Irregular verbs, unlikely agreements between words, arbitrary genders - every grammarian says the same thing: French is a difficult language to master. But what if this very complexity accounts for the success of French-speaking mathematicians?
French is a "dreadfully difficult and complicated language, full of knots", so says the writer Claude Duneton in his column in Figaro Littéraire. Look at all "its irregular verbs, its participles that don't agree, its out-of-control adjectives, its singular plurals and its old-fashioned tenses" - not to mention its totally arbitrary genders. Why is "table" feminine and "desk" masculine, and why is it la rose but le lily?
Even grammarians complain about how difficult French is. Claude Duneton, who takes delight in opposing this widely held view, puts forward what he calls a "perfectly gratuitous hypothesis": "What if this very subtlety and these niceties were one of the secret strengths of French? What if the French language encouraged the development of a mathematical way of thinking?" That would help to explain a great mystery: that "French mathematicians and mathematicians who speak French are at the head of world research".
This article, translated by Culturissima's Dr David Winter, first appeared in the literature section of the French daily newspaper, Le Figaro.