Interprète, L'

Reading through a fairly positive NYT review of the new movie The 40 Year-Old Virgin, I found out that it co-stars Catherine Keener. I had one of those tip-of-the-tongue-type reactions where I recognized the name but was having difficulty matching it with a face, so I IMDB’d — and found that Keener also co-starred in the recent movie The Interpreter. I also found, much to my surprise and amusement, that the convention of putting articles (a, the) at the end of a movie (or book, etc.) title for alphabetizing purposes has a funny result in French (and, I assume, other languages that are like French in relevant respects).

Quick background, for those who may not be (so) familiar: in French, the article corresponding to English the is le (masculine) or la (feminine), both of which lose their vowel (which is replaced orthographically by an apostrophe) when they precede a vowel-initial word: le livre ‘the book’ but l’homme ‘the man’ (the initial ‘h‘ of homme is silent); la table ‘the table’ but l’église ‘the church’). (This rule applies in pretty much the same way with several other function words, such as de ‘of’, je ‘I’, etc.)

The rule is strictly based on the sound that the immediately following word starts with; for example, ‘the big man’ is le grand homme or l’homme grand, depending on where you place the consonant-initial adjective. There’s no rule for how to pronounce/write one of the relevant function words when it appears phrase-finally — these words never appear in such contexts under natural circumstances — but all signs point to the prevocalic form being the special case and the preconsonantal form being the elsewhere, default case.

Except, of course, in the case of this convention of putting articles at the end of a title: the rule, at least orthographically, appears to be to use the form of the article that is used when the convention is not in force: The Interpreter is L’Interprète, so Interpreter, The is Interprète, L’. (Figure, go.)

(Cross-posted, mutatis mutandis, on Language Log.)

4 thoughts on “Interprète, L'

  1. Martin

    I’m not sure what the big deal is. The key thing for someone looking up the title isn’t the gender of the noun, it’s what the actual letters of the title are. Isn’t it?

  2. Chris Waigl

    I’m wondering, too, why you find the stranded contracted articles and prepositions so remarkable.

    This also happens inside dictionary entries, when the keyword is replaced with a tilde. For example, collocations under “histoire” are “l’~ ancienne/moderne”, “l’~ de sa vie”, “livre d’~s”, “une drôle d’~” etc.

    (Would it be proper to refer to the “h” in, say “la honte” as anything but “silent” when speaking about the sounds of words? I know it is called “aspiré”, as opposed to “muet”, in French, but that’s for historical reasons and because precisely the form affixed definite article or some prepositons take is changed. But it doesn’t sound any different from the so-called silent “h”.)

  3. Pingback: There’s a pattern here to see » Interprète, L’

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