Confronting prescription and praxis in the evolution of grammar

Principal Investigator: Shana Poplack
Canada Council for the Arts
Killam Research Fellowship [2001-2003]

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This research takes a variationist approach to the relationship between form and meaning among varieties of the same language, which differ along historical and ideological axes. We investigate older and contemporary Canadian French vernaculars, and the effect of normative prescription upon them, drawing on two unique and heretofore unexploited historically pertinent linguistic sources:

1) The Récits du français québécois d‘autrefois, a collection of audio recordings made in the 1950’s with elderly informants born between 1846-1895, and

2) The Répertoire historique de grammaires du français, a survey of nearly 200 grammars and usage manuals published between 1558 and 1999.

We trace the evolution of four salient and stereotyped morphosyntactic alternations in these sources (use of the indicative for the subjunctive, the periphrastic for the inflected future, the conditional for the imperfect and auxiliary avoir for être in composé tenses), comparing their behavior throughout the development of the language with current usage, as instantiated in the Ottawa-Hull French Corpus (Poplack 1989).

Our previous studies of contemporary spoken French showed that, despite the prevalence of non-standard variants, typical normative interpretations of such variation as grammatical simplification could not be confirmed scientifically. Standard forms have not been lost from all contexts, semantic distinctions have not been neutralized, and we have found no evidence of French grammatical structures being replaced by English-like constructions. Indeed, these results support an alternative possibility: that the comparison variety (a nebulous "earlier" stage of the language) is itself highly idealized, and may have been considerably closer to its present-day counterpart than is generally assumed in the normative and pedagogical literature. By triangulating contemporary usage with a 19th century precursor and associated grammatical treatments of these alternations from the 16th century to the present, this project explores the possibility that the prescribed "standard"; may never have corresponded to usage of the relevant period.

Innovative here are the application of rigorous quantitative methodology to the analysis of the evolution of grammatical prescription and the operationalization of constraints on variability gleaned from the prescriptive literature as factors in a multivariate analysis. Results will enable us to situate each variant form within its relevant grammatical sector and to determine which, if any, of the factors constraining present-day variability were operative at an earlier stage. This confrontation of prescription with praxis, historical and contemporary, will contribute to our understanding of morphosyntactic change, while elucidating the influence of prescription on usage.

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