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Review of  Enregistrer la parole et écrire la langue dans la diachronie du français

Reviewer: Lionel Mathieu
Book Title: Enregistrer la parole et écrire la langue dans la diachronie du français
Book Author: Gabriella Parussa Maria Colombo Timelli Elena Llamas-Pombo
Publisher: Narr Francke Attempto Verlag GmbH + Co. KG
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Subject Language(s): French
Issue Number: 29.3570

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Written entirely in French, ''Enregistrer la parole et écrire la langue dans la diachronie du français'', is a collection of seven chapters focused on unraveling the interrelationship between the phonic (spoken) and graphic (written) form of the French language in the course of its evolution. The introductory chapter contextualizes the focus of inquiry by briefly chronicling the primacy of the written text in the diachronic study of French. Before presenting the content of each chapter, the introduction also briefly touches on a relatively young domain of scholastic activity that offers a systemic approach to orthography and punctuation from a diachronic as well as synchronic perspective.

The first chapter, ''Sur les aboutissements rr et r de tr/dr intervocaliques en ancien français'', examines the phonetic evolution and outcome of the singleton/geminate rhotic in Old French (OF; e.g. la:'tro > lere v. latro:'ne > larron). The authors, Tobias Scheer and Philippe Ségéral, follow previous work by Fouché (1966-1973) in asserting that the opposition [r/rr] can be best analyzed with reference to the vocalic length of the preceding vowel: the intervocalic sequence [tr/dr], after neutralizing to [ðr], yields [r] when the preceding (stressed) vowel is long in proto-French, and [rr] when the preceding (unstressed) vowel is short. The authors contend that this phonic reality is, despite some variation, directly transcribed in writing and that the conditioning factor giving rise to this complementary distribution appears to be the compensatory lengthening (or not) of the preceding (un)stressed vowel. Their analysis rests on an autosegmental conception whereby stress provides syllabic (CV) space/slots (Chierchia, 1986) onto which vocalic lengthening/spreading may occur, thereby affecting the gemination (or not) of the rhotic consonant (once the initial stop has disappeared after first spirantizing). The analysis extends to the case of the OF diphthongs [ie] and [ue] where following [r] and [rr] are both attested (e.g. petra > piere/pierre). Such configuration is explained by the optional glidification of the initial element ([je] and [we] respectively), leaving the second vowel short, resulting in following [rr]; if the diphthong remains stable, [r] is then attested.

The second chapter, ''Graphie et ponctuation du français médiéval. Système et variation'', by Elena Llamas-Pombo, offers a theoretical framework to account for graphemic and punctuational variation in Old and Middle French writing. With a constant attention to the intricate link between the spoken medium and its written manifestation, the author articulates her variationist theory of spelling and punctuation around four major parameters: the diamesic parameter, concerned with the relations of dependence, independence, and interdependence between the phonic and graphic contents of language (at the levels of the word, the proposition, and the text); the enunciative parameter, concerned with the relation of the written material with the reported or ''direct'' speech; the diastratic parameter, concerned with orthographic renditions of sociolectal and diglossic variation; and the conceptional parameter concerned with the varying expression of punctuation depending on whether communication is immediate or distant, in typologically diverse texts (e.g. verses, prose, diplomatic documents, etc.). Each parameter is thoroughly described and exemplified with excerpts from various medieval manuscripts. They serve to provide a taxonomic enterprise to the treatment of heterographic forms (both in spelling and punctuation) and their correlation with the oral substance of medieval French.

The third chapter, ''La vertu ou la puissance de la lettre - Enquête sur les fonctions attribuées à certaines lettres de l'alphabet latin dans les systèmes graphiques du français entre le 11e et 16e siècles'', by Gabriella Parussa, probes the status and function of the graphemes ''u, n'' (and to a lesser extent ''v'') in Old and Middle French manuscripts. Set primarily at the level of the grapheme, Parussa's corpus study first discusses the allographic confusion (due to identical ligatures) between ''u'' and ''n'' that arose in old cursive writing, occasionally blurring the lines regarding their putative phonetic value(s). Specifically, the author investigates the choice of the alternating diagraphs ''on/ou'' (e.g. ''monlt/moult) and ''en/eu'' (e.g. ''jen/jeu'') in literary and documentary texts and offers a renewed perspective on the function of the letter as a marker of vocalic quality (where in her analysis ''n'' / [n] may have indicated a preceding nasalized/closing [o] approximating an [u] sound, as well as a more closed, centralized, and even labialized preceding [e]; [ø, œ] = ''eu'' in modern French). A more attentive examination of the phenomenon of nasalization therefore serves to account for these differing spellings that may actually transcribe a finer phonetic reality than previously envisaged (further supported by 16th and 17th century grammarians' testimonies). Parussa's study also confers a more prominent role/function to individual graphemes in a restraint system (the latin alphabet) of graphemic values.

The fourth chapter, ''L'automne d'une scripta'', by Aude Wirth-Jaillard, tracks the decline of a scripta in the Lorraine region between the 14th and 16th century. By comparison with previous work (Trotter, 2009), and based on accounting records, registering precise information regarding the identity of the scribe, the locality and datability of its production, Wirth-Jaillard's study meticulously inspects the evolution of eight linguistic traits: the feminine definite article ''lai/la'', the masculine definite article ''lo(u)/le'', the feminine possessive ''mai, sai/ma, sa'', the infinitive in ''-eir/-er'', the sequence ''nr/ndr'', and the words endings ''-auble/-able'', ''-aige/-age'', and ''-ei or -ey / -i or -y''. This comparative work between two linguistic varieties of the Lorraine region, one in the Department of Meuse, the other in the Department of Vosges, highlights the fact that the meusian scripta abandons its regional features earlier than its vosgian counterpart, but that not all linguistic innovations are chronologically adopted. Besides alluding to the possible notion of a subscripta, this study also underlines the fact that a scripta is oftentimes the reflection of the idiolect of its author(s).

The fifth chapter, ''Les dialogues dans les 'Cent nouvelles nouvelles' - Marques linguistiques et (typo)graphiques, entre manuscript et imprimé'', by Maria Colombo Timelli, considers the linguistic and punctuational indexes signaling speech acts or dialogues in the first ten short stories of a 15th century manuscript and incunabulum (printed book). By comparing the means to transcribe and record oral exchanges in two versions of the same text, the author remarks that the linguistic markers used (e.g. verba dicendi ''verbs of speaking'', terms of address, interjections, alternating verbal forms of P1, P2, P5) do not differ much between the handwritten and printed piece. By and large, the same observation can be made regarding the use of punctuation marks to delineate the passages of reported speech, even though the manuscript features fewer punctuation elements than the incunabulum. The close inspection of the typographic system used reveals that while both the scribe and the printer were sensitive to the same linguistic features characterizing dialogic exchanges, some individual habits can nonetheless be detected. Together then, the linguistic and typographic systems accord with one another to limn reported speech acts and facilitate readers' recognition and interpretation of the text as such.

The sixth chapter, '''Ponctuation noire', 'ponctuation blanche' et 'contes bleus'; l'évolution du codage des discours directs dans 'La Barbe bleue' de Perrault (1695-1905)'', by Claire Badiou-Monferran, chronicles the evolution of white and black punctuation in multiple editions and reeditions of Charles Perrault's 'La Barbe bleue' in the period from Classical French (17th-18th century) to Modern French (19th-21st century). Borrowing the terminology of white/black punctuation from Favriaud (2004), and in light of previous work by Arabyan (1994) on another tale by Perrault, the author shows how white spaces, line breaks, paragraph breaks, and page breaks, as well as periods, commas, (semi)colons, exclamation and interrogation marks, ellipsis, etc. all concurred to materialize and reflect the orality of the text to be restituted out loud. However, while both types of punctuation first encoded the oral, enunciative substance of the text (such as its rhythmic cadence and breathing pauses) in the Classical French period; they later metamorphosed in the Modern French period (and more so for black punctuation) into staging instruments of a fictive orality, partially divorced from the oral performance of the text. Over these periods then, the encoding of direct speech, the genesis for the evolution of white punctuation, is progressively subject to increasing codification that travesties its vocal, discursive nature.

The seventh chapter, '''Une pouce de largur et un pouce de profondur' - Le français régional dans les manuscripts basques des 18e et 19e siècles'', by Manuel Padilla-Moyano, focuses on the linguistic characteristics of a south-western variety of French found in various documents (such as theater plays and epistolary correspondences), written by bascophone speakers with marginal knowledge of French orthographic norms. From the perspective of historical sociolinguistics, the author first retraces the evolution of the diglossic situations in the Basque Country, then details the phonological, morphological, syntactic, and lexical attributes of this Basque/Gascon-influenced regional French.


This volume is composed of seven article-length chapters (except for Chapter 2), organized based on an extensive chronology spanning the periods of Vulgar Latin to the 20th century. All of the articles are geared towards a readership of trained linguists with a particular interest (and some prior knowledge) in historical phonetics and graphemics. Each article stands as its own study, and little cross-referencing is noted. Together however, they offer a panoramic view of the scholarship at the orality-orthography interface in the diachrony of French.

Chapter 1 presents a highly technical analysis in the domain of historical phonetics that requires a solid background in phonology as well as an understanding of phonetic change in late Latin and proto-French. Furthermore, while the chapter's analysis is heavily grounded in historical phonetics, its connection with the orthographic correlates appear to be secondary and somewhat tenuous given the varying graphies observed (and the fact that some are the outcome of other processes like analogy). As a first chapter, it may therefore leave the reader wondering about the attention and status allocated to the orthographic material in subsequent chapters. Nevertheless, Chapter 1 is very well structured in sections that first lay out the empirical generalizations before presenting the analysis.

Chapter 2, the longest of the seven chapters, features a lot of rather lengthy footnotes (34 total) that can frequently detract from the text. It is also heavy in terminology, definition, and reference to other authors' own terminology. The study presented is thorough yet complex. We can note one typographical error in the text, on page 53, section 2.3.1: ''puis qu'ils > puisqu'ils''.

Chapter 3 is notable in that it displays actual photographs of old manuscripts to illustrate its claim and offers the reader original documents to observe. This is particularly welcomed in a book dealing with the orthographic substance of ancient texts. Chapter 3 also provides interesting perspectives on the decision-making process of medieval editors, copyists, and grammarians in their attempt to restitute the old forms of the language, while at the same time facilitate readability of the text and/or adhere to an emerging norm. These reflections are not only at the heart of the philological work presented in this volume, but also enable the reader to appreciate his/her own relationship with writing and textual material.

Chapter 4 is also noteworthy in that it offers the reader an insight into the challenges faced by the researcher, as well as some of the methodologies deployed, to make sense of the linguistic material drawn from (sometimes) incomplete sources. Hence, based on the nature of the document(s) at hand, some language forms may not be displayed, as for instance, in the case of accounting records, certain vocabulary items (e.g. those pertaining to philosophy or poetry) or certain verb tense and/or mood (e.g. the conditional). Nevertheless, due to their consistency in language forms, these documents possess a wealth of material for the diachronic study of a regional scripta. This chapter is therefore important in that it departs from the others by its quantitative approach and treatment of linguistic forms. It however establishes little connection with the spoken medium of the language and focuses primarily on its written materiality.

Chapter 5 is another chapter that suffers from numerous and at times lengthy footnotes (41 total) that impede reading. The contribution is however interesting in that it compares the same textual material in two different media: a handwritten manuscript and a printed publication. With the advent of printing at the end of the 15th century, the (typo)graphical systems of numerous manuscripts/incunables underwent some transformations and their study can be informative of the way scribes and printers rendered the written language and interpreted its spoken reality. Chapter 5 therefore offers a unique perspective on a pivotal moment in the history of the French language: its transition to a printed medium that necessitated well-defined (typo)graphical norms.

Chapter 6 finds its merit in that it solely focuses on punctuation, both white punctuation (in other words, the textual layout on the page; 'text formatting' in contemporary parlance), and black punctuation as typographical elements encapsulating the delivery of oral speech. As mentioned in the introduction to this volume, the history of punctuation has become a fruitful avenue of research in the past decade and this article certainly contributes to this growing trend.

Chapter 7 nicely complements this set of articles for a couple of reasons. First, the study relies on fragmentary statements found in secondary documents drafted by semi-literate writers. The language samples are written freely, with little adherence to (or knowledge of) the orthographic norm, thereby providing us with an unfiltered testimony of the speech variety of these untrained writers. The research presented here therefore embraces a ''language history 'from below''' (Elspaß et al., 2007) that favors unconventional writings and sources, as opposed to more literary or otherwise highly standardized texts. Second, this article presents language excerpts crafted in a multilingual context, where regionalisms and code-mixing are commonplace. From a historical perspective, such focus opens new perspectives on the relation between the spoken and written language in long-standing language contact situations. We can note one typographical error in the text, on page 174, section 6.1.1: ''/œ/ e /y/ > /œ/ et /y/''.

In sum, this book is to be commended for its breadth of coverage and methodology (both qualitative and quantitative), and by the fact that it addresses all aspects of the linguistically-relevant material found in old documents: the graphophonic content as well as the elements of punctuation. Specialists in the field will undeniably welcome this volume as a worthy contribution to the conscientious study of French in the course of its long history.


Arabyan, Marc (1994) Le Paragraphe narratif. Etude typographique et linguistique de la ponctuation textuelle dans les récits classiques et modernes, Paris, L'Harmattan.

Elspaß, Stephan, Langer, Nils, Scharloth, Joachim et Vandenbussche, Wim (éds.)(2007) Germanic language histories 'from below' (1700-2000), Berlin-New York, de Gruyter.

Chierchia, Gennaro (1986) ''Length, syllabification and the phonological cycle in Italian'', Journal of Italian Linguistics, 8, p. 5-34.

Favriaud, Michel (2004) ''Quelques éléments d'une théorie de la ponctuation blanche - par la poésie contemporaine'', L'information grammaticale, 102, 1, p. 18-23.

Fouché, Pierre (1966-1973) Phonétique historique du français, 3 vols, Paris, Klincksieck.

Trotter David (2009) ''Ensuirre toutes les variétés: la variation au Moyen ge, une approche quantitative'', in Dominique Lagorgette, et Olivier Bertrand (éds.), Études de corpus en diachronie et en synchronie. De la traduction à la variation, Chambéry, Université de Chambéry, p. 159-176.
Lionel Mathieu holds a PhD in linguistics from the University of Arizona. He is a Lecturer in French in the Department of Romance Studies at Boston University. His research interest in linguistics focuses primarily on the phonology-orthography interface in second language acquisition, bilingualism, loanword adaptations, and historical linguistics.