Random Quote #56 topic: voltaire-dict, Philosophical Dictionary by Voltaire, 1694-1778


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

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

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

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," "Phedre," the
"Misanthrope" that it owes its vogue, and not to the conquests of Louis

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

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 _aout_. Not so long ago a German prince thinking that in France one
never pronounced the term _Auguste_ otherwise, called King Auguste of
Poland King Aout. All the letters which have been suppressed in
pronunciation, but retained in writing, are our former barbarous

It was when manners were softened that the language also was softened:
before Francois 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

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 _soupcon_ of fever to signify that he has
had a slight attack; soon the whole nation has _soupcons_ of colics,
_soupcons_ of hatred, love, ridicule. Preachers in the pulpit tell you
that you must have at least a _soupcon_ 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.


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