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  • Les noms en français: Esquisse de classement by Nelly Flaux, and Danièle van de Velde
  • Jan Holeš
Les noms en français: Esquisse de classement. By Nelly Flaux and Danièle van de Velde. (Collection l’essentiel français.) Paris: Ophrys, 2000. Pp. 127. ISBN 2708009583. 64 FF.

In this volume, Nelly Flaux and Danièle van de Velde attempt to provide a comprehensive classification of French substantives. The authors’ classification is formulated in explicitly semantic terms (countable, animate, concrete, manufactured, etc.). However, its core is syntactic since any assignment of a noun into a determined class is made on the basis of syntactic properties distinguishing it from other substantives.

The book consists of an introduction, five chapters, a short glossary of terms used in the preceding description, and a fairly long bibliography. The introduction (1–10) explains the reasons for the exclusion of proper names and substantivized adjectives from the following analyses, presents the principles of description used, and copes with the problem of polysemy of the substantives to be described. The first chapter (11–40) outlines the field, distinguishing the ‘veritable’ nouns, denoting the things, from the ‘derived’ nouns, based on verbs and adjectives and denoting the states, processes, qualities, and so on. This chapter treats the basic classification distinctions, which include concrete/abstract, extensive/intensive, countable/uncountable, animate/inanimate, and natural/manufactured.

The simplicity of structure is readily apparent. The following four chapters, focusing on the concrete countable nouns (41–62), the concrete uncountable nouns (63–74), the abstract intensive nouns (75–95), and the abstract extensive nouns (97–112), show that it is quite difficult to identify the subsystems with well-defined borders. The shifts from one category into another are very frequent, depending on extremely variable conditions. Despite this, the authors always try to give a sufficient number of formal properties convincingly proving the specificity of a given group of nouns.

The extensive/intensive opposition is worth mentioning since it does not usually appear in the literature on noun typology. However, this feature is characteristic for a number of abstract nouns. All concrete objects are extensive either in space (table ‘table’) or in time (sonate ‘sonata’), while the abstract objects are either intensive (bonté ‘goodness’) or extensive. If they are extensive, they have exclusively temporal dimension (effondrement ‘collapse’). There are no hard and fast lines between the two classes, as some substantives may cumulate the features of both classes (tristesse ‘sadness’ may be more or less intensive, but it may last for a determined period of time and thus become extensive). In addition, there are also substantives that do not seem to fit into either class (immortalité ‘immortality’).

This is a useful book for linguists concerned with French grammar, but it will find its readers equally among the specialists in general linguistics. As the title suggests, the proposed analysis is just a sketch of a classification based on the exclusively formal criteria, exhaustive and incomplete at the same time. It may stimulate further studies.

Jan Holeš
Univerzita Palackého


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