LINGUIST List 24.690

Wed Feb 06 2013

Review: Historical Linguistics; Linguistic Theories; Semantics; Syntax; French: Waltereit (2012)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 20-Dec-2012
From: Paul Isambert <>
Subject: Reflexive Marking in the History of French
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Richard WaltereitTITLE: Reflexive Marking in the History of FrenchSERIES TITLE: Studies in Language Companion Series 127PUBLISHER: John BenjaminsYEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Paul Isambert, Université de Tours


The book is a study of clause-mate anaphora (i.e. when a pronoun is used forreference to the subject of the clause), and related phenomena, in French. Theapproach is diachronic, tracking the evolution of usage and the distributionof alternations across time.

Chapter 1 introduces the facts: the difference of distribution of “soi”(‘him(self)’, ‘her(self)’ or ‘them(selves)’) versus “lui”/ “elle” (‘him’/‘her’); the use versus absence of “-même” (‘-self’) with those pronouns; andthe distribution of intensifiers. The author also acknowledges his tie to theframework of Construction Grammar and proceeds to distinguish betweencoreference (i.e. a discourse relation) and binding (i.e. a grammatical one:the slots of a construction are coindexed), remarking than a bindingconstruction doesn't preclude coreference. Finally, the importance ofreflexives cross-linguistically is stressed (while “brute forcereflexivization” (Reuland, 2005), i.e., coindexation marked with ordinarypronouns, could be, and is sometimes, used).

Chapter 2 addresses the theory of anaphora. The author first reiterates theabove-mentioned distinction between coreference and binding and then discussesspecificity (an important side-issue), noting in particular that anon-specific noun phrase can be reinterpreted as specific as the discourseproceeds. Binding Theory (Chomsky, 1981), associated problems, and tentativesolutions (from both generativism and functionalism) are then reviewed. Theauthor's main point is that non-complementarity is the rule andcomplementarity should be motivated, not the other way around; in other words,reflexive and personal pronouns can normally both be used to denotecoreference. It is remarked that non-specific subjects allow binding alone.Finally, the author critiques the position that the “soi”/ “lui”(reflexive/personal pronoun) alternation reflects argumenthood: where apronoun is allowed to mark coreference to the subject, it signals the slot itfills as an adjunct. But data show, at least in French, that this is a matterof construction: some verbs collocate with reflexives while others do withpronouns.

In Chapter 3, the author analyzes diachronic data, tracking the progressivedecrease in the use of “soi” versus “lui”/ “elle” from Old French to thepresent time. The former is now mostly used for non-specific antecedents; inthat respect, “on” (‘one’) (i.e. an exclusively non-specific subject inwritten French) always triggers “soi”. However, inspection of particularverbal constructions reveals that the use of “soi” is not steadily decreasing,but rather develops on a predicate-by-predicate basis; in some cases, “soi” isstill widely used even with a specific subject. Such a finding stresses theimportance of constructions when studying the evolution of one item. Finally,the author confirms the rare use of “soi” with plural antecedents, namely dueto the semantic properties of the distributive plural, ill-fitted for binding.

Chapter 4 investigates the use of “lui/ “elle” versus the reinforced versions“lui”/ “elle” + “-même”. The author distinguishes reflexive predicates fromcoindexation of arguments: a predicate can be reflexive without taking acoindexed argument (e.g. ‘John washes’) and the reverse is also true (e.g.‘John never carries money with him’). Then it is argued that “-même” doesn'tmark the pronoun it attaches to, but rather the related predicate, creating anew one with focus on reflexivity. A difference in distribution can be foundalong the following lines:

(1) Jean pense à lui et moi et ... John thinks of himself and me and ...(2) Jean pense à lui-même. John thinks of himself.

In (1), focus is on the pronoun; John thinking of himself is paralleled byJohn thinking of other entities. In (2), the entire predicate is focused, andpossibly compared with other predicates. That semantic difference is sometimeseven more obvious; to say something to oneself is not the same thing as sayingsomething to somebody which happens to be you. However, on the diachronicfront, no evolution in the use of simple versus reinforced reflexives can bedetected.

In Chapter 5, the author distinguishes (after Siemund, 2000) between threedifferent uses of the intensifiers “lui”/ “elle” + “-même” (when not used asreflexives): adnominal (e.g. ‘The king himself’), adverbal-exclusive (e.g. ‘Hewrote the book himself’, meaning he didn't hire a ghost writer), andadverbal-inclusive (e.g. ‘I'm a teacher myself’, meaning ‘I'm a teacher too’).The author argues that these three uses are metonymically related, which isreflected in their gradual apparition over the history of French.

Chapter 6 reviews various approaches to language change, including theauthor's own hypothesis on rhetorical devaluation (Detges and Waltereit,2002): speakers use the most “noteworthy” forms, so much so that those formslose their strength, thus becoming new, unmarked constructions. Thishypothesis is then applied to the evolution of negation in French and the riseof compound past tenses in various languages. The author then returns to theevolution of “soi” versus “lui”/ “elle”. The alternation is, at least in OldFrench, a matter of “Differential Object Marking”: the object of the verb canbe marked in different ways (e.g. Spanish unmarked “a”-marked objects),according to semantic and contextual criteria. Here, the difference is that“soi” is less thematic than “lui”/ “elle”, since binding is a grammaticalrelation, whereas coreference happens at the level of discourse. Accordingly,“lui”/ “elle” is stronger than “soi”, hence more “noteworthy”, and was usedmore and more often until it became the unmarked form.

Chapter 7 sums up the main findings of each part of the book.


It is important to distinguish between intent and execution when trying toevaluate this book: the former is laudable, but I've found the latter lackingin many respects.

The thrust of the book is summarized on page 3: “Diachronic change ofanaphoric systems is inherently interesting because it can provide evidencelikely to inform our knowledge of those systems more widely, in particularwhere issues pertaining to Binding Theory are concerned”. This is yet anothershove against the diachrony/synchrony barrier, a move that is becoming moreand more common in recent years with the advent of usage-based approaches togrammar, to which the author subscribes overtly. Also, in line withConstruction Grammar, the author intends to show that the evolution ofclause-mate anaphor in French isn't one smooth change, but rather a jaggedline in which different predicates evolve at different rates. Hence, amethodology based on corpora. Also crucial, finally, is the author's stancethat languages are meant to be used and evolve because speakers do things withthem, not because of imperfect learning. In other words, language change is aninherent property of language, not the side-effect of an external phenomenon.

That is the intent, and I couldn't be more sympathetic; but I was disappointedthat the book didn't live up to those expectations.

First, the book has a patchwork quality that is quite puzzling to the reader;the central chapters (3 to 5) aren't tied together, as if they wereinvestigating different phenomena, even though those phenomena involve thesame markers. In particular, it is very surprising that the “soi” versus“lui”/ “elle” alternation and the simple versus reinforced one are keptdistinct; one would think that the two phenomena have influenced each other,and if they didn't, that should still be verified. Similarly, the (not soshort) analyses of French negation and compound past tenses in Chapter 6, justto illustrate the author's point, feel quite out of place.

Second, the author spends a lot of time on theoretical points, and much lesson data. Although reviewing literature is an important step in any research, Icouldn't quite understand why generative hypotheses are discussed at suchlength in Chapter 2, all the more as the author subscribes to ConstructionGrammar (the cognitive approach of van Hoek, 1995 isn't even mentioned).Chapter 4 is even more surprising, as the author develops his own hypothesis(i.e. “même” marks the predicate, not the pronoun) after discussing previousworks, but as far as the history of French is concerned, there is virtually noresult mentioned. Chapter 5, and especially Chapter 6, have the same feeling.

Admittedly, Chapter 3 is concerned almost exclusively with data, and thedistribution of “soi” versus “lui”/ “elle” is even analyzed predicate bypredicate. That is the most satisfying part of the book, or the one with solidresults. More could (and, I believe, should) have been done in that direction;for instance, how is it that the distribution is influenced by the largercontext, in particular, by the risk of ambiguity? Compare:

(3) Jean entra. Pierre parlait de lui/soi. Jean came in. Pierre was talking about himself.(4) Marie entra. Pierre parlait de lui/soi. Marie came in. Pierre was talking about himself.

In (3), “lui” may refer to both “Jean” or “Pierre”; this is not the case in(4), under the assumption that no other male participant was previouslymentioned, because “lui” cannot refer to a female participant, thus excluding“Marie” as a possible antecedent. Is “soi” more often used in contexts like(3) than in contexts like (4)?

The author links the use of “soi” to non-specificity, but only takes intoaccount the specificity of the subject. It would have been interesting toconsider aspect too:

(5) Pierre parle souvent de soi/lui. Pierre often talks about himself.(6) Pierre est en train de parler de soi/lui. Pierre is talking about himself.

Is “soi” favored in (5) when compared to (6)? Perhaps there is no suchtendancy, but I think it would have been worth investigating and much moreilluminating than an advanced discussion of Binding Theory. Based on the factthat this is a usage-based-minded, corpora-driven study, I expected a fineanalysis of usage as exemplified by attested utterances.

Finally, the editing of the book was careless. It is riddled with typos, manyreferences are missing in the bibliography (e.g. Bouhours, 1676 and Vaugelas,1647 on page 78, Brunot, 1966 on page 123, Kemmer, 1993 on page 139, Bhat,2004 on page 140, and so on), and the publisher uses a font (Robert Slimbach'sMinion Pro) without grooming it first. It is widely known (and visible) thatat least this font’s apostrophe character needs grooming, especially withFrench, where, e.g., “l'usage” (‘the custom’) otherwise looks like “lusage”,with a floating accent. The author seems to have been aware of that, andtherefore, introduced spurious spaces in the manuscript -- where sometimes theline was unfortunately broken (see example (32) on page 32). One may wonderwhether anybody really proofread the book on the publisher's side, which is avery annoying feeling for which the author cannot be held responsible.

All in all, the book feels rushed; it would have been much stronger with agreater deal of detailed analysis rather than theorizing. This may of coursebe a matter of personal preference, but I strongly believe that corpusstudies, and Construction Grammar on the theoretical side, have cut downhairsplitting hypotheses in favor of heavy data, and that such an approach istheir major strength.

Due to its subject and its methodology, the book will be of interest toresearchers working on French in either theoretical syntax or historicallinguistics. It is probably too specialized to help students, but the resultsit contains can perfectly serve as examples in a course in historical syntax.


Chomsky, Noam. 1981. Lectures on Government and Binding. Dordrecht: Foris.

Detges, Ulrich and Richard Waltereit. 2002. Reanalysis vs. grammaticalization:A semantic-pragmatic account of functional change in grammar. Zeitschrift fürSprachwissenschaft 21. 151-195.

Reuland, Eric. 2005. Binding conditions: How are they derived? in S. Müller(ed.). Proceedings of the HPSG05 Conference. Stanford: CSLI.

Siemund, Peter. 2000. Intensifiers in English and German. A Comparison.London: Routledge.

van Hoek, Karen. 1995. Conceptual Reference Points: A Cognitive GrammarAccount of Pronominal Anaphora Constraints. Language 71(2). 310-340.


Paul Isambert holds a PhD from the University of Paris 3, France. He iscurrently working on grammaticalization of discourse markers and teaches atthe University of Tours, France.

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