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Languages

There is no complete language, no language which can express all our ideas and all our sensations; their shades are too numerous, too imperceptible. Nobody can make known the precise degree of sensation he experiences. One is obliged, for example, to designate by the general names of "love" and "hate" a thousand loves and a thousand hates all different from each other; it is the same with our pleasures and our pains. Thus all languages are, like us, imperfect.

They have all been made successively and by degrees according to our needs. It is the instinct common to all men which made the first grammars without perceiving it. The Lapps, the Negroes, as well as the Greeks, needed to express the past, the present and the future; and they did it: but as there has never been an assembly of logicians who formed a language, no language has been able to attain a perfectly regular plan.

All words, in all possible languages, are necessarily the images of sensations. Men have never been able to express anything but what they felt. Thus everything has become metaphor; everywhere the soul is enlightened, the heart burns, the mind wanders. Among all peoples the infinite has been the negation of the finite; immensity the negation of measure. It is evident that our five senses have produced all languages, as well as all our ideas. The least imperfect are like the laws: those in which there is the least that is arbitrary are the best. The most complete are necessarily those of the peoples who have cultivated the arts and society. Thus the Hebraic language should be one of the poorest languages, like the people who used to speak it. How should the Hebrews have had maritime terms, they who before Solomon had not a boat? how the terms of philosophy, they who were plunged in such profound ignorance up to the time when they started to learn something in their migration to Babylon? The language of the Phoenicians, from which the Hebrews drew their jargon, should be very superior, because it was the idiom of an industrious, commercial, rich people, distributed all over the earth.

The most ancient known language should be that of the nation most anciently gathered together as a body of people. It should be, further, that of the people which has been least subjugated, or which, having been subjugated, has civilized its conquerors. And in this respect, it is constant that Chinese and Arabic are the most ancient of all those that are spoken to-day.

There is no mother-tongue. All neighbouring nations have borrowed from each other: but one has given the name of "mother-tongue" to those from which some known idioms are derived. For example, Latin is the mother-tongue in respect of Italian, Spanish and French: but it was itself derived from Tuscan; and Tuscan was derived from Celtic and Greek.

The most beautiful of all languages must be that which is at once, the most complete, the most sonorous, the most varied in its twists and the most regular in its progress, that which has most compound words, that which by its prosody best expresses the soul's slow or impetuous movements, that which most resembles music.

Greek has all these advantages: it has not the roughness of Latin, in which so many words end in um, ur, us. It has all the pomp of Spanish, and all the sweetness of Italian. It has above all the living languages of the world the expression of music, by long and short syllables, and by the number and variety of its accents. Thus all disfigured as it is to-day in Greece, it can still be regarded as the most beautiful language in the universe.

The most beautiful language cannot be the most widely distributed, when the people which speaks it is oppressed, not numerous, without commerce with other nations, and when these other nations have cultivated their own languages. Thus Greek should be less diffused than Arabic, and even Turkish.

Of all European languages French should be the most general, because it is the most suited to conversation: it has taken its character from that of the people which speaks it.

The French have been, for nearly a hundred and fifty years, the people which has best known society, which the first discarded all embarrassment, and the first among whom women were free and even sovereign, when elsewhere they were only slaves. The always uniform syntax of this language, which admits no inversions, is a further facility barely possessed by other tongues; it is more current coin than others, even though it lacks weight. The prodigious quantity of agreeably frivolous books which this nation has produced is a further reason for the favour which its language has obtained among all nations.

Profound books will not give vogue to a language: they will be translated; people will learn Newton's philosophy; but they will not learn English in order to understand it.

What makes French still more common is the perfection to which the drama has been carried in this tongue. It is to "Cinna," "Phèdre," the "Misanthrope" that it owes its vogue, and not to the conquests of Louis XIV.

It is not so copious and so flexible as Italian, or so majestic as Spanish, or so energetic as English; and yet it has had more success than these three languages from the sole fact that it is more suited to intercourse, and that there are more agreeable books in it than elsewhere. It has succeeded like the cooks of France, because it has more flattered general taste.

The same spirit which has led the nations to imitate the French in their furniture, in the arrangement of rooms, in gardens, in dancing, in all that gives charm, has led them also to speak their language. The great art of good French writers is precisely that of the women of this nation, who dress better than the other women of Europe, and who, without being more beautiful, appear to be so by the art with which they adorn themselves, by the noble and simple charm they give themselves so naturally.

It is by dint of good breeding that this language has managed to make the traces of its former barbarism disappear. Everything would bear witness to this barbarism to whosoever should look closely. One would see that the number vingt comes from viginti, and that formerly this g and this t were pronounced with a roughness characteristic of all the northern nations; of the month of Augustus has been made the month of août. Not so long ago a German prince thinking that in France one never pronounced the term Auguste otherwise, called King Auguste of Poland King Août. All the letters which have been suppressed in pronunciation, but retained in writing, are our former barbarous clothes.

It was when manners were softened that the language also was softened: before François Ier summoned women to his court, it was as clownish as we were. It would have been as good to speak old Celtic as the French of the time of Charles VIII. and Louis XII.: German was not more harsh.

It has taken centuries to remove this rust. The imperfections which remain would still be intolerable, were it not for the continual care one takes to avoid them, as a skilful horseman avoids stones in the road. Good writers are careful to combat the faulty expressions which popular ignorance first brings into vogue, and which, adopted by bad authors, then pass into the gazettes and the pamphlets. Roastbeef signifies in English roasted ox, and our waiters talk to us nowadays of a "roastbeef of mutton." Riding-coat means a coat for going on horseback; of it people have made redingote, and the populace thinks it an ancient word of the language. It has been necessary to adopt this expression with the people because it signifies an article of common use.

In matters of arts and crafts and necessary things, the common people subjugated the court, if one dare say so; just as in matters of religion those who most despise the common run of people are obliged to speak and to appear to think like them.

To call things by the names which the common people has imposed on them is not to speak badly; but one recognizes a people naturally more ingenious than another by the proper names which it gives to each thing.

It is only through lack of imagination that a people adapts the same expression to a hundred different ideas. It is a ridiculous sterility not to have known how to express otherwise an arm of the sea, a scale arm, an arm of a chair; there is poverty of thought in saying equally the head of a nail, the head of an army.

Ignorance has introduced another custom into all modern languages. A thousand terms no longer signify what they should signify. Idiot meant solitary, to-day it means foolish; epiphany signified appearance, to-day it is the festival of three kings; baptize is to dip in water, we say baptize with the name of John or James.

To these defects in almost all languages are added barbarous irregularities. Venus is a charming name, venereal is abominable. Another result of the irregularity of these languages composed at hazard in uncouth times is the quantity of compound words of which the simple form does not exist any more. They are children who have lost their father. We have architects and no tects; there are things which are ineffable and none which are effable. One is intrepid, one is not trepid. There are impudent fellows, insolent fellows, but neither pudent fellows nor solent fellows. All languages more or less retain some of these defects; they are all irregular lands from which the hand of the adroit artist knows how to derive advantage.

Other defects which make a nation's character evident always slip into languages. In France there are fashions in expressions as in ways of doing the hair. A fashionable invalid or doctor will take it into his head to say that he has had a soupçon of fever to signify that he has had a slight attack; soon the whole nation has soupçons of colics, soupçons of hatred, love, ridicule. Preachers in the pulpit tell you that you must have at least a soupçon of God's love. After a few months this fashion gives place to another.

What does most harm to the nobility of the language is not this passing fashion with which people are soon disgusted, not the solecisms of fashionable people into which good authors do not fall, but the affectation of mediocre authors in speaking of serious things in a conversational style. Everything conspires to corrupt a language that is rather widely diffused; authors who spoil the style by affectation; those who write to foreign countries, and who almost always mingle foreign expressions with their natural tongue; merchants who introduce into conversation their business terms.

All languages being imperfect, it does not follow that one should change them. One must adhere absolutely to the manner in which the good authors have spoken them; and when one has a sufficient number of approved authors, a language is fixed. Thus one can no longer change anything in Italian, Spanish, English, French, without corrupting them; the reason is clear: it is that one would soon render unintelligible the books which provide the instruction and the pleasure of the nations.


Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire