University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Linguistics PhD seminars > Talk B - Variable agreement in French: investigating grammatical and social variation

Talk B - Variable agreement in French: investigating grammatical and social variation

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Louise Radok.

In comparison to sociolinguistic research on English, the body of research on sociolinguistic variation in French remains relatively small, as well as being concentrated in certain areas. Though various studies have been carried out on Québecois French (cf. Sankoff et al 1989), work on mainland French tends to focus on phonological variation; those studies which do consider syntactic variation mainly focus on negation and interrogation (cf. Ashby 1981; Coveney 1996).

My research seeks to contribute to this area by investigating the effect of social factors on agreement with collective nouns and quantifying expressions in French (e.g.: _une foule de personnes a/ont_…[a crowd of people has/have]; _la majorité des étudiants a/ont_…[the majority of students has/have]). Here, a mismatch between syntactic and semantic number leads to variation in agreement (singular/plural; cf. Corbett 2006). Though singular agreement is often viewed as prescriptively ‘correct’, much discussion of agreement is found in grammars (cf. Grevisse 1993; Riegel, Pellat & Rioul 1994), itself indicative of the large amount of variation found here.

Although variable agreement of this kind exists in a number of languages (cf. English – Levin 2001; German – Berg 1998; Spanish – Ortega & Morera 1981-1982), the investigation of this phenomenon in French offers an additional dimension, which is to consider the influence of prescriptivism on language use. French is widely cited as one of the most codified languages in the world, but the question of the extent to which this actually affects language use remains open, given the relative lack of investigations in this area.

Using sociolinguistic interviews and gap-fill tests, my research qualitatively and quantitatively analyses real language data to investigate the effect of age, gender and education on agreement with these constructions. This paper presents results from fieldwork completed in Normandy, France, in 2009.

This talk is part of the Linguistics PhD seminars series.

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