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Review of  Lectures de l'Atlas Linguistique de la France de Gilliéron et Edmont

Reviewer: Mélanie Jouitteau
Book Title: Lectures de l'Atlas Linguistique de la France de Gilliéron et Edmont
Book Author: Jean Le Du Yves Le Berre Guylaine Brun-Trigaud
Publisher: Comité des Travaux Historiques et Scientifiques
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): French
Issue Number: 16.3648

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Date: Wed, 21 Dec 2005 19:20:11 +0100 (CET)
From: Mélanie Jouitteau
Subject: Lectures de l'Atlas Linguistique de la France de Gilliéron et

AUTHORS: Le Dû, Jean; Le Berre, Yves; Brun-Trigaud, Guylaine
TITLE: Lectures de l'Atlas Linguistique de la France de Gilliéron et
SUBTITLE: Du temps dans l'espace
PUBLISHER: Comité des Travaux Historiques et Scientifiques
YEAR: 2005

Mélanie Jouitteau, University of Nantes

The book is written in French. The prototypical reader is a French
speaker, described as part of a ''large enlightened public'' (p. 5).


The book opens with a preface, followed by an introduction.

The preface states that the goal of the book is not to explain what
language is, but to propose a description, among others, of
what ''France'' is, departing from linguistic data collected at the end of
the 19th century in a rural world, which has now almost disappeared.
The dialectic develops on the opposition between, on the one hand,
an extreme diversity of variations illustrated by the data collected in
the Atlas Linguistique de la France of Gilliéron and Edmont (Linguistic
Atlas of France, henceforth ALF), and, on the other hand, the
construction of a common idiom, French.

The introduction begins by exposing the genesis of the book and how
the decision had been taken to rework Pr. Falc'hun's notes on the
ALF, following his hypothesis that geography and economy highly
influence lexical borrowings in a given language. The authors next
present the methodology of data collection for the ALF, noting that the
ALF served as a reference for the collection of Breton data by Pierre
Leroux for the constitution of the Atlas Linguistique de Basse-
Bretagne (Linguistic Atlas of Low-Brittany, henceforth ALBB). The
authors finally indicate how to read the maps of the following study.

The study proper is divided into three parts, respectively
entitled ''Time'', ''Space'' and ''Movements''.

The first part, ''Time'', presents a selection of 40 maps illustrating the
distribution and variants of different words, revealing their origins,
from the age of iron to the low middle age.

The second part, ''Space'', investigates the characteristics of each
region of the French State, with more than 300 maps. Different
geographic characteristics are shown to produce different behaviours
in terms of sensibility to exterior influences. The studied areas
distinguish mountains, rivers that can sometimes block humans from
crossing, or longitudinally accelerate human exchanges and thus
favour borrowings and influences. The study closes on the study of
linguistic particularities characteristic of isolated areas.

The last part of the book, ''Movements'', is concerned with the study
and geographical characterization of lines of resistance to external
influences, providing the reader with about 146 maps illustrating
movements of lexical exports from the centre to peripheries, from
north to south, and a typology of other noted movements.

Most maps concern uses of a particular lexeme for a given object,
such as the different words used for 'chair' (p. 36). Some rare maps
illustrate semantic distinctions, such as the geographical repartition of
the distinction made or not between 'cheveux' ''hair'' and 'poils' ''hairs'',
(p. 120). As for syntax, information is sparse, but a beautiful collection
of maps illustrate the northern zone where realised subjects were in
use, the south zone where null subjects were in use, and the Gascon
area using the C particle 'que' in place of the subject (pp. 186-7).

The authors propose a redefinition of certain linguistic terms. They
note that the term 'dialect' is linguistically incorrect as it contains an
underlying reference to a central language, whose very existence can
be called into question. They add that the term 'dialect' is affectively
charged (in French) and they consequently militate for its elimination.
They propose to replace the language/dialect opposition by a
pyramidal construction. The atomic unit, the 'badume', is the most
local consistent variety. It is spoken in small communities
geographically and culturally isolated from exchanges with the
exterior. The 'badume' is consequently stable and conservative in
nature. The written form of some badumes adopted in a larger area is
called 'regional standard'. Finally, over an area larger than that
of 'regional standards', the normative pressure of centers of influence
constitutes, over time, a language (such as French). This language is
constituted from material adopted from different badumes, and new
creations spreading as fast as the prestige of the central area
spreads. The authors depict a situation over time where a mosaic of
non-inter-comprehensible badumes progressively competes with a
language targeted for communication over larger areas: French. The
fact that in the territory considered in the book, such very local
varieties are organized in different linguistic systems such as
Romance, Celtic, Basque or Germanic, is of no importance, since the
badumes, the local varieties, are defined by their lack of inter-



The main methodological problem is underlined by the authors
themselves and comes from the material that is used: as we do not
have access to the questionnaires used to collect the data, it is
impossible to know how a given word has been obtained. The entire
results and subsequent analysis rely on a complete confidence in the
methodology used by three linguists (Gilliéron and Edmont for ALF,
and Leroux for ALBB) at the beginning of the 20th century. However,
the profusion and precision of the data coming from such a wide area
is in itself a treasure that the authors successfully put to use.

The focus on Breton
To Gillieron's inventory of geographic repartition of words coming from
Romance, Gaulish or Latin, the authors add, whenever they think it is
accurate, corresponding borrowings in use in Low Brittany, a Breton
(Celtic) speaking area. The borrowings in Breton are very well
documented, and they nicely illustrate the authors' assumption that
words travel without regard to the local linguistic variety in use. We
could regret in this respect that other documented non-Romance
languages in the French State were not used to illustrate the same
point: Basque is for example extensively documented, and adoption of
Latin words into the lexicon of this non Indo-European language would
have strengthened the point.

The global image would also have been more balanced; as it stands,
Breton seems to be alone in its constant borrowing from Latin. This
would be no harm if a non-linguist such as the declared targeted
reader had been provided in the introduction with a brief but clear
schema of the different languages in use in the French State, clearly
stating that Breton is a Celtic language, which happen not to belong to
the Romance languages. In place of that, the non-specialist is left
alone with assumptions such as ''The Breton language, an essentially
mixed language […], has lived for centuries close to
romance 'parlers'''(p. 227). The status of the Breton data globally
suffers from this ambiguity.

The presentation of the Atlas Linguistique de la France of Gilliéron
and Edmont in the introductory part should clearly state that Breton
was out of the research area. In place of that, we can only deduce
from the map on p 20 that Brittany was included into the investigated
area of the ALF. On the following page, we see that this area appears
in none of the 8 missions of Edmont. Brittany reappears on p. 22, and
only High-Brittany remains on the map p. 24. Finally, the authors point
that Gilliéron had excluded all non-Romance varieties in the French
State (Basque, Breton, Alsaco, Lorrain). Where thus does the Breton
data come from? The authors explain that they have added data
collected 10 to 20 years later by Leroux into the Breton speaking
area. However, twice in the book (p 37, 103), the authors state with
force that they restrict themselves to Gillieron's data (that is to an area
excluding Brittany). The global image remains scrambled and all maps
in the book differ from the original version and the augmented one in
including Low-Brittany.

A clear and brief introduction to the different varieties of languages
present in the investigated area would also have avoided possible
confusions for a non-specialist. To cite another example, the map p.
63 illustrates the Basque influence on Romance, beginning the
paragraph entitled ''Before the age of iron: Preceltic''. Of course, the
authors are not claiming that Basque is synonymous of Preceltic, but
the lack of precise information could lead a sincere but non-specialist
reader to deep confusions. A glossary is provided at the end of the
book, giving the reader some definitions of basic notions, but no link
from the body of the book points toward this glossary, and a reader
discovers it with surprise as a subpart of the annexes, after reading
the book.

Again, such confusions are particularly of importance considering that
the targeted reader is typically a non-linguist of French education.
More clarity in the introduction would have added value to the fact that
integration of the Breton facts for illustration of lexical spreading is
indeed very interesting, showing that, where there was a route for
human's exchanges, there also was a route for lexical exchanges,
whatever the linguistic distance of languages in contact.

As it stands, the confusion in linguistic affiliations leads to unclarity in
another of the proposals that the authors advocate for: ''the historical
displacement of linguistic features in geographical regions beyond
linguistic boundaries'' (p. 43). For example, the map p. 42 is
entitled: ''Area of conservation of the consonant that became final''.
This synthesis of maps is used to illustrate the evolution of final
consonants, with six lines of comments on the different variants of the
ending in the word for 'cat'. A flashy yellow area, in the Western part
of the actual French State, calls attention to a final /s/. This notation is
not commented on, and the targeted reader defined above cannot but
conclude that in this area, the fate of the final syllable in the
Latin 'cattus' let place to a final -s (leading to 'cas'?). This area was
not present in the Atlas Linguistique de la France de Gilliéron et
Edmont that the main title of the book claims the authors comment on,
because this area is the Breton speaking area, that Gilliéron and
Edmont consequently didn't investigate. The authors here have added
data from the Atlas Linguistique de Basse Bretagne. The -s notation
thus must refer to the ending of the Breton word 'kazh' (/kas/), and not
to the variety of French spoken by the (rare) bilinguals in Brittany in
the beginning of the 20th century. It is up to the reader to fill in, or not,
that Breton kazh reflects borrowing also of Latin cattus, like the
Romance words for 'cat', but into Brythonic.

A central assumption of the authors is here not spelled-out: the
authors assume that generalizations on the evolution of consonant
endings can be built without regard to the particular linguistic system
from which the data is extracted (here Romance vs. Celtic). The map
treats a word borrowed from Latin and integrated into a Celtic
language on a par with development of the same Latin word in a
Romance language: pronunciation such as treatment of a consonant
ending is taken to be a 'feature of language' that travels as easily as a
given word. This hypothesis is also presupposed for treatment of initial
consonants (map 11, p. 44) or the treatment of vowels (map 12, p.
45), with total disregard to the entirety of the linguistic system in which
the borrowing takes place (intonation, liaison, sandhi, etc.). As this is
not exactly a standard assumption, it would have been interesting
here that the authors spell-out and develop their hypothesis. Does it
mean that all variation has to be attributed to external influence? If
not, what is the contrast with evolutions not triggered by an external
influence? Do they mean that historical linguistics should never take
entirety of a given linguistic system into account? Then how to explain
the remaining differences between languages in contact for long
periods such as, for example, Basque and the different surrounding
Romance varieties? How to explain resistance to some feature, like
resistance of Breton to the massive French palatalization? To what
influence should the French palatalization be attributed? etc.

Moreover, the information also lacking in this map p. 42 is that the
principal sound-change in question, /tt/ into /th/ (as in English 'thin') is
in fact a Celtic feature, supposed to have occurred in the ancestor
Celtic language spoken mainly in Britain before the sixth century (cf.
Welsh 'cath', Cornish 'cas'). This Celtic sound change has been
followed by much later (and dialectally divergent) change of /th/ (from
various sources) to /s/, /h/. As the issue of the linguistic
characterization of Breton is mentioned in several places of the book,
the reader could appreciate that the authors make precise that this
Latin borrowing is not an argument for Breton being closer to other
Romance languages (but, in this case, to other Celtic languages).

If the geographical constraints applying to lexical spreading and the
quasi-immunity of this lexical expansion to linguistic boundaries is
straightforward and nicely illustrated, the application of this hypothesis
to phonological properties is not clearly spelled out and would have
merited more discussion.

Finally, another assumption would have called more discussion. The
authors posit an irreducible difference between languages and local
linguistic varieties (be they called dialects or badumes). I see no
linguistic argument illustrating this point: the differences that the
authors point out between the two seem all extralinguistic to me.
Orality is not a linguistic feature because so-called oral languages
become written languages as soon as someone writes them. A
pejorative/laudative attitude toward a linguistic variety has nothing to
do with the linguistic material in itself. Moreover, the authors
themselves fully demonstrate that a given linguistic feature can be
freely adopted or rejected for extra-linguistic (political) reasons.


The maps are colourful and precise. Provided that the user handles
the subject well enough to avoid misinterpretations, the pedagogical
use of the maps (wished for by the authors) is easy. The comments on
the maps are usually clear, but some maps could gain from a more
careful treatment. In particular, a definition of the semantic content tied
to the studied word could have clarified many readings. It could also
have opened the readership to non-Contemporary-French specialists
and ensured complete intelligibility in the coming years. For example,
the map entitled ''traire'' p. 30 shows a large yellow area covering half
of the actual French State (the so-called central area included), where
the word 'tirer' was in use, the rest of the territory using 'traire'
or 'molzer'. The explanatory notice indicates: ''The two words [traire
and tirer] covering two close meanings, Central French has
spread 'traire' in the restricted meaning that we know.'' The
convention adopted by the authors is that a map tracing a lexical
variation is entitled by the corresponding lexical item which survived in
Standard contemporary French. We thus know that 'traire' is the form
that survived in Contemporary French because it stands as the title of
the map. But what does here 'Central French' refer to, because the
central area is precisely not marked with this form? Is Central French
spoken in the Central French area and if so, did the use change there
or did the zone 'tirer' select 'traire' for another restricted meaning, in
addition to the mentioned 'tirer'? What is exactly this meaning that 'we'
know, and who is 'we'?

In general, the reader needs to be already familiar with French
administrative departments and geography. As physical geography is
a central factor for the spread of a given word in the author's
hypothesis, an additional map giving the names of rivers and precise
locations of mountains could have helped a non-Franco-French
reader to follow the argument. The reader may also be surprised that,
in a linguistic book concerned with socio-linguistic factors, the human
groups are persistently and specifically qualified as men (p. 7, 32, 34,
41, 55, etc.). Finally, the potential reader will also need to handle
some French lexical subtleties such as 'Fille aînée de l'église' ''elder
daughter of the Church'' standing (without explanation) for 'French
State' (p. 56).

Stylistically, some aggressive metaphors could have been avoided.
The authors for example posit that ''It is necessary, once for all, to
twist the neck of the common place that pretends that a language is
merely a language that has been successful'' (''Il faut une fois pour
toutes tordre le cou au lieu commun qui prétend qu'une langue, c'est
un dialecte qui a réussi'', p. 327). In fact, the authors choose to reject
one interpretation of this sentence among others. They reject the
interpretation of the sentence being ''any official language come from
one and unique more local linguistic variety'': they insist with reason
that the present-day standard French cannot be analyzed as coming
from one and unique linguistic ancestor, which one could localize on
the map within the actual linguistic territory of influence of French.
However, the targeted sentence has another, more acceptable
interpretation: ''the difference between something defined as a dialect
and something defined as a language resorts to politics, not to

Finally, I do not comment on presuppositions that I do not share, such
as the association of linguistics signs to a particular meaning resorting
to (social)-psychology (p. 7), or the stated necessity for a standard
language to eliminate all competing idioms within its area of influence
(p. 91).

The reviewer, Mélanie Jouitteau, is affiliated with the University of
Nantes (laboratory LLING). She completed her PhD thesis on the
comparative syntax of Breton in 2005.