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  • A Sociolinguistic Study of the Origins of ne Deletion in European and Quebec French
  • France Martineau and Raymond Mougeon

We present and discuss the results of a sociolinguistic historical study of variable deletion of the preverbal negative particle ne ‘not’, a phenomenon observable in many contemporary varieties of spoken French, but which has not yet made its way into standard written French. Our study’s two main goals are (i) to contribute to the resolution of a debate over the point in time when ne deletion became a prevalent feature of nonstandard spoken French, and (ii) to assess the role of the affixal status of subject clitic pronouns in the rise of ne deletion.

Our study is based on the analysis of an extensive database comprising a wide range of seventeenth-, eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early twentieth-century sources providing information on the typical features of nonstandard spoken European and Quebec French. It reveals that ne deletion became widespread in nonstandard spoken French only in the nineteenth century and leads us to hypothesize that the affixal status of subject clitic pronouns contributed to the rise of ne deletion.*

Introduction

In this article we present and discuss the results of a historical study of nonstandard spoken French. Our study is focused on variable deletion of the preverbal negative particle ne, a phenomenon observable in many contemporary varieties of spoken French but which has not yet made its way into standard written French. Our study has two main goals: (i) to contribute to the resolution of a debate as to when deletion of the particle ne became prevalent in nonstandard spoken French, and (ii) to assess the role played by the affixal status of subject pronouns in the rise of ne deletion.

As shown below, there is a considerable range of more or less divergent opinions among linguists as to when ne deletion became widespread in nonstandard spoken French, some contending that this phenomenon was already prevalent as early as the seventeenth century, others of the opinion that its rise is a much more recent development. This lack of agreement demonstrates that there has not been enough systematic corpus-based research on the evolution of ne deletion and hence that those who have debated this issue have often not based their opinion on solid diachronic data. What is needed now is a study that focuses on this phenomenon and attempts to chart its diachronic sociolinguistic trajectory over several hundred years.

The internal factors that may have favored the rise of ne deletion have been the object of a number of recent studies. One factor that has received special attention is the transformation of French subject clitics into preverbal affixes. We examine the role of this factor in the light of the findings of our historical study of ne deletion and of previous historical studies that have documented phenomena indicating that subject clitics have become preverbal affixes.

1. Overview of the rise of postverbal negation

It should be pointed out at the outset that the primary condition behind variable deletion of particle ne lies in the fact that French developed a two-pronged negative construction, whereby the notion of [End Page 118] negation is expressed redundantly via two elements: a preverbal particle ne and postverbal negators (words such as pas or point ‘not’ or jamais ‘never’ and rien ‘nothing’), as in examples 1 and 2.

(1)

(2)

Before we review the studies that focused on deletion of particle ne, we provide the reader with a brief overview of the chief stages that led to the development of this two-pronged negative construction. Our diachronic presentation focuses on literary French.

According to Foulet 1977 and Price 1984, as early as the thirteenth century, negation was expressed mostly via preverbal negative particle ne rather than non, a morpheme of Latin origin that is still used in Romance languages such as Spanish or Italian. Negative particle ne expressed the generic notion of negation and it could be used either on its own (il ne vout estre ses amis ‘he does not want to be their friend’) or it could be reinforced with postverbal words such as pas, point, mie which added emphasis to that notion...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-0665
Print ISSN
0097-8507
Pages
pp. 118-152
Launched on MUSE
2003-05-01
Open Access
No
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