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Review of  French - An Accommodating Language? / Le français: langue d'accueil?

Reviewer: Henri-José Deulofeu
Book Title: French - An Accommodating Language? / Le français: langue d'accueil?
Book Author: Sue-Ellen Wright
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): French
Issue Number: 12.1072

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Wright, Sue, ed. (2000) French, an accommodating language?
/ Le fran�ais: langue d'accueil?, Multilingual Matters,
Hbk ISBN 1-85359-504-7, GBP29.95 / US$49.95.

Henri-Jose Deulofeu, Universite de Provence, France

For an extended description of this book the reader should refer
to Bert Cornillie's review, LINGUIST List 12.871, Wed Mar 28 2001.
I will only give here the essential landmarks useful for the
discussion of the main issues dealt with in the critical part of
the review. This book is a collection of papers on the topic of
linguistic processes of borrowing in French language and the
recent developments (if any) in French speakers and institution's
attitudes towards actual borrowings, specially from English.

The papers are presented in the following way: a core
paper by the French linguist Henriette Walter and seven
papers by scholars from British universities discussing the
core paper.

Such an encounter is not an haphazard one. Henriette Walter
stands out both as an academic specialist of French language
history and as a well-known media figure, who is invited as
an expert in numerous debates on the mutual influence of
French and English language (see Cornillie's references to
H. Walter's books) . Two days ago, I listened to her
presenting on France Inter radio her last book on this
topic: Walter (2001). For their own part, British
specialists of French have recently given extremely
valuable and original contributions to the progress of
French language studies. Let me just quote H's book on the
history of French, Offord's French Words, or again the
remarkable introduction to French syntax by Jones (1998).
More than a confrontation, the book shows up as a
cooperative attempt to show:

1)that the current image of French as a non accommodating
language doesn't rely on the observation of actual speakers'
practice: Walter presents an impressive list of various
kinds of borrowings which have been introduced all along
French history, as well as contemporary tendencies. Her
analysis is supplemented by Offord's contribution, who
shows that 'the etymological routes' by which the words are
'brought, fetched or sent' from one language to an other
reflect the positive process in which societies and
cultures exchange and interact.

2) That this conservative image is in fact derived from
specific elite speakers groups or official institutions
attitudes and discourses denouncing borrowing processes.
This is the basic contribution of British papers.
Gardner shows that the very word 'borrowing' is a trace of
linguistic purist ideology and should be replaced by
'adoption' or 'cloning' if one's want to be in keeping with
the observed dynamic and heterogeneous functioning of
language. Specifically:
Jean-Marc Dewaele shows that the Humboldtian paradigm was
in fact adopted by many famous contemporary linguists, as a
basis for their purist attitude.
Dennis Ager in "The political dimension of borrowing",
opposes the various social processes which back
'borrowings' (colonialism, immigration, cultural contact)
to the global rejection of these contributions by French
Administration and leading authorities, as threads against
nation unity, one of the fundamental values of French
republican ideology.
Emmanuelle Lebeau adds indirect evidence for this stance,
showing that purist prohibition is less strong in a
peripheral French speaking country as is Belgium.
Rodney Ball suggests that spelling and written language is
the field where the myth of French as an united and fixed
language is mostly shared by language leader groups,
institutions and public opinion, so that any modification
in spelling is deemed to failure.

3) Ann Judge's paper could be seen as bringing some hope of
solving the contradiction between points 1 and 2. She
suggests that, as more and more users are considering
borrowing as 'useful' and 'very modern', all parties are
going to change their attitude towards a more accommodating
one, so that the idea that French is a 'living' language
and not only an 'ideal' language is going to be at last

Basically, I agree with Cornillie's general appraisal that
this book "provides a very suitable and solid foundation
both for a fruitful theoretical discussion on the
modalities of borrowing and for the far-reaching debate on
the position of language in state organizations and the
repercussions on the opinions of its citizens". Yet, I will
not totally agree with him when he says: "it is a
successful attempt to combine linguistic description with
more socio-political considerations". In my opinion, as
usual whenever these topics are mixed in a discussion,
linguistic description is not as deeply elaborated as it
should be. Discussants are satisfied with shallow
linguistic analysis of the phenomena investigated. I will
try to show, on the contrary, that a deeper linguistic
insight, in itself required for argumentation sake,
could have been useful even for the discussion of more
sociolinguistic oriented topics.

I) The choice of a theoretical framework: Is the borrowing
or the non-borrowing situation the normal one in language
In her core paper Henriette Walter (HW)doesn't refer to an
explicit theoretical framework. This is probably the proper
way for media debates, but it can be misleading for a
scientific discussion. A kind of Sapir-Whorf oriented
background is referred to in opening the paper:"if being
a linguist consists in the final analysis of trying to
establish how one language differs from all the others,
then the questions of borrowing must be examined in the
outmost detail" (p.31). In such a framework, borrowings
appear as breaking the unity and systematic features of a
given language. It seems that speakers have to be
accommodating in spite of, or even against, the very nature
of their language. Borrowing appears as an extraordinary
process implying some effort or willingness from the part
of the borrowers, whereas those who want to prevent the
borrowings seem in keeping with the nature of language.
Suppose, on the contrary, that we choose a theoretical
framework based on some variant of 'principle and
parameters model' (this includes the new variants of
typological approaches). Here, 'to be a linguist' will
consist in establishing both what languages have in common
(principles) and in what they differ (choice of values of
the parameters). As we know by historical evidence that
languages are 'in contact', the borrowing will merely
consist in the fact that some language activates a new
possible value of some parameter under the influence of the
other. In such a model, the distance between borrowing and
internal innovation is reduced: it is the prevention of
the borrowing that needs some effort (institutional
Another theoretical choice which is pointed out by almost
all discussants is the lack of sociolinguistic
perspective. The model of HW is the one of the ideal
speaker of French: the French language is supposed to be the
same for all kinds of speakers. Such an assumption may bias
the description, as we will show later.
Furthermore, in its internal logic, HW's framework lacks
consistency. She tries to combine the synchronic
structuralist model previously referred with an
etymological approach of borrowing. This leads indeed to
appealing formulas, as when she says that French can
entirely "dress in Italian", meaning that the words for
each piece of dressing has an Italian etymology. But this
mix up of synchronic and diachronic analysis leads also to
some puzzling descriptive results, when, for instance, HW
tries to recapture the augmentative meaning of the
Italian suffix 'one' in loan words ending in -on(p.43):"ballon,
espadon, barbon, bouffon, caisson, saucisson, violon,
fronton. In the final list the Italian augmentative suffix
-one is easily recognized . However one should be wary of
over-hasty interpretations, because if ballon is a big ball
and cale�on (underpants) is etymologically a big 'calza'
(stocking), the endings seem illogical in carafon, which today
has come to mean a small carafe; capuchon (little cape) or
medaillon (little medal). A synchronic structural analysis
would have shown that these words have in fact been
borrowed as wholes lexical units: French did not borrow
the derivational Italian pattern. there is no productive
'-on' suffix in contemporary French. Generally speaking, no
distinction is made between borrowings of individual words
and borrowings of morphological or syntactic productive

II) This mix up of perspectives somewhat obscures many
interesting descriptive issues which are raised all along
the book.

A) Are there borrowings of syntactic structures?
The given examples are not totally convincing. Some are
instances of pure etymological reconstructions from what
are in modern French lexical units or idioms:
Toponomy of the north of France, where the Germanic
influence was most felt provides a number of examples of
structures where the German word order prevails -- in
Azincourt the noun comes after the adjective. (p 37)
In other cases, productive or semi-productive contemporary
French constructions are quite arbitrarily related to other
languages constructions: Distributional regularities
internal to modern French explain the contrast: "Il
nourrissait de noirs desseins / *elle portait une noire
robe" (p. 38), without the need to suppose a German influence.
To say that in 'le top du top' (the best of all), an anglicism,
is allied to a hebraism is a nice etymological
reconstruction, but the 'superlative' meaning of the
construction Le N1 des N1 (le Roi des Rois) could be
explained as a natural extension of the core meaning of the
French construction as well as the result of hebraic
"superlative genitive" influence, as suggested (p. 45). As I
pointed out in Deulofeu (2000), syntactic French structures
generally reveal themselves as remarkably stable after careful

B) What is the status of Classical Latin derivational morphology?
In the presentation of the various source languages of loan
words, HW sets apart borrowings from classical Latin
without giving any explanation. HW is following a well
established tradition, but in doing so, she avoids an
interesting issue: what are the structural criteria which
distinguish these loans? After all, classical Latin is a
distinct language from French as well as English is. The
only difference could be that this words where borrowed as
elements of a whole system of derivational morphology and
not as a mere list of items. But this issue should be
studied very carefully within a linguistic and
sociolinguistic framework.
Linguistically, the derivational patterns are not totally
adopted by the French linguistic system as they form a
subsystem of their own: Classical Latin suffixes apply, according
to specific morphophonological rules, only to Latin stems and not
to genuine French stems. Compare regular inflectional 'appel-
assions' (past subjunctive 'we should have called'), with schwa in
the last syllable of the root, and learned derived noun appell-
ation (result of calling) with the exact Latin stem ('e'
pronounced as a front middle vowel).
The case seems exactly the same as for the English loan
suffix -ing described on p 51, which could even be considered
as more integrated, as it can combine with French stems in words
which don't exist in English, e.g.'bronzing' (tanning). quoted on
On sociolinguistic grounds, one can ask how many speakers
have really internalized the 'Latin derivational
subsystem'. For the majority of French speakers, this
subsystem is only (partially) acquired after hard school
It could thus be possible to conclude in a provocative mood
that the reasons why these Latin words are considered as
more French than other loans are more ideological than
linguistic internal. These considerations lead naturally to
the issue of the relationship between borrowings and
internal innovation or creations.

C) Borrowings and internal innovation. On p.50, under the heading
'new derivation', HW mentions a large number of words like
humoriste, bagage, disqualifier, and comments:" these words
could very easily have evolved in French; however they did not and
were, in fact, taken from English [and] in the short term they
have been considered as barbarisms."
Then a more general question deserves to be asked: Is it a
structural feature of standard French that any kind of
lexical innovation seems to be blocked, namely that
motivated aspects of language (through free derivations)
tend to disappear of the system? Or is it that some
arbitrary normative constraint prevents internal innovation?
Evidence provided by the papers is in favor of the
second hypothesis. Should we then conclude that French
speakers have no other choice than borrowing when they need
new words or expressions? Do French need external
influence to activate new parameters of their linguistic

D) Unnecessary borrowings. HW presents p. 49 a "provisional
typology of borrowings" which reflects the interplay of structural
and sociolinguistic issues discussed up to now. This typology
uses both formal criteria (borrowings of both form and
meaning, of form only with changes in meaning, and
borrowing of meanings with translations or calques of
forms) and a functional one for the fourth class:
"borrowings which are unnecessary in that the root from
which the word comes exists in both French and English".
Interestingly enough there is no clear example of this
On the contrary, in all the cases where purists could advocate
for an existing French word, HW shows that the loan is not an
unnecessary loan (ex p.48): 'live recording' would be not
adequately replaced by 'en direct' as there is a subtle
difference (live show or live program). As I pointed out
above, even in the case of perfect synonymy, the use of the
English word has almost an associate meaning for French
speakers: 'I am creative and up to date'.

III) Is French accommodating to its internal variation?
Ann Judge is right in pointing out that French normative
attitudes are softening. But this happens essentially with
regard to external borrowing. The normative defiance
towards non standard French variants is still very strong.
In 1998, when the French soccer team won the World
Championship, the mass media praised the multiracial and
multicultural composition of the team. They appreciate
positively the contribution of players from various origins
in improving national team playing style. But they would
certainly not consider as a contribution to French language
style the non standard constructions which some of the
players produced during media interviews. Even if in saying
"la menace que mon ami Lizarazu a �t� sujet est pas
acceptable" (the thread to which was submitted my friend
L.) instead of '� la quelle il a �t� sujet', Marcel
Dessailly, son of a Ghanaian immigrant was recapturing a
traditional 'popular' use of French 'que' morpheme
(Deulofeu 81). More seriously, it is true that the media
contribute to make visible and acceptable some non-
standard variants in public uses. But, as Blanche-Benveniste 1997
shows, only a subpart of non standard variants are acceptable in
public use (e. g. the absence of negative particle 'ne' in the
quoted example), many others, like the quoted use of 'que',
stigmatize the speakers as unskilled. We should add that public
written style, on the contrary, remains strongly normative not to
say purist.
Indeed, in spite of the work already done and
ongoing, we are lacking detailed studies on French spoken
and written non-standard varieties to draw definite conclusions in
these matters.

In conclusion, it will surely take a long time to make French as
accommodating as it was in Rabelais's or Montaigne's times, when
the last used to say 'que le gascon y aille si le fran�ais ne peut
y aller' (let say it in Gascon language, if we can't say in


Blanche-Benveniste, C. (1997) Approches de la langue
parl�e, Paris, Ophrys

Deulofeu, J. (1981) Perspective linguistique et
sociolinguistique dans l'�tude des relatives en fran�ais,
Recherches sur le fran�ais parl�,no 3, Publications
Universit� de Provence

Deulofeu, J. (2000) Peut-on parler d'innovation syntaxique en
fran�ais contemporain, Cahiers du CIEP, Paris

Jones, M-A. (1996) Foundations of French syntax, Cambridge
University Press

Lodge, A. (1998) Histoire d'un dialecte devenu langue,
Paris, Fayard

Walter, H. (2001) Honni soit qui mal y pense. L'incroyable
histoire d'amour entre le fran�ais et l'anglais, Paris,
Robert Laffont

Henri-Jos� Deulofeu is Professor in French Linguistics at
Universit� de Provence (France). His fields of interest are
descriptive syntax, variation in spoken French, and corpus