The Public Imperative and the Hortatory ‘Je’

In life, we are constantly surrounded by signs urging us to do or not to do things. In English, they are usually in the imperative mood: Stop, Take one, Cut along dotted line. In the case of interdictions, they might use the gerund: No smoking. In specific cases there may be other syntaxes, but in general these two, the imperative and the gerund, form what might be called the “public imperative” in English.

Not so in French. The simple imperative is still an option, but in place of a gerund an infinitive is often used for interdictions: Défense de fumer. The most obvious difference, however, is that the French public imperative includes a hortatory first-person singular. “Hortatory,” from the Latin hortari “to urge, incite,” refers to a grammatical mood used to encourage (or exhort, which shares an etymology with “hortatory”) someone to do something. In Latin, for example, there’s a hortatory subjunctive; in English, we use let’s for this purpose, i.e. Let’s go to the movies. In French, they use the first-person pronoun je and an appropriately conjugated verb, identical in form to the normal indicative mood. Parisian buses, for example, instruct you how to pay with signs that say Je monte, je valide (“I board, I validate [my ticket]”). In English this sounds condescending; we might teach a child using example sentences about ourselves (“See? I put the blocks back on the shelf when I’m done with them!”) but we’d never speak to an adult that way. But in French there’s no connotation of condescension.

Je signe la pétition !
A French poster urging students to sign a petition for nationalization of student housing.

This poster, which I saw in Paris last month, was put up by the Union des Étudiants Communistes to encourage students to sign a petition to nationalize student housing. The key phrase in the poster is Je signe la pétition ! (“I sign the petition!”), which, again, sounds oddly imbecilic to Anglophone ears. Instead we’d just use the imperative: Sign the petition!

Je vote

A poster urging people to vote in the elections in March 2010.

This somewhat dilapidated poster urges people to vote for the Front de Gauche (Left Front) in the March 2010 regional elections. Je vote, it says, as opposed to the Vote! you’d more likely find in Anglo-America.

Je donne pour l'eglise
A Catholic Church poster.

It’s not just the left that uses the hortatory je; this poster from the Catholic church urges readers to donate by saying En 2011, je donne pour l’eglise ! (“In 2011, I give for the church!”). In English I imagine it would use the imperative and say please: Please give for the church in 2011!

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.


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