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  • A sociolinguistic history of Parisian French
  • James Milroy
A sociolinguistic history of Parisian French. By R. Anthony Lodge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. xi, 290. ISBN 0521821797. $80 (Hb).

To produce a full sociohistorical account of the language of a major city is an ambitious undertaking. A sociolinguistic history involves much more than does a purely linguistic history, as the investigator must at every stage try to relate social and political developments to developments in the language. In this book Anthony Lodge has dealt with the main descriptive problems in an exemplary way, and the book is greatly to be welcomed.

The difficulties involved are discussed very carefully in Ch. 1, and it is right that they should be. One of these is the key difficulty faced by all language historians—the incompleteness of available data and the indirectness of much of that evidence. For a socially sensitive account, however, we need more: we must attempt to get access to the vernacular—the spoken language of people when they are not primarily paying attention to their speech. It is obvious that we cannot have direct access to the vernaculars of past centuries, yet we may with some difficulty attempt to approach them. Traditional historical description, however, is of little help, as it did not even try to do this. Scholars generally thought of casual styles as defective in some way: the speech of ordinary people in the social settings of everyday life was usually considered unworthy of scholarly attention, and evidence for nonstandard usage was simply rejected. Language history therefore appeared as a mainly single-stranded continuum—essentially a history of the literary language, or the language of the higher-ranking social groups in their more formal styles.

As L points out, older scholars were dominated by an ideology of language standardization, in which variability was considered to be dysfunctional and nonstandard forms were rejected as illegitimate. As for Parisian French, some variation can, however, be acknowledged: it can be admitted that the educated classes sometimes speak informally, and these varieties can be called le français familier and permitted to have an existence in language descriptions. The speech of the common urban populace (le français populaire), however, is not acceptable as a genuine language variety. As citizens of a great metropolis, these speakers have had easy access to correct standard French, yet they appear to have insisted on violating its norms. Therefore, their speech should not be permitted to play a part in language history. The result of this, of course, is a very narrow conceptualization of language variation.

As I have suggested elsewhere (Milroy 2002:12), any independent developments observed in low-prestige varieties are not seen as linguistic changes , but as corruptions . Not only must these be excluded from the record, but they must also be denounced with all the moral disapprobation that the word ‘corruption’ suggests. At various points in the book, L cites prescriptive comments that speak of cleansing the language and eliminating bad usage. For example, he notes that the ‘explicit brief’ of the Académie française was to ‘nettoyer la langue des ordures qu’elle avoit contractées . . . dans la bouche du peuple’1 (151). This extreme purism, which has remained prominent, has clearly had a powerful effect on the work of historians of the French language, and the elitist selectivity that drives it is arguably greater for French than for other European languages.

All this, it is clear, makes the work of a sociolinguistic historian all the more difficult. L starts from scratch, outlining a sociolinguistic approach that takes account of variation and pointing out the parameters of variation—social, stylistic, and so on. There follows an account of the Weinreich et al. 1968 program for the empirical study of language change. In a discussion of the French of Paris, L makes it clear that this is not a uniform entity, but heterogeneous, and that there are numerous open-ended and overlapping speech communities within the city.

In Ch. 2, there is a summary of the sources of information about spoken French in the several historical periods. In the medieval period, relatively direct attestations of spoken language...


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