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LINGUIST List 24.690

Wed Feb 06 2013

Review: Historical Linguistics; Linguistic Theories; Semantics; Syntax; French: Waltereit (2012)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <rajivlinguistlist.org>

Date: 20-Dec-2012
From: Paul Isambert <zappathustrafree.fr>
Subject: Reflexive Marking in the History of French
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-3330.html

AUTHOR: Richard Waltereit
TITLE: Reflexive Marking in the History of French
SERIES TITLE: Studies in Language Companion Series 127
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Paul Isambert, Université de Tours


The book is a study of clause-mate anaphora (i.e. when a pronoun is used for
reference to the subject of the clause), and related phenomena, in French. The
approach is diachronic, tracking the evolution of usage and the distribution
of alternations across time.

Chapter 1 introduces the facts: the difference of distribution of “soi”
(‘him(self)’, ‘her(self)’ or ‘them(selves)’) versus “lui”/ “elle” (‘him’/
‘her’); the use versus absence of “-même” (‘-self’) with those pronouns; and
the distribution of intensifiers. The author also acknowledges his tie to the
framework of Construction Grammar and proceeds to distinguish between
coreference (i.e. a discourse relation) and binding (i.e. a grammatical one:
the slots of a construction are coindexed), remarking than a binding
construction doesn't preclude coreference. Finally, the importance of
reflexives cross-linguistically is stressed (while “brute force
reflexivization” (Reuland, 2005), i.e., coindexation marked with ordinary
pronouns, could be, and is sometimes, used).

Chapter 2 addresses the theory of anaphora. The author first reiterates the
above-mentioned distinction between coreference and binding and then discusses
specificity (an important side-issue), noting in particular that a
non-specific noun phrase can be reinterpreted as specific as the discourse
proceeds. Binding Theory (Chomsky, 1981), associated problems, and tentative
solutions (from both generativism and functionalism) are then reviewed. The
author's main point is that non-complementarity is the rule and
complementarity should be motivated, not the other way around; in other words,
reflexive and personal pronouns can normally both be used to denote
coreference. It is remarked that non-specific subjects allow binding alone.
Finally, the author critiques the position that the “soi”/ “lui”
(reflexive/personal pronoun) alternation reflects argumenthood: where a
pronoun is allowed to mark coreference to the subject, it signals the slot it
fills as an adjunct. But data show, at least in French, that this is a matter
of construction: some verbs collocate with reflexives while others do with

In Chapter 3, the author analyzes diachronic data, tracking the progressive
decrease in the use of “soi” versus “lui”/ “elle” from Old French to the
present time. The former is now mostly used for non-specific antecedents; in
that respect, “on” (‘one’) (i.e. an exclusively non-specific subject in
written French) always triggers “soi”. However, inspection of particular
verbal constructions reveals that the use of “soi” is not steadily decreasing,
but rather develops on a predicate-by-predicate basis; in some cases, “soi” is
still widely used even with a specific subject. Such a finding stresses the
importance of constructions when studying the evolution of one item. Finally,
the author confirms the rare use of “soi” with plural antecedents, namely due
to the semantic properties of the distributive plural, ill-fitted for binding.

Chapter 4 investigates the use of “lui/ “elle” versus the reinforced versions
“lui”/ “elle” + “-même”. The author distinguishes reflexive predicates from
coindexation of arguments: a predicate can be reflexive without taking a
coindexed argument (e.g. ‘John washes’) and the reverse is also true (e.g.
‘John never carries money with him’). Then it is argued that “-même” doesn't
mark the pronoun it attaches to, but rather the related predicate, creating a
new one with focus on reflexivity. A difference in distribution can be found
along the following lines:

(1) Jean pense à lui et moi et ...
John thinks of himself and me and ...
(2) Jean pense à lui-même.
John thinks of himself.

In (1), focus is on the pronoun; John thinking of himself is paralleled by
John thinking of other entities. In (2), the entire predicate is focused, and
possibly compared with other predicates. That semantic difference is sometimes
even more obvious; to say something to oneself is not the same thing as saying
something to somebody which happens to be you. However, on the diachronic
front, no evolution in the use of simple versus reinforced reflexives can be

In Chapter 5, the author distinguishes (after Siemund, 2000) between three
different uses of the intensifiers “lui”/ “elle” + “-même” (when not used as
reflexives): adnominal (e.g. ‘The king himself’), adverbal-exclusive (e.g. ‘He
wrote the book himself’, meaning he didn't hire a ghost writer), and
adverbal-inclusive (e.g. ‘I'm a teacher myself’, meaning ‘I'm a teacher too’).
The author argues that these three uses are metonymically related, which is
reflected in their gradual apparition over the history of French.

Chapter 6 reviews various approaches to language change, including the
author's own hypothesis on rhetorical devaluation (Detges and Waltereit,
2002): speakers use the most “noteworthy” forms, so much so that those forms
lose their strength, thus becoming new, unmarked constructions. This
hypothesis is then applied to the evolution of negation in French and the rise
of compound past tenses in various languages. The author then returns to the
evolution of “soi” versus “lui”/ “elle”. The alternation is, at least in Old
French, a matter of “Differential Object Marking”: the object of the verb can
be marked in different ways (e.g. Spanish unmarked “a”-marked objects),
according to semantic and contextual criteria. Here, the difference is that
“soi” is less thematic than “lui”/ “elle”, since binding is a grammatical
relation, whereas coreference happens at the level of discourse. Accordingly,
“lui”/ “elle” is stronger than “soi”, hence more “noteworthy”, and was used
more and more often until it became the unmarked form.

Chapter 7 sums up the main findings of each part of the book.


It is important to distinguish between intent and execution when trying to
evaluate this book: the former is laudable, but I've found the latter lacking
in many respects.

The thrust of the book is summarized on page 3: “Diachronic change of
anaphoric systems is inherently interesting because it can provide evidence
likely to inform our knowledge of those systems more widely, in particular
where issues pertaining to Binding Theory are concerned”. This is yet another
shove against the diachrony/synchrony barrier, a move that is becoming more
and more common in recent years with the advent of usage-based approaches to
grammar, to which the author subscribes overtly. Also, in line with
Construction Grammar, the author intends to show that the evolution of
clause-mate anaphor in French isn't one smooth change, but rather a jagged
line in which different predicates evolve at different rates. Hence, a
methodology based on corpora. Also crucial, finally, is the author's stance
that languages are meant to be used and evolve because speakers do things with
them, not because of imperfect learning. In other words, language change is an
inherent property of language, not the side-effect of an external phenomenon.

That is the intent, and I couldn't be more sympathetic; but I was disappointed
that the book didn't live up to those expectations.

First, the book has a patchwork quality that is quite puzzling to the reader;
the central chapters (3 to 5) aren't tied together, as if they were
investigating different phenomena, even though those phenomena involve the
same markers. In particular, it is very surprising that the “soi” versus
“lui”/ “elle” alternation and the simple versus reinforced one are kept
distinct; one would think that the two phenomena have influenced each other,
and if they didn't, that should still be verified. Similarly, the (not so
short) analyses of French negation and compound past tenses in Chapter 6, just
to illustrate the author's point, feel quite out of place.

Second, the author spends a lot of time on theoretical points, and much less
on data. Although reviewing literature is an important step in any research, I
couldn't quite understand why generative hypotheses are discussed at such
length in Chapter 2, all the more as the author subscribes to Construction
Grammar (the cognitive approach of van Hoek, 1995 isn't even mentioned).
Chapter 4 is even more surprising, as the author develops his own hypothesis
(i.e. “même” marks the predicate, not the pronoun) after discussing previous
works, but as far as the history of French is concerned, there is virtually no
result mentioned. Chapter 5, and especially Chapter 6, have the same feeling.

Admittedly, Chapter 3 is concerned almost exclusively with data, and the
distribution of “soi” versus “lui”/ “elle” is even analyzed predicate by
predicate. That is the most satisfying part of the book, or the one with solid
results. More could (and, I believe, should) have been done in that direction;
for instance, how is it that the distribution is influenced by the larger
context, in particular, by the risk of ambiguity? Compare:

(3) Jean entra. Pierre parlait de lui/soi.
Jean came in. Pierre was talking about himself.
(4) Marie entra. Pierre parlait de lui/soi.
Marie came in. Pierre was talking about himself.

In (3), “lui” may refer to both “Jean” or “Pierre”; this is not the case in
(4), under the assumption that no other male participant was previously
mentioned, because “lui” cannot refer to a female participant, thus excluding
“Marie” as a possible antecedent. Is “soi” more often used in contexts like
(3) than in contexts like (4)?

The author links the use of “soi” to non-specificity, but only takes into
account the specificity of the subject. It would have been interesting to
consider aspect too:

(5) Pierre parle souvent de soi/lui.
Pierre often talks about himself.
(6) Pierre est en train de parler de soi/lui.
Pierre is talking about himself.

Is “soi” favored in (5) when compared to (6)? Perhaps there is no such
tendancy, but I think it would have been worth investigating and much more
illuminating than an advanced discussion of Binding Theory. Based on the fact
that this is a usage-based-minded, corpora-driven study, I expected a fine
analysis of usage as exemplified by attested utterances.

Finally, the editing of the book was careless. It is riddled with typos, many
references are missing in the bibliography (e.g. Bouhours, 1676 and Vaugelas,
1647 on page 78, Brunot, 1966 on page 123, Kemmer, 1993 on page 139, Bhat,
2004 on page 140, and so on), and the publisher uses a font (Robert Slimbach's
Minion Pro) without grooming it first. It is widely known (and visible) that
at least this font’s apostrophe character needs grooming, especially with
French, where, e.g., “l'usage” (‘the custom’) otherwise looks like “lusage”,
with a floating accent. The author seems to have been aware of that, and
therefore, introduced spurious spaces in the manuscript -- where sometimes the
line was unfortunately broken (see example (32) on page 32). One may wonder
whether anybody really proofread the book on the publisher's side, which is a
very annoying feeling for which the author cannot be held responsible.

All in all, the book feels rushed; it would have been much stronger with a
greater deal of detailed analysis rather than theorizing. This may of course
be a matter of personal preference, but I strongly believe that corpus
studies, and Construction Grammar on the theoretical side, have cut down
hairsplitting hypotheses in favor of heavy data, and that such an approach is
their major strength.

Due to its subject and its methodology, the book will be of interest to
researchers working on French in either theoretical syntax or historical
linguistics. It is probably too specialized to help students, but the results
it contains can perfectly serve as examples in a course in historical syntax.


Chomsky, Noam. 1981. Lectures on Government and Binding. Dordrecht: Foris.

Detges, Ulrich and Richard Waltereit. 2002. Reanalysis vs. grammaticalization:
A semantic-pragmatic account of functional change in grammar. Zeitschrift für
Sprachwissenschaft 21. 151-195.

Reuland, Eric. 2005. Binding conditions: How are they derived? in S. Müller
(ed.). Proceedings of the HPSG05 Conference. Stanford: CSLI.

Siemund, Peter. 2000. Intensifiers in English and German. A Comparison.
London: Routledge.

van Hoek, Karen. 1995. Conceptual Reference Points: A Cognitive Grammar
Account of Pronominal Anaphora Constraints. Language 71(2). 310-340.


Paul Isambert holds a PhD from the University of Paris 3, France. He is
currently working on grammaticalization of discourse markers and teaches at
the University of Tours, France.
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