Friday, November 7, 2008

Why Frenchmen speak French

This is two Mark Twain posts in very close proximity. But I heard this excerpt from chapter 14 of Huckleberry Finn coming into work this morning. It cleverly points out the difference between reason and education. Chapter 14 has Huck trying to explain to Jim some of the things he learns at school. One of these things is that the French speak a different language to each other than Americans do. This astounds Jim.

"Why, Huck, doan' de French people talk de same way we does?"

"No, Jim; you couldn't understand a word they said- not a single word."

"Well, now, I be ding-busted! How do dat come?"

"I don't know; but it's so. I got some of their jabber out of a book. Spose a man was to come to you and say 'Polly-voo-franzy'- what would you think?"

"I wouldn't think nuff'n; I'd take en bust him over de head. Dat is, if he warn't white. I wouldn't 'low no nigger to call me dat."

"Shucks, it ain't calling you anything. It's only saying do you know how to talk French."

"Well, den, why couldn't he say it?"

"Why, he is a-saying it. That's a Frenchman's way of saying it."

"Well, it's a blame' ridicklous way, en I doan' want to hear no mo' 'bout it. Dey ain' no sense in it."

We are made to laugh at Jim. But the tables quickly turn as Huck tries to prove to Jim that it would make sense for different nations to speak different languages.

"Looky here, Jim; does a cat talk like we do?"

"No, a cat don't."

"Well, does a cow?"

"No, a cow don't, nuther."

"Does a cat talk like a cow, or a cow talk like a cat?"

"No, dey don't."

"It's natural and right for 'em to talk different from each other, ain't it?"


"And ain't it natural and right for a cat and a cow to talk different from us?"

"Why, mos' sholy it is."

"Well, then, why ain't it natural and right for a Frenchman to talk different from us? You answer me that."

"Is a cat a man, Huck?"


"Well, den, dey ain't no sense in a cat talkin' like a man. Is a cow a man?- er is a cow a cat?"

"No, she ain't either of them."

"Well, den, she ain' got no business to talk like either one or the yuther of 'em. Is a Frenchman a man?"

"Well, den! Dad blame it, why doan' he talk like a man? You answer me dat!"

Huck's mistake in reasoning is that his examples generalize to make the following argument:
if x and y are of different species,
then x and y do not speak the same language.
Jim points out of course that a French man and American man are the same species, so Huck hasn't met the premise. Jim also notes that American men and French men are of the same species and therefore should speak the same, which is his own little mistake. This is one of the most common mistakes in ordinary reasoning: equating a conditional with its inverse. (p then q implies -p then -q).

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