French & Anglo-Saxon ways of thinking

French thinking at Villandry

Having spent virtually all of my adult life within “Anglo-Saxon” cultures and institutions (not least in the hyper-English milieu of The Economist), I must have adopted Anglo-Saxon ways of thinking.

And what are those?

In this post, I’ll try to describe them, by contrasting the Anglo-Saxon mind with what I consider to be its foil or opposite.

Which is to say: French thinking.

And I’ll do that with just three little examples plucked from life:

  1. gardens
  2. cities
  3. laws

1) French and English gardens

In 1992, I spend my summer in Tours, France — allegedly learning the local language but mostly biking along the Loire and its tributaries with friends, visiting the various chateaux in that area.

I was twenty-two at the time, and gardening was not necessarily foremost in my thoughts. And yet, the gardens of those chateaux left an impression. That’s because I had an intuition that they explained a lot else I was observing in the country

Look at the garden of the Chateau of Villandry, above. Or look at the same castle from another view:

More French thinking

The principle that guides this and all “jardins à la française” is the expression of mastery over nature.

A landscaper imposes, through his reason, absolute and mathematically Cartesian symmetry and order onto what would otherwise be disorder.

It is a top-down notion of order. In fact, these gardens are best viewed from above, which is why almost all the chateaux are laid out so that there is a viewing platform above the jardins (as in the picture).

English landscaping developed largely in response to French landscaping and spread to many non-French parts of Europe.

The difference is striking. Here, for instance, is a view of the Englischer Garten, a huge park in the center of Munich, where I grew up:

Yup, those are sheep, in the middle of Munich.

Munich’s Englischer Garten was conceived during the Enlightenment by an Englishman, and the German landscapers to this day observe its “Anglo-Saxon” landscaping philosophy. Here, for instance, is a recent addition, a theater:

Let’s try to make the philosophy behind this landscaping style explicit:

If the French approach is to display top-down mastery of nature with an imposition of order, the English way is to integrate the human into nature, to adjust to the spontaneous or “bottom-up” order of nature itself.

The best way to enjoy such a garden is in fact “from below” — ie from the ground. You’re assumed to be in the garden, not looking down on it from above.

To give this the subtlety it deserves: English gardening does not deny the ability of man to create order (after all, there still is a landscaper). But the landscaper takes a much more humble approach to nature, choosing to see order in its disorder and incorporating its “accidents”.

Let me use a different phrase: The English landscaper “muddles through“.

2) Paris and London

Now think of the two cultures’ capitals as a “tale of two gardens,” writ large.

The “landscaper” of modern Paris was Baron Haussmann (Alsatian, hence the German name, but French). Between 1852 and 1870, he imposed order on the medieval street warren that Paris had been.

Here is the new Paris as he conceived it:

Haussmann's Paris

Boulevards (in red) as straight as swords now cut through the organically evolved webbing of streets, to clear vistas and let armies parade.

And that’s not enough. Along these straight boulevards, the houses must meet regulations as precise as Cartesian math. They stand in a row like soldiers being mustered:

Now London:

A century before Haussmann (and shortly after Descartes’ death), medieval London was burnt down in the The Great Fire of 1666. To the French, this would have been an opportunity to remake London in a rational and orderly way. There even was an equivalent of Baron Haussmann: It was Sir Christopher Wren, the great architect of many churches, including St Paul’s Cathedral.

What did Sir Christopher do? It was very English. He largely honored the network of streets as it had evolved over time. Using legal jargon, you might say that he respected stare decisis (“stand by things decided”).

Adhering to precedent, he then proceeded to … muddle through.

And that’s what London has been doing since. This is its street grid today:

In fact, that picture does not do its organic beauty/chaos (depending on your point of view) justice. London, unlike Paris, is not one city (even politically). It is many cities and towns that grew together. Each bit retains its own charms and problems, and the connections are haphazard and arbitrary.

London cabbies, in fact, spend years learning what they call “the knowledge” to navigate this maze. And London’s streetscapes are full of surprises, both positive and questionable:

3) Code Napoléon v Common Law

French law is a code. In some ways it goes back to Roman law, but its direct ancestor is the Code Napoléon of 1804.

Napoleon, being not only French (well, sort of) but a product of the Enlightenment, believed in the power of reason to impose order (here meaning justice) from above on the chaos of life, the infinite number of situations that can arise and must be adjudicated. The result was a document. Here is its famous first page:

Legal thinking in France and all other civil-law systems is therefore a process of deduction: You find the general principle in the code, then apply it to the instance in real life.

English law is not a code. In fact, England does not even have a written constitution (as its Anglo-Saxon nephew America does). Sure, there are statutes, laws written by legislators over time. But the core of the system in all Anglo-Saxon countries is the common law.

And what is it? In essence, it is the history of all former cases.

For about a millennium, the English have been considering each new case by comparing it with precedents, a bit as Sir Christopher Wren built St Paul’s on the site of the former church that had burnt down.

Which issues does this case raise? Aha, then it must be like X. But it is different, so it must also be like Y. And so on.

The process is inductive: The Anglo-Saxon mind starts with the particular, searches for a general principle, returns to the particular, adjusts the general principle, and so forth.

Put differently, the English mind muddles through.

Conclusion: Churchill vs Balladur

This post has been muddling through by inducing from particulars to generals. I will leave you with two quotes by former prime ministers that I think say it all:

Edouard Balladur of France:

What is the market? It is the law of the jungle. And what is civilization? It is the struggle against nature.

Winston Churchill:

The English know how to make the best of things. Their so-called muddling through is simply skill at dealing with the inevitable.

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When a dog is not a Dogge

As you know by now, I am an amateur etymologist (ie, one who is probably wrong most of the time). And when I’m not tracing words from Western languages to Sanskrit, I like to ponder the languages I know best, which are English and German.

And it’s the little quirks that I enjoy.

Thus, for instance, it is no surprise at all that most Anglo-Saxon words in English have the same, or a very similar, root as their German equivalents:

  • arm = Arm
  • finger = Finger
  • (to) begin = begin(nen)
  • (to) bring = bring(en)
  • and so on.

Slightly more interesting is the subtle but cumulatively substantive change in connotation of certain words that once (in the fifth century) were the same:


  • come = kom(men), and
  • become = bekom(men)

But (and this has caused much humorous confusion), bekommen in German now means get, not become. Keep this in mind next time you hear a German tourist inquiring of his waiter whether he might please become a hot dog.

And here is the one that really puzzles me. Etymologically, it is obvious that

  • dog = Dogge, and
  • hound = Hund

Except that something strange has happened.

Dog is the generic English word for the entire species. But Dogge is the specific German words for just one breed within that species, the one English speakers call … the Great Dane (thus dragging a third Germanic nation into this).

Hund, meanwhile, is the German word for the species, whereas hound is a somewhat more specific English word for a type of dog used for hunting, such as this one:

Divided by a common language, as Churchill might have said once again, had he also known German.
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On English (and other dialects of Sanskrit)

I mentioned en passant in the previous post that the Sanskrit word vira, hero, is related to the Latin vir, man, and thus to our virtue and virility. And, of course, to the Modern Hindi vir, brave. (Thank you, Susan.)

Well, that sort of thing brings out the language geek in me, and I can’t help myself. There is something beautifully mysterious in this common Indo-European heritage (pictured above just after the fall of the Western Roman Empire) of our Western languages and this Eastern Ur-language, Sanskrit. It is like visiting very distant relatives and suddenly seeing a nose, a toe, a tilt of the head or an allergic sneeze that is exactly like your own and makes you imagine the stories of the past that unite you.

So indulge me in some word play.

The easiest way to compare languages is by counting to ten in them. Look how incredibly similar most of these word roots have stayed across millenia and continents:

Latin French German English

unus un eins one

duo deux zwei two

tres trois drei three

quattuor quatre vier four

quinque cinq fünf five

sex six sechs six

septem sept sieben seven

octo huit acht eight

novem neuf neun nine
dasa decem dix zehn ten

But the real magic starts when you compare more meaningful words, because then you see not only their etymology but the genealogy of concepts and meanings (this used to be a hot field, called philology, and is how Nietzsche arrived at his philosophy about the evolution of morals).


Since I used the word magic, let’s start there. It “comes from” the Sanskrit word maya, whence the Latin magicus, French magique, German Magie.

Of all these, the Sanskrit word is by far the most interesting and nuanced and deep. It points to a philosophical and religious concept. Maya means magic in the sense of cosmic illusion, the metaphysical head-fake that our senses play on us. We think we exist in our mortal bodies in this changing world, but if we pierce the magic (maya) by making our minds completely still, we realize that there is only pure energy (Brahman) and our soul (Atman) merges into this void.

Bonus: Compare that last word, Atman (soul) with the German atmen (breathe).


Yoga not only means, but is the root of, union. But it gets more interesting. Yoga is also related to the Latin junctio, French joindre, English join.

Its Germanic descendants resemble it even more closely: German Joch, English yoke. (English, as is its wont, gets the root twice, once via Saxon and once via Norman French.)

A yoke at first does not seem very yogic. But if you think about it, that’s a matter of technological connotation. We yoke an ox to a cart, thereby imprisoning him. But in yoga, you yoke (connect, join, unite) your breath to your mind, thence to your soul (Atman), and thence to one-ness or union (Brahman), thereby liberating yourself.


Maharaja means great king in Sanskrit. So it has two words: maha (great) and raja (king). Now recognize:

  • maha → Latin magnus (great), French majeur, German macht (might), English might & major
  • raja → Latin rex/regina (king/queen), French roi, German Reich/reich/reichen (empire/rich/reach), English rich, reach, regal, royal

And so it goes on and on and on…

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The hip, swinging world of lexicography

Erin McKean

Erin McKean

Words are alive, says Erin McKean in this TED talk below. She is a lexicographer, shares my geeky infatuation with words and will make equally gratuitous use of the bizarre ones.

Here she deplores the dictionary industry, which has been frozen in time. As a dictionary editor she no longer wants to be a

traffic cop

who “lets in the good words and keeps out the bad words.” Instead, she would rather be a


who casts his net into the ocean of English to find what is there.

In another talk, she points out how worldview affects our relationship to language. Noah Webster–the Webster–apparently thought that all languages derive from Chaldean, since Noah–the Noah–spoke Chaldean and, well, he was the only one who survived the flood, wasn’t he?

(Also in that talk: Why “ass hat” is a great word, but not one that will make it into her dictionary. Defined as: Somebody who behaves as though he were wearing his ass as a hat.)

Herewith, the TED talk:

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Shakespeare’s “Like you like it”, part II

You may snicker at me, but I can’t help myself. eTrade just sent me one of those polished, glossy, over-produced marketing emails, informing me that:

you can diversify like never before with an E*TRADE Global Trading account.

Like never before? Do they speak English? Do they vet their junk mail? Is this supposed to be folksy (lest they sound “elitist”)?

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here is my earlier post on the subject.

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