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Review of  Sociolinguistic Variation in Seventeenth-Century France

Reviewer: Wendy Anderson
Book Title: Sociolinguistic Variation in Seventeenth-Century France
Book Author: Wendy Ayres-Bennett
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): French
Issue Number: 16.1941

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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

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.

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.


Lodge, R. A. (2004) A Sociolinguistic History of Parisian French,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 052182088X
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 280
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