Sociolinguistic variation in seventeenth-century France.

Sociolinguistic variation in seventeenth-century France. By Wendy Ayres-Bennett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. xii, 267. ISBN 052182088X. $101 (Hb).

Reviewed by Kirsten Fudeman, University of Pittsburgh

Near the beginning of her latest book, Wendy Ayres-Bennett writes, ‘it may seem perverse to try and reconstruct variation in seventeenth-century France, since this period is generally characterized as one of rigid codification and standardization, concerned with the establishment of the norms of written French, and thus of the elimination of variation’ (3–4). In fact, as she states and then demonstrates, the seventeenth century is fertile ground for this kind of enterprise, thanks to the attention paid by authors of metalinguistic texts (e.g. dictionaries, grammars, and collections of observations on the French language) to even small departures from the standard. The genius of this study lies in the way that A combines information from these sources with data from literary and nonliterary texts, and comparative evidence from Canadian French and French-based creoles.

The book has six chapters. Ch. 1, ‘Introduction: Methodological issues’ (1–16), addresses topics such as finding appropriate sources, choosing variables for analysis, and interpreting the data. Ch. 2, ‘Spoken and written French’ (17–60), explores in greater detail the sources available for evidence regarding spoken seventeenth-century French and offers several case studies, with many more to follow in later chapters. In Ch. 3, ‘Social and stylistic variation’ (61–110), A examines evidence of variation according to socioeconomic status or social class and asks to what degree it is possible to separate this from register. Ch. 4, ‘Women’s language’ (111–80), deals with a number of issues, including women’s education and position in society, positive and negative attitudes toward women’s language use, préciosité, and specific features of women’s language. Ch. 5, ‘Age, variation and change’ (181–224), is primarily concerned with change over time. Ch. 6 is the ‘Conclusion’ (225–29). An appendix contains a useful listing of metalinguistic texts available for the study of seventeenth-century French, ranging from collections of observations and remarques to dictionaries, grammars, model dialogues, and works on French pronunciation, orthography, versification, and prosody.


A’s concern with methodology is evident throughout the volume. How does the sociohistorical linguist concerned with variation in the spoken language select appropriate sources? What problems are associated with these sources, and is it possible to compensate for them using other types of evidence? When are statistical approaches possible, and when does the type of evidence available render them meaningless or impossible? A demonstrates that historical studies of syntactic variation in speech can pose particular challenges. Syntactic constructions that were presumably common in lower registers based on criticisms found in metalinguistic texts are not necessarily well documented in other types of written sources, even those that are rich in dialogue. Literary texts often convey the impression of lower-register speech through their vocabulary; their syntax tends to be standardized. Nonetheless, A successfully documents syntactic variation, along with variation in morphology, phonology, and lexis.

This volume will be of great interest not only to specialists in the history of the French language, but also to scholars interested in historical and sociohistorical linguistics in general. A’s many carefully constructed case studies would make excellent models for graduate students and others wishing to embark on similar kinds of studies.