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Review of  French Words: Past, Present and Future

Reviewer: Emmanuelle Labeau
Book Title: French Words: Past, Present and Future
Book Author: Malcolm Offord
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Subject Language(s): French
Issue Number: 12.860

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Offord, Malcolm (2001) French Words: Past, Present and
Future, Multilingual Matters, Modern Languages in Practice
series, 125 pp.

Emmanuelle Labeau, School of Languages and European Studies,
Aston University (Birmingham, UK)

The aim of Offord's short book is "to uncover the ways in
which French words 'work', by approaching them from as many
angles as possible" (p.vii). The volume is made up of three
main parts. The first one does not concentrate on French
words as such as it gives a general introduction to the
concept of words; the first chapter 'Words and their
constituent parts' examines the elements that combine
together to form words whilst the second chapter, 'Words',
presents sense relationships between words.

In the second part, the question of the origin of French
words is raised. 'Words with a long history' covers the
evolution from Classical languages, mainly Latin. Chapter 4,
'Words with a foreign origin', studies later borrowings from
foreign languages.

Finally, 'Words with a short history' presents the processes
of morphological renewal in Modern French.

The book shows a rather unconventional lay-out, described as
"text-bites" (p.viii). Text is punctuated by three types of
frame that allow one to identify the type of information
provided. Definitions are found in thick-lined frames,
vertical grey lines border the main thrust of the
information while dotted lines indicate questions. These,
combined with the general stucture of the text, clearly
indicate that Offors aims at providing a user-friendly
textbook for undergraduates.

Let us now evaluate the content of the book.
Chapter 1 is devoted to the presentation of morphemes that
are first defined, then classified in free and bound
morphemes, the latter being split into non-independent
stems, derivational and inflectional morphemes. Lists of
examples illustrate each of the points presented and a
series of exercises is found towards the end of this basic
introduction to word morphology.

The second chapter offers an inductive definition of words
and related concepts such as lexeme, cluster, lexical set
and semantic field. It then goes on to present "other
associations between words" (p.22) including synonymy,
antonymy, homonymy or hyponymy. A wealth of short and long
(mega) exercises is provided, most of which could fruitfully
be used in the classroom. A final section evokes the number
of French words through a fairly sketchy presentation of
French reference lexicons.

Although illustrated by French examples, the first two
chapters were not exclusively geared to French and offered a
fairly general introduction to morphology. From Chapter 3
onwards, the focus is solely on French language.

Chapter 3 opens on a brief overview of pre-Latin
contributions to the lexis of French ; the input of Germanic
languages is also referred to. The bulk of the chapter is
dedicated to the evolution from Vulgar Latin to French with
special consideration of phonological and semantic changes.
Offord manages to offer simple tables that clearly summarise
the sound changes that occurred during the evolution of
Vulgar Latin in the Gauls' usage. The section devoted to
word meanings adopts a more thematic presentation with the
mention of popular and learned words, of affixes and of
mechanisms (euphemism, metaphor, metonymy) responsible for
change in meanings.

Chapter 4, which deals with words of foreign origin, opens
on a discussion of the methodological difficulties met in
establishing what a foreign word is. Then, the mechanisms
and reasons for borrowing are described before foreign
borrowings in French are listed. Six categories are
distinguished: borrowings from (1) Celtic languages, (2)
Germanic languages, (3) Romance languages, (4) dialects of
French and regional languages of France, (5) Hamito-Semitic
languages and (6) other languages. Although informative,
this listing could be criticised on several grounds.
Firstly, the existence of the fourth category, based on
dialects and regional languages, is debatable. Indeed, it
includes words that could well be classified as from Romance
or Germanic origins. Similarly the distinction between
languages, dialects and regional languages is not clear:
Occitan is classified as a Romance language among national
languages and Picard is taken as a dialect while both
languages fulfilled a similar literary role in the Middle
Age. The classification of the same words under different
categories is another problematic feature. For example,
'geyser' appears under borrowing to Icelandic (p.72) and
under borrowing to English (as an intermediary, p.77), words
from Persian origin that passed through many languages
before reaching French are mentioned under English (p.77) or
Hamito-Semitic languages (p.91). It seems therefore that the
peliminary discussion on methodology has not been fully
implemented in the chapter itself.

The final chapter is devoted to the study of neologisms that
are defined as (1) borrowings from other languages (already
studied in chapter 4), (2) internal creations and (3)
changes of meaning of already existing French words. The
last two are detailed in this section. The principles of
derivation, composition, shortenings and verlan - a somewhat
trendy topic - illustrate internal creations whilst changes
of meaning cover the rather heterogeneous domains of
generalisation and specialisation of meaning as well as of
rhetoric devices (metaphor, metonymy, hyperbole) or of
change of word class. The chapter lists many examples of the
processes, even if the grounds for selection are not always
obvious. For example some prefixes relating to science or
technology are listed on page 101; the list is not
exhaustive by any means and the reasons for the selection
are not given. As for suffixes, several categories are drawn
but not justified, for example 'suffixation and nouns and
adjectives 1' gives -aire, -ard, -eur/-euse, -ien, -iste as
suffixes denoting agent and 'suffixation and nouns and
adjectives 2' repeats -eur/ -euse, -ien, -iste with examples
together with elements such as -mane or -phile that seem to
have a different value as they do not function as suffixes
only (e.g. maniaque or philologue). A last point is that the
mechanisms for change of meaning are not all mentioned
either; some rhetoric devices are missing such as
catachresis (antinomy between words: un verre en plastique)
or the process of autonomasis (words created after people's
name like 'poubelle') to give only a few examples.

As a whole, Offord's book is a very informative and simple
introduction to French vocabulary that could be very useful
for undergraduates or as a first reading on the topic. The
numerous exercises could also offer some fresh inspiration
to French teachers although they are not as challenging or
varied as in Wise (1997). The many examples and explanations
of word origin might be less precise than in Walter's books,
however Offord offers a good introductory overview to the

As for the text-bite structure, it has both interests and
disadvantages: the frames allow one to locate quickly
certain types of information such as definitions or
exercises but at the same time, they give a somewhat bitty

Walter, Henriette, 1994, L'aventure des langues en Occident:
leur origine, leur histoire, leur g�ographie, Robert

Walter, Henriette,1988, Le fran�ais dans tous les sens,
Robert Laffont.

Walter, Henriette, 1998, Le fran�ais d'ici, de l�, de l�-
bas, JC Latt�s.

Wise, Hilary, 1997, The vocabulary of Modern French:
Origins, Structure and Function, Routledge, 256pp.

Emmanuelle Labeau studied French linguistics and Literature at the
Universit libre de Bruxelles (Belgium) where she also did a master
degree in Infodoc (Natural Language Processing and Information). She
is about to submit a PhD thesis on the French past tenses at Aston
University (Birmingham, UK) where she teaches French, history of the
language, French in Belgium, interpreting and translation.
Her research interests include French past tenses, evolution of
French and French in Belgium.


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