written such a classically phrased sentence about such an unclassical topic. Actually, Montaigne goes on to say (in his essay on the Imagination) that in fact this criticism is unfair since all the parts of our body act without our consent. Do we command our hair to stand on end? Or our hearts to beat faster? And he goes on to mention a number of different organs. I can’t help thinking, though, that the one of the main reasons for his adding this was to be able to report the exceptional case of someone who could fart in tune.

Similarly, I find it hard not to mention an anecdote I was once told about “le membre”. At an international committee meeting, a British delegate decided to introduce the new Belgian delegate to the French chairman.

British delegate: Puis-je avoir le plaisir de vous introduire le membre belge?

French chairman: Oui, mais doucement. 

“Introduire” in French is a bit different from “introduce” in English, so I suppose you could render it as follows:

British delegate: May I have the pleasure of introducing the Belgian member into you?

French chairman: Yes, but gently.