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 subject.
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 impression.
References Walter, Henriette, 1994, L'aventure des langues en Occident: leur origine, leur histoire, leur g�ographie, Robert Laffont.
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.