Aidan Coveney (University of Exeter)

« Meaning and the analysis of variation and change in French grammar »

It has long been accepted that one of the means by which linguistic changes occur is the social differentiation of the variants involved in the change. (This constitutes part of Labov’s “embedding” problem.) And the fundamental variationist tool for quantifying changes and stable points of variation is the sociolinguistic variable, defined (loosely) by Labov as “different ways of saying the same thing”. But, while constancy of meaning has been readily accepted for variation and change at the level of phonology, the same cannot be said for morphosyntactic variables. Indeed many linguists have completely rejected this possibility, pointing instead to the principle of “one form: one meaning”, according to which two forms cannot, by definition, be semantically equivalent.This paper will discuss how problems of “meaning”, in a broad sense, have been handled in a wide range of variationist studies of French grammatical phenomena since the 1970s. Particular issues raised include:[a] the identification of occurrences of the variants to be quantified, especially in cases of potential ambiguity (e.g. the pronoun on);

[b] the identification of standard equivalents of non-standard variants, in cases of structural mismatch of standard and non-standard sub-systems of the grammar (e.g. the non-standard Passé Surcomposé in main clauses: J’ai eu aimé sortir; maintenant j’aime beaucoup moins);

[c] the identification of subsets of the variable data (defined semantically or pragmatically) which display categorical (or near-categorical) use of one or other variant (e.g. the use of the Futur Simple or the Futur Périphrastique with habitual, rather than future meaning);

[d] identification of pragmatic factors thought to exert an influence on the variation, and which are subsequently analysed in either quantitative or qualitative terms (e.g. ‘emphasis’ and the presence/ absence of the negative particle; ‘communicative function’ as an influence on the choice of Interrogative structure; ‘information status’ and the use of Subject Doubling, Compound Disjunctive pronouns (e.g. nous autres) and of WH in-situ interrogatives.

Is it entirely predictable that different types of morphosyntactic variable raise different semantico-pragmatic issues?

The paper will draw on case studies of grammatical variation in French spoken in both European and North American contexts.


Aidan Coveney is a long standing member of AFLS and has served on various committees since 1996. He has served as co-editor of JFLS, and member of editorial boards of various journals. He is currently Associate Professor of French Language and Linguistics at the University of Exeter (Modern Languages). His areas of expertise and research include the sociolinguistics (especially variation and change) and sociopragmatics of French and  varieties of French. His long-standing interest in varieties of French is reflected in his book Variation et francophonie. He entertains research links with sociolinguists based in Poitiers, Neuchatel, Paris and Orléans. His publications include four books and many articles on the syntax and morphology of spoken French, as well as on varieties of French.