Category Archives: French


It occasionally happens that a word newly encountered, which I suppose to be completely defunct and perhaps even a hapax legomenon, is met again soon after somewhere very different. While reading Saint-John Perse’s work Amers, his long poem in honor of the sea, I was not sure of the definition of one of the terms in this dizzying list:

Et c’est la Mer qui vint à nous sur les degrés de pierre du drame:
Avec ses Princes, ses Régents, ses Messagers vêtus d’emphase et de métal, ses grands Acteurs aux yeux crevés et ses Prophètes à la chaîne, ses Magiciennes trépignant sur leurs socques de bois, la bouche pleine de caillots noirs, et ses tributs de Vierges cheminant dans les labours de l’hymne,
Aves ses Pâtres, ses Pirates et ses Nourrices d’enfants-rois, ses vieux Nomades en exil et ses Princesses d’élégie, ses grandes Veuves silencieuses sous des cendres illustres, ses grands Usurpateurs de trônes et Fondateurs de colonies lointaines, ses Prébendiers, et ses Marchands, ses grands Concessionnaires des provinces d’étain, et ses grands Sages voyageurs à dos de buffles de rizières.

Amers, ‘Invocation’, 6

I had no idea what a prébendier might be, but I was too lazy to find a French dictionary and look it up. Perse is known anyhow for Frenchifying classical terminology otherwise rarely attested in the language, and I wasn’t sure if such a word would be in any commonly available French dictionary.

But oddly enough, the only other work of literature I’ve taken along for my current travels in the Middle East, the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, uses the word in English in its chronology of the author: 1742 (8 January) Admitted as prebendary of North Newbald.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as: The holder of a prebend; (formerly) a canon of a cathedral or collegiate church who obtained income from a prebend; (in later use) an honorary canon in any of various Anglican cathedrals.. A prebend according to the OED is Originally: the estate or portion of land from which a stipend is derived to support a canon of a cathedral or collegiate church, or a member of its chapter (more fully corps of the prebend).

The etymology, again according to the OED, is lit. “things to be supplied”, use as noun of neuter plural of gerundive of classical Latin praebēre to present, show, to offer, to provide, supply, contracted < praehibēre to provide, supply (Plautus) < prae- PRE- prefix + habēre to have, hold.

Finally, prebend was clearly reborn out of classical literature. The descendent of the Vulgar Latin neuter plural of the gerundive of praehibēre came down to us as a different word but somewhat more often read, namely ‘provend’, having undergone a characteristic b > v shift in Middle French.

France getting a taste of its own medicine?

In the February 2008 issue of the Journal of Sociolinguistics, David Greer reviews Robin Adamson’s The Defence of French: A Language in Crisis? (Multilingual Matters, 2007). I’ve not read Adamson’s work yet, but I was intrigued by this bit from Greer’s review:

Adamson transitions from an historical perspective to the modern situation in Chapter 2 with the presentation of legal responses to language preservation. She presents the laws within the framework of the governmental agencies and their influence on the nation as a whole. The foreshadowing of comparisons with other national linguistic laws in later parts of the book is set with the description of la loi constitutionnelle (1992) which states that French is the language of the Republic. Once the argument has been made that French is the unifying language of the country, the author describes the regional and minority linguistic situation throughout the various provinces of France. A paradox exists between the once rejected regional languages, formerly seen to pollute the purity of French, now being embraced as a way to nurture a diverse multi-lingual heritage only to defend French from English.

It’s ironic indeed that French centralist forces, so long against public expression in Occitan, Breton, Basque or any of the more out-there dialects of la langue d’oïl itself, are now finding French marginalized by the rise of English. Yet evidentally the French government has not really embraced minority languages in spite of the fact that it’s the sensible thing to do, as a recent article by Davyth Hicks at Eurolang suggests.

The French Government refused on Wednesday (7th May) to ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML) or to modify their constitution to allow for some recognition of the languages on its territories. A new law was proposed for regional languages, but any official status or usage was ruled out. France, however, may find that it has problems – it has ratified the Lisbon Treaty, which, if it comes into force, will require France to respect linguistic diversity and prohibit discrimination against languages and national minorities.

Despite the efforts of National Assembly deputies from Brittany, led by Marc le Fur and Marylise Lebranchu, Pays Basque, North Catalonia, Corsica, and the Alsace, the French government, represented by Culture Minister Mme Christine Albanel, stuck to its hard line policy on refusing any legal recognition of regional languages. The grounds given being that it would undermine the eighteenth century French centralist idea of one language, one state, set up to unify the regions and countries taken over by France before and after the French revolution.

She ruled out any notion that regional languages have any official status or official usage making it clear that France has no intention of ratifying the European Charter for Minority Languages. She argued that the Charter “is against our principles” because it “implies [...] an inviolable right to speak a regional language, notably in the public sphere,” and that ratification is “against constitutional principles fundamental to the indivisibilty of the Republic, equality in front of the law and the unity of the French people.”

What a sad world we live in when implying that one has an inviolable right to the language of one’s ancestors when still living with unbroken continuity on that ancestral land is in any way controversial.

Fun with Old French declension

I am trying to improve my French for a winter trip to francophone Africa. However, being an obsessive historical linguist, I am not content just to brush up on conversation, and so I’ve checked out some books from the library on the whole evolution of the French language. One is Peter Rickard’s A History of the French Language (London: Hutchinson, 1974). While I have always thought of French as the most obnoxiously innovative of the Romance languages, I think it is neat that it held on to declension of substantives longer than any of the other western Romance languages. Old French declension, compressing the Vulgar Latin system into Nominative and Oblique cases, is usually clearly descended from Latin forms, though analogy has played its part.

Most masculine nouns decline with the expected reflexes of Latin 2nd declension nominative and accusative endings:

Sing. Pl.
Nom. murs < murus mur < muri
Obl. mur < murum murs < muros

Many 3rd declension masculine nouns are just as straightforward:

Sing. Pl.
Nom. frere < frater frere < *fratri
Obl. frere < fratrem freres < fratres

Yet there are nouns which ‘for good phonological reasons’ show more variety, but obviously the days of such irregularities were numbered:

Sing. Pl.
Nom. ber < baro (‘warrior, hero’) baron < *baroni
Obl. baron < baronem barons < barones

Rickard goes on to list the declension of feminines and of adjectives as well. All in all, a fascinating book. I was also surprised to learn that many changes which took French so far from its Vulgar Latin basis took place not in antiquity when the language was put on top of a Gaulic substrate and then came into contact with Frankish, but rather as recently as the 14th century.