Saturday, May 13, 2017


In English, "re-" is a moderately productive derivational prefix - reboot, remake, redo... In French, though, it seems more like an incorporated adverb - it's practically the main way you say "again": remanger (eat again), repleuvoir (rain again), redire (say again) are all perfectly normal. It's even possible to say ravoir (have again), although it seems to be less and less frequent.

Now a number of states are expressed in French with the verb avoir "to have" plus a bare noun: avoir faim "to be hungry", avoir peur "to be afraid", avoir besoin "to need" etc. Given the preceding remarks, you would naturally assume that "need again" should be ravoir besoin - and, indeed, it is possible to find this expression at least in 19th century texts, eg:

Rentré dans le journalisme, cet esprit capable, mais aride et paresseux va ravoir besoin de moi. (1856)

It appears to be very little used in the 20th century, though. Instead we hear avoir rebesoin: j'ai rebesoin de ça, I need this again. The only Italian I asked said this is quite impossible in Italian, but even there ho ribisogno gets a few dozen hits on Google (though for all I know they're all second language speakers.)

The fact that besoin appears bare, with no article, already makes it unusual among nouns. The ability to take the prefix re- makes it stand out even more: you certainly can't say *revoiture (car again) or *repain (*bread again). So maybe it's not a noun any more? It certainly looks like it's become kind of verby; but what can we label it? In an Australian context, the uninflected element of a complex verb would be called a preverb, but apart from suggesting the wrong order of elements, this term has way too many different meanings depending on which part of the world you're in. Perhas, as in Japanese, we could call besoin a verbal noun - although that, too, is all too potentially ambiguous. Any better terminological suggestions are welcome.


David Marjanović said...

In a German context it'd be a separable prefix... except, of course, that it's always "separated" (postposed)... still, that would explain rebesoin as a prefix chain.

John Cowan said...

It seems that soin and besoin were borrowed separately from Frankish: certainly the Germanic prefix be- is not functioning as a prefix in a French context.

English has lost, or never acquired, the other sense of re- 'thoroughly', as in frijoles refritos 'thoroughly friend beans', falsely calqued as refried beans. On the other hand, it is happy to add re- to native stems, which is not the case in Dutch, e.g.

Etienne said...

Hmm. The trouble is that, to this native speaker, while "avoir rebesoin" sounds okay, *"avoir refaim" or *"avoir resoif" or *"avoir repeur" are quite impossible: However we may wish to define RE-, "avoir rebesoin" seems to be the exception and not the rule in terms of its combinatory possibilities.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

David: I'm not quite sure I understand the point you're making.

John: I hadn't realised these were Frankish borrowings, but that does make sense of the be-.

Etienne: Astute observation. The question then arises: are there any other morphosyntactic differences between "besoin" and the rest? I can't think of any offhand, but one curious point I do notice: you can say "j'en ai grand besoin", but a quick Google search suggests that no one says "*j'en ai grand rebesoin".

David Marjanović said...

Oh, I was just rambling. Basically, besoin in this fixed expression doesn't seem to be understood as a noun anymore – just in this one, not e.g. in j'en ai grand besoin.

petre Tepner said...

Rebonjour, Lameen

I think David may be on to something. "Besoin" has been kind of de-nominalized. Similarly(?) from my partner's (Belgo-Algerian) lips: "Je sais qu'on a mangé y'a pas une heure, mais j'ai refaim". My tentative analysis would be a displaced "re-" because the verb "avoir" does not easily carry it. Compare also (supporting David's thesis?) the attested but 'wrong' "J'ai beaucoup besoin...", "j'ai énormément faim"... Adjectives/adverbs??

Blasius Blasebalg said...

Is the situation in English and French (before "rebesoin") really that different from a syntactical point?

I would rather say that the meaning differs:
In English, re-X verbs (especially neologisms) often express either
"restore the effect of X by repeating X" or "changing the result of X by repeating X".

In other words, the action must have been undone or voided somehow in between.
"Rebuild" is a good example which usually implies destruction in between.
"Rewrite" may take place after erasure;
otherwise, it is about replacing the original document (the second option), not just creating another one.

(Under the first meaning, "re-" is a partial parallel to the also highly productive prefix "un-".)

These meanings are more specific than "again" for French, so we should expect lower frequency.

However, I don't see much difference in the syntax. It is not separable from the verb, and therefore a prefix.

I think you're right that in French, the function is not that of a regular prefix, namely creating new verbs, but just changing the "mode" of the orginal word (which we should call "repetitive" for a single repetition - contrasting with "iteratives" for many repetitions found all over the world). The English prefix works rather like other verbal satellites like "back" or "down".

(There is also a phonetic difference: While in English, "re-" may carry a secondary stress - for emphasis or in general -, this likely doesn't happen very often in French. So rather in English, the prefix might at some point be re-analyzed (!) as an adverb.)

Of course, this doesn't concern your main point - it is intriguing that the prefix spreads to other elements of speech. Thanks for sharing!

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Blasius: Good point about the difference in meaning. Whether that makes a syntactic difference or not depends on how much semantic heavy lifting you prefer your theory of syntax to do (Distributed Morphology is a good example of how far that can go.)