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dimanche 31 janvier 2010

address/speech, shut/shutter, close/shut

Le présent billet a été rédigé par Jonathan Goldberg, que je remercie.

President Obama delivered his State of the Union Address on Wednesday night, marking the completion of one year of his term of office.

An immediate linguistic question that arises is why this is called an “address”, rather than a “speech”. Both would be translated into French as “discours”. Readers are invited to explain “address” as the choice of the English word.

The reason why reference is made to the “State of the Union” and not to the “State of the Nation” is that the Constitution of the United States stipulates that “The President shall from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union….”

The President delivered his typically articulate speech in his habitually eloquent English. His use of one word “shuttered”, however, was puzzling and probably wrong. This is the complete sentence from his Address:

“Many businesses have shuttered.”

The Collins English Dictionary - Complete and Unabridged 6th Edition 2003.

Shutter (tr.)

1. to close with or as if with a shutter or shutters

2. (Miscellaneous Technologies / Building) to equip with a shutter or shutters

The key point to note is that this is listed as a transitive verb. Transitive verbs, as is well known, take objects. “Many businesses have shuttered” is clearly a use of “to shutter” as an intransitive verb.

This may, on the face of it, seems like a technical difference in grammar. But to anyone with a predilection for correct English usage, “have shuttered” is jarring. “have been shuttered” simply sounds better. Better still would have been “have closed their shutters”. A more succinct term to express the same idea would have been “have shut”.

The verbs “to shut” and “to shutter” are from the same root. Until 1540 a “shutter” was someone who shuts. From 1683 it came to be defined as a “moveable wooden or iron screen for a window".

One synonym of “to shut” is “to close”. It is difficult to define the difference between them, because in some contexts they are used entirely interchangeable (e.g. to shut the door, to close the door), whilst in others only one is properly used (e.g. He closed his comments with an appeal”; “He told her to shut up.”

The situation becomes more complicated when one considers the noun “close”, which generally means “conclusion”, e.g. He brought the show to a close.

The adjective “close” is pronounced differently from the verb or the noun and means something quite different – “near”, e.g. He was near/close to victory. However, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com), the adjective “close” derives from the Latin clausus, the past participle form of claudere, meaning “"stop up, fasten, shut" This brings us in full circle back to our opening remarks about “to shut” and “to shutter”. The Latin word clausus entered Old French as clos, meaning “confined”, and in the late fifteenth century the sense of the English adjective close shifted to “near” by way of "closing the gap between two things."

At first glance, the problem of partial overlapping of the English verbs “to close” and “to shut” does not seem to exist in French, because “fermer” covers both those verbs. Vive le français! But wait : in several cases where one would use “to close” or to shut” in English, French offers other alternatives, depending on the context, e.g.

route closed to traffic route            interdite à la circulation

to close the proceedings                 mettre fin a OU clore

to close the meeting                        lever la séance

to close the gap                              réduire l’intervalle OU combler le fossé

to close ranks                                serrer les rangs

to shut somebody in a room          Enfermer quelqu’un dans une chambre

Shut your mouth!                          Ta gueule !

Vive les complexités et les pièges des deux langues, ainsi que la difficulté de traduire de l’une à l’autre.

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