Language Evolution: The Windows Approach addresses the question: "How can we unravel the evolution of language, given that there is no direct evidence about it?"
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Review of Sociolinguistic Variation in Seventeenth-Century France
Date: Thu, 23 Jun 2005 10:14:31 +0100 From: Wendy Anderson Subject: Sociolinguistic Variation in Seventeenth-Century France
AUTHOR: Ayres-Bennett, Wendy TITLE: Sociolinguistic Variation in Seventeenth-Century France SUBTITLE: Methodology and Case Studies PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press YEAR: 2004
Wendy J. Anderson, SCOTS Project, Department of English Language, University of Glasgow, Scotland
Ayres-Bennett's volume approaches historical sociolinguistic variation through a set of case-studies of seventeenth-century French. While the picture of variation which is built up can only be partial, this approach enables the reader to grasp the importance of different parameters of variation in a global sense, and also to see their effects on a micro-level. The case-studies cover topics from a range of linguistic levels -- lexical, phonological, syntactic -- so an understanding of their respective importance may be reached.
Chapter 1 tackles a number of methodological issues surrounding socio-historical linguistic accounts. Quantitative and qualitative methods are discussed, as is the ever-present problem of separating out the different influences involved, and the danger of applying modern-day judgements to seventeenth-century data. Perhaps even more crucial is the question of sources, and this is considered at length here, as a representative corpus is not possible for socio- historical linguistic accounts. The sources drawn on in the study are many and varied, and each type of source is evaluated in its proper context for a faithful interpretation. These are principally metalinguistic texts (including volumes of observations and 'remarques' on language; monolingual dictionaries; formal grammars; linguistic commentaries on grammatical texts); literary texts, in particular from the FRANTEXT electronic archive; and non-literary texts such as journals and informal correspondence.
A further issue is that of linguistic variables. Ayres-Bennett's aim is not to attempt a reconstruction of seventeenth-century French in its entirety, which would be impossible, but to characterise its varieties: for this reason the choice of variables is crucial. While it impossible to say whether the range of variables chosen for the case-studies in each chapter does indeed provide a faithful glimpse of the variety in question, every effort has been made to make this likely. Variables are taken from a wide range of linguistic levels (phonology, morphology, syntax), and the metalinguistic texts themselves have been exploited for the variables, in order to avoid imposing twentieth or twenty-first century expectations on the data.
Each of the four subsequent chapters considers one major parameter of variation: mode (spoken or written); social and stylistic variation; gender; and age. This latter is tied in with a discussion of the relationship between variation and change.
Chapter 2 investigates variation resulting from the choice of spoken or written mode. Spoken language is of course difficult to analyse for past states of a language, as generally only indirect evidence is available (see also Lodge 2004), and even this indirect evidence may not be easy to track down in the 'remarques'. Further evidence may be found in such genres as informal letters which have a potentially close but ultimately unclear relationship with spoken language, but these must also be interpreted with care. A further problem, that of separating systematic sociolinguistic variation from idiolect, relates to the interpretation of isolated documents such as Héroard's journal recording the childhood speech of the future Louis XIII. The features which Ayres-Bennett chooses to focus on in the discussion of this parameter include: the conjugation of passé simple forms; the use of 'on' in place of 'nous'; non-inversion in interrogatives; and characteristics of creoles which may suggest a common history in seventeenth-century French.
Chapter 3 groups together evidence for types of both user- and use- related variation, in considering social class or status as well as register, 'niveau de langue', style and genre. While this seems very wide, it is important to bear in mind that the same feature may well be indicative of more than one factor of variation: certain types of user will tend to use certain styles and avoid others. Ayres-Bennett begins by investigating style labels in seventeenth-century dictionaries, especially Richelet, Furetière and the Academy dictionaries, and moves on to consider the same in the work of the 'remarqueurs' (e.g. Vaugelas, Ménage, Bouhours and de Boisregard). A large part of this chapter investigates variation at the lexical level, comparing the evidence of the metalinguistic texts and FRANTEXT, and analysing lexical features in a corpus of Mazarinades. Pronunciation and syntax receive attention too, with studies of the pronunciation of 'oi', discussed in a large number of metalinguistic texts of the time, and brief mention of the few syntactic constructions which are highlighted as indicating social status.
Chapter 4 is a very enlightening, self-standing study of the language of women in the seventeenth century. This is a fascinating study of this parameter of variation in a period characterised, sometimes paradoxically, by both negative and positive views of women's language, and where the Préciosité movement and salon culture enabled women to build social networks through linguistic differentiation. Particularly important to the evidence are the writings of the two 'women grammarians' of the period: Marie Le Jars de Gournay and Marguerite Buffet. Their comments are compared with the actual usage found in texts by women of the period in FRANTEXT (a subcorpus of 11 texts). Ayres-Bennett concludes that features of lexis and pronunciation appear to characterise women's language more than other features such as syntax: or at least, they are more salient and are commented on more frequently.
The parameter of age variation is the focus of Chapter 5, and this extends quite naturally to the nature of the relationship between variation and change in language as Ayres-Bennett questions whether variation between the generations does indeed necessarily lead to change over time. As a case study in pronunciation, she considers the choice of [o] or [u] in tonic or pre-tonic position (e.g. 'chose' - 'chouse'). Secondly, she carries out a series of studies of individual verb morphologies, comparing the comments of the remarqueurs with usage in dictionaries, translations and the FRANTEXT corpus. Significantly, Ayres-Bennett concludes that the analysis carried out in this chapter does not support the concept of 'chronolecte' (see Caron 2002) which suggests that change happens in periods of about thirty years (a generation), and that changes therefore cluster around certain dates. Rather change is ongoing and gradual over the century. In any case it is difficult to pinpoint where variation becomes change, as even where one variable becomes the more frequent, alternatives may remain in regular use for many decades.
Chapter 6 forms a Conclusion. Instead of seeking to bring the content of all of the chapters together at this point, Ayres-Bennett chooses to use the conclusion to reconsider methodological issues surrounding the investigation of past variation, in light of the analyses carried out. Particularly important in this study was the triangulation of evidence: firmer statements may be made where different types of source pointed towards a similar conclusion. The strong possibility of gaps in the evidence, however, makes definitive conclusions, and certainly quantitative analysis, nearly impossible.
The seventeenth century in France was of course characterised by movements towards standardisation, and a study of variation in this period is therefore especially fascinating, partly because it demonstrates the hardiness and ubiquity of variation, and also because, as Ayres-Bennett notes, the period is a rich source of such information; prescriptivists after all tend to preserve for posterity the features of language which they react against. Anything approaching a complete picture of linguistic variation in a historical period is practically impossible, and even a sketch of such variation is an ambitious undertaking. This volume, however, achieves that superbly well. The result is highly readable, with insights for readers with interests spanning the period, the linguistic levels and the parameters of variation. A conclusion, or final chapter, which attempted to bring together the different parameters of variation and relate these to the social structures of seventeenth-century France would have been a useful addition. The book contains, however, a very clear appendix listing the items making up the author's corpus of metalinguistic texts -- a valuable resource in itself. Separate, comprehensive, indexes of concepts and names are also helpful, whatever the reader's focus of interest.
The book also provides excellent discussion of methodological issues, which frames the case-studies, and reminds the reader throughout that questions of approach should always be at the forefront of one's mind, both as a researcher in historical sociolinguistics, and indeed as a reader of such work. While findings can rarely if ever be definitive, there is a lot of pleasure to be gained from a partial picture whose gaps and uncertainties can be gradually filled in.
REFERENCES Caron, P. (2002) Vers la notion de chronolecte? Quelques jalons à propos du français préclassique, in Sampson and Ayres-Bennett (eds.) (2002) Interpreting the History of French: A Festschrift for Peter Rickard on the Occasion of his Eightieth Birthday, Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, pp. 329-52.
FRANTEXT -- http://www.frantext.fr/
Lodge, R. A. (2004) A Sociolinguistic History of Parisian French, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Wendy Anderson is Research Assistant on the Scottish Corpus of Texts and Speech (SCOTS) project at the University of Glasgow. Her PhD (St Andrews University, 2003) was a corpus study of phraseology and collocation in European Union administrative French. She is also interested in French-English translation, and the languages of Scotland.