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.

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.