LINGUIST List 24.3531

Mon Sep 09 2013

Review: Historical Linguistics; Linguistic Theories; French, Old: Arteaga (2012)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 27-Jun-2013
From: Catharina Peersman <>
Subject: Research on Old French
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Deborah L. Arteaga
TITLE: Research on Old French
SUBTITLE: The State of the Art
SERIES TITLE: Studies in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Catharina Peersman, University of Sheffield


In her introduction to “Research on Old French: The State of the Art”, Deborah Arteaga ambitiously presents her work as an overview of scholarly study into Old French, “as it is practiced today, in ALL of its forms” [emphasis is mine] (2). Obviously, within a volume of less than 400 pages, covering all forms of research on Old French is quite impossible. Nevertheless, within the physical constraints of the volume, the range of its 17 contributions is quite impressive. Covering a broad range of topics within a variety of theoretical frameworks, the editor aims to provide insight into both diachronic and synchronic linguistics, not only of Old French, but of language in general. All examples are glossed and the relevant characteristics of Old French are clearly explained, in order to direct the book not only at linguists and graduate students who specialize in Old French, but also at linguists who conduct research in historical linguistics in other languages, as well as those focusing on theoretical linguistics and on Romance linguistics in general.


The general structure of the book is straightforward. Its first part addresses diachronic studies and its second part synchronic studies, with the first counting nine and the latter eight contributions, respectively. The chapters center around two general research questions: on the one hand, how diachronic studies contribute not only to the field of Old French, but also to our current understanding of language change; and, on the other hand, how synchronic studies lead to a better understanding of language systems, in general, and that of Old French, in particular. The coherence is not only assured by these two general questions, which justify the two-fold structure of the volume, but also by the fact that the chapters can be grouped into thematic or methodological clusters, as suggested in its introduction. It is this cluster structure, rather than a linear approach from beginning to end, that will be observed in the following summary of chapters.

The book represents four different branches of formal linguistics, i.e., phonology, morphophonology, syntax and semantics. The contributions focusing on syntax can be subdivided in those dealing with nominal morphosyntax, verbal syntax, the mood and tense system and parataxis. One of the key features of Old French is the fact that it illustrates how the former Latin case system is evolving, so it does not come as a surprise that the chapters dedicated to nominal morphosyntax (Chapters 1, 3 and 9) all choose to highlight a particular aspect of this complex evolution. All three adopt a diachronic point of view.

In Chapter 1, “A Diachronic View of Old French Genitive Constructions”, Arteaga and Julia Herschensohn analyze the evolution of Old French genitive constructions, in particular, the juxtaposition genitive (JG). After giving a transparent overview of both Latin and Old French genitive constructions, they turn to the Minimalist framework. After analyzing the JG in Old French, which they consider to be as directly inherited from the same structure in Latin, they discuss genitive structures from a diachronic viewpoint and how it has implications for language change in general. Lene Schøsler chooses to focus on the evolution of the case system with respect to other parts of the grammar in Chapter 9, “The Development of the Declension System”. Her perspective is broader in the sense that she also takes into account variation in Old French, characterizing the diatopically anchored breakdown of the case process according to lexical, grammatical and pragmatic parameters of variation. Inspired by Harald Völker (2009), she analyzes the percentage of ‘correct’ choice of the nominative case in the ‘Miracles par personnages’ to illustrate the existence of a transitional paradigm of case-marking on articles between Old and Middle French. An interesting continuation on the topic of articles is found in Chapter 3, where Anne Carlier analyzes “Grammaticalization in progress in Old French” by means of the Old French indefinite article ‘un(s)’. Lavishly illustrating her argument with annotated examples, Carlier determines the conditions of use and meaning of the indefinite article ‘un(s)’ and of the partitive ‘du/des’ in Old French, mainly from a synchronic point of view. However, the diachronic perspective is represented as well, through the evolution of the articles from Old to Modern French regarding frequency and the level of grammaticalization.

Researchers interested in verbal syntax can enjoy three contributions from a Minimalist perspective by Bryan Donaldson, Richard Ingham and Eric Mathieu (Chapters 4, 14 and 17, respectively) or the contributions dedicated to the mood and tense system by Jan Lindschouw, Igor Dreer and Margaret Winters (Chapters 7, 12 and 18, respectively).

In “Null Objects in Old French”, Donaldson addresses null objects (i.e. the non-expression or dropping of the object of a verb) in twelfth and thirteenth century French. He proposes that Old French possessed both null pronominals and null variables. As null objects are attested in Latin, as well as Middle and Modern French, his data point to the continual presence of object drop from the earliest stages of French to the language we know today. In “A Derivational Approach to Negative Polarity Item Licensing in Old French”, Ingham focuses on identifying properties of negative main clauses by means of a twofold data analysis of apparent verb second (V2) violations in negative clauses: initial ‘ja/onques’ in thirteenth century prose and initial polarity items in twelfth century epic verse. Through his derivational approach, he shows that negative clauses were not necessarily V2 contexts and that V2 observance or violation is probably more principled than critics of the Complementizer Phrase (CP) V2 analysis have contended. Mathieu’s contribution “The Left-periphery in Old French” gives an account of the distribution of left-periphery elements in Old French. He identifies three topic positions (in addition to the two traditional categories in V2 languages): one for stylistically fronted elements, a second for left dislocated elements, and a last one for hanging topics. Old French is, according to Mathieu’s analyses, a consistently non-generalized V2 language because stylistic fronting appears to be available throughout the Old French period.

The mood and tense system are addressed by Lindschouw, Winters and Dreer. Both Lindschouw and Winters focus on the subjunctive. On the one hand, Lindschouw’s chapter “Evolution and Regrammation in the Mood System: Perspectives from Old, Middle, Renaissance and Modern French” offers 3 synchronic sections detailing the relative frequency and modal value of the subjunctive and indicative in concessive clauses in Old and Middle French, Renaissance and Pre-classical French, and Modern French, respectively. The combined data create a diachronic perspective on the ‘regrammation’ of the mood system, which passes from a relatively flexible system in Old French to a highly constrained one in Modern French. Winters, on the other hand, adopts a generally synchronic approach. She examines different proposals on the meaning/s of the subjunctive in her chapter on “Grammatical Meaning and the Old French Subjunctive”, by testing them on data from Old French and theories of change. She concludes that the best option to gain insight on its diachronic developments is to view mood as a semantic category of related uses. Dreer’s contribution, ‘The Use of the Future and Conditional in High Medieval Literature’, focuses on the future and conditional. Analyzing exclusively on high medieval literary texts, Dreer uses the Columbia School’s sign-oriented approach to show that the distribution of the Old French future and conditional was not random, but rather motivated by their invariant meanings. Both forms consistently appear not only in individual sentences, but also within entire texts.

The presence and/or omission of ‘que’ is addressed in Chapters 13 and 16. In Chapter 13, “Old French Parataxis: Syntactic Variant or Stylistic Variation?”, Julie Glikman & Thomas Verjans explore the Ø/ ‘que’ alternation in paratactic constructions through a contrastive synchronic analysis. They uncover that the two types of structures are free variants and that the alternation could be a reflection of the ‘speaking/writing’ opposition and its communicative constraints. Sophie Marnette also considers ‘que’, but from a very different point of view, given that her chapter focuses on “Forms and Functions of Reported Discourse in Medieval French”. She points out, however, that subordination markers such as ‘que’ are not specific to indirect discourse nor are they necessary for it.

Next to these six contributions within the field of syntax, the volume counts six more chapters evenly divided over the fields of phonology, morphophonology and semantics.

The field of phonology is represented by Randall Gess and Haike Jacobs & Janine Berns, who offer diachronic perspectives on compensatory lengthening (CL) and French velar palatalization, respectively, in two consecutive chapters (5 and 6). In “Compensatory Lengthening in Historical French: The Role of the Speaker”, Gess adopts a comprehensive view of CL in which the speaker, through innovative reductive articulations, feeds the listener’s misperceptions. Relying on a direct influence of the markedness constraint ‘isochrony’ in the production grammar, he argues for a phonetically-based speaker-oriented approach to CL and shows how isochrony has had an important impact on French over a large time span. In the chapter “Perception, Production and Markedness in Sound Change: French Velar Palatalization”, Jacobs and Berns review traditional and recent accounts of the second French velar palatalization before exploring to what extent a constraint-based Optimality Theory (OT) perspective is a more restricted way of modeling sound change than classical OT. By trying to separate the roles of production, perception and markedness on one hand, and the role of phonology and phonetics on the other, they find markedness constraints to be crucial for the analysis of sound change and provide a principled phonological account of the atypical velar palatalization before ‘a’.

Chapters 8 and 15 are dedicated to morphophonology. Michael Mazzola’s take on analogy is diachronic in two different ways. In “Analogy Among French Sounds”, he examines analogy as structure, lexical diffusion and suppletive leveling applied to French sounds from the fourth to sixth centuries, reflecting a continuous development of Gallo-Roman influence before the Frankish rise to power. In doing so, he offers an alternative to Meyer-Lübke’s nineteenth century vision on sound change, in which the birth of the French language is ‘delayed’ until the arrival of the Franks. Chapter 15 “Theoretical Issues in Old French Inflectional Morpho(phono)logy”, by Jürgen Klausenbürger, treats inflectional morpho(phono)logy from a synchronic perspective. He applies the concepts of iconicity and system congruity to the loss of the case system, and paradigmatic leveling to the invariance and final consonant alternation of the Old French verbal system. To a certain degree, his is also a theoretical reflection, as he frames his position within the larger context of linguistic theorizing, opposing Ockham’s Razor (his own position) to Chatton’s Anti-Razor (the generative approach).

The remaining two chapters represent the field of semantics. In Chapter 10, Harald Völker explores “The Diasystem and Its Role in Generating Meaning” from a highly theoretical point of view. He aims to examine what varying ‘means’ by applying different multi-level models of lexical semiosis to lexical change of a few Old French lexical elements (i.e. meuble, arche, court, bannal). Cyril Aslanov’s contribution on “Crusader’s Old French”, by contrast, is synchronic and very concrete. It explains which dialects of Old French contributed to the creation of a new crusader’s koiné in specific regions (e.g. Walloon and adjacent dialects in the Kingdom of Jerusalem), how the koiné was influenced by Italo-Romance dialects (e.g. ‘splage’, a cross-formation between ‘plage’ and ‘spiaggia’) and its alloglottic surroundings, specifically the influence of Arabic.


This state of the art of research on Old French is impressive in its diversity in many different ways. The theoretical approaches range from OT to Minimalism to discourse analysis, and the variety of topics and subsystems of the language covered are considerable. The diachronic range goes from Latin to Gallo-Romance to Old French, as one has the right to expect, but also way beyond through many links with Middle, Renaissance and Modern French. I greatly appreciate that many of the chapters are corpus-based, which is a tribute to the fact that more electronic corpora are becoming available and proving their usefulness to the different linguistic fields. This is illustrated very effectively, if only by the sheer amount and diversity of texts taken into account: the corpus texts range from charters from Luxembourg, the Roman de Renart or the Arthur cycle to treatises by Christine de Pizan, historiography by Joinville and Anglo-Norman translations of Latin originals.

The range of text materials also transpires in the range of examples (mainly for Old French, but also for Latin or modern French), which are all carefully glossed. Moreover, relevant characteristics of Old French are generally clearly explained in order to render the contributions more accessible to non-specialists of Old French. And who wouldn’t agree that explaining the loss of the JG gains from the use of examples such as ‘Galois sont tuit par nature plus fol que bestes an pasture’ / The Gauls are all by nature crazier than animals at pasture (Arteaga & Herschensohn, p. 40)

All in all, this is an impressive volume with highly diverse contributions, and although some are more accessible than others, all are carefully illustrated and glossed. Without a doubt “Research on Old French: The State of the Art” constitutes added value to French linguistics and to linguistics in general. However, that is also exactly what could be considered its weakness: it simply wants too much. Apart from the fact that it is as ambitious as unrealistic to want to present the study of Old French in ALL its aspects within 17 chapters, one can wonder why this would be necessary. This is a book that will be gratefully used by many scholars and researchers, including myself, but only selectively for the few contributions relevant to or close enough to one’s own specialization. Moreover, it is ONE of many possible states of the art, rather than THE state of the art, and as such, it necessarily documents a momentary state. As the study of Old French is very much alive, I sincerely hope that this state of the art will be followed by equally diverse and yet completely different volumes under a similar, yet slightly less ambitious title.


Völker, Harald. 2009. La linguistique variationnelle et l’intralinguistique. Revue de Linguistique Romane 73, 27-76.


Dr. Catharina Peersman is lecturer in French studies at the University of Sheffield (UK). Her research focuses on historical (socio)linguistics of French, Old French in particular, in texts from the medieval county of Flanders. Her teaching experience covers more diverse topics, ranging from Béroul's Tristan over historical French grammar to Belgian language policy and applied linguistics.

Page Updated: 09-Sep-2013