Coveney, Aidan, 1996:

Variability in Spoken French. A Sociolinguistic Study of Interrogation and Negation

Exeter, UK: Elm Bank Publications. Pp. vi + 271
Paperback: ISBN 0 9502595 4 3, 25.00

reviewed by

Nigel Armstrong

Department of French Studies, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU
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First published in Web Journal of Modern Language Linguistics in association with the publishers (to be announced). © 1996 Nigel Armstrong.

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The publicity on the back of this book remarks that "studies of the sociolinguistics of spoken French are still something of a rarity today". This is undoubtedly true, and especially so of studies set in the Labovian variationist paradigm, as this book largely is. For some reason, the Anglo-Saxon, number-crunching strain of sociolinguistics, which has provided many fruitful insights into language variation notably in British and American English, has not yet been applied on a large scale to the French of 'the Hexagon', although much stimulating work has been done in the Labovian paradigm on Quebec French.

As Milroy has pointed out (1987:96): "Labov's main concern was to obtain insights into processes of linguistic change and to challenge linguistic theories which modelled language as a static entity, identifying homogeneity with structure [emphasis in original]". This definition of the programme of quantitative sociolinguistics seems to fit the present volume; in his introduction (p. 1), Coveney expresses the aim of his study in different but related terms: to investigate the extent to which one can account for the choices made by speakers in negative and interrogative sentences. Clearly, choice implies variation (implies change), and the assumption here is that quantification can be applied to variable negation and interrogation in a corpus of spoken language data in order to examine the structural linguistic factors constraining speakers' choices. This study is situated therefore towards the quantifying-linguistic end of sociolinguistics, rather than the 'speaker-oriented' discursive-social end, which regards linguistic variation as a form of social behaviour like any other.

In Coveney's formulation, his study is 'system-oriented' in "investigating variation involving different forms in a restricted sub-system of the language" as the author of the present volume puts it (p. 91). The emphasis is therefore on the linguistics in sociolinguistics, with a tendency to abstract away from the individual speaker in order to focus on variation and change in the language through the examination of the 'sociolinguistic patterns' that speaker groups exhibit.

There is naturally present in all quantitative work a varying element of qualitative interpretation, and the author devotes a good deal of space to a discursive analysis of variable interrogative forms; here again, however, the interest is in examining the extent to which the quantitative enterprise can be applied to this area of variable syntax. Anyone familiar with spoken French will be aware of the complexity of choices available in the formulation of interrogative forms. Any linguist intending to systematise this complexity through quantification needs to be aware of how deeply the enterprise is fraught with difficulties of theory and method; yet Coveney seems to be the first scholar, out of the several who have studied variable interrogation in French, to be fully aware of these difficulties, and to respond to them adequately.

Chapter 1 describes the methods used to collect and analyse the corpus of spoken French examined in this study. The corpus was recorded in the 1980s in children's summer camps, chiefly in Picardy; the author had in several years previous to the study worked as an animateur in these distinctively French institutions. The informants were adults working with the children in the camps, and speech was recorded in an informal interview style, or "elicited conversation", in the author's phrase.

Chapter 2, entitled 'Grammatical Variability', is devoted to a subtle and thorough discussion of the legitimacy of extending the notion of the sociolinguistic variable from phonology to grammar. The two areas of grammatical variation examined here are negation and interrogation.

Chapter 3 reports on the patterns of variable negation observed in the Picardy corpus. One might suppose that variable negation (the variable deletion of the negative particle ne, as in je [ne] sais pas) is one of the few areas of spoken French that has been fairly thoroughly worked over by scholars, all the more so given the relative straightforwardness of the syntactic constraints operating upon its variable behaviour: to oversimplify, it is overwhelmingly deleted before clitic pronouns (with some variation due to phonological factors) but tends to be retained before full noun phrases. Is there anything new to say on the subject? Coveney's contribution is a judicious assessment, through a marshalling of his own findings and those reported in the literature, of the contemporary status of variable negation: the question to be answered is whether the negative particle is still in recession, or whether patterns of variation indicate stability. Coveney prefers the latter hypothesis, arguing that the different findings obtained by various researchers are attributable to varying elicitation methods and the different social/regional varieties of French studied. It certainly seems plausible that a syntactic change which has been taking place over such a long period (attested since the Renaissance) should now be stable. Coveney suggests further that ne is no longer acquired as part of the core vernacular grammar by French-speaking children, but is superimposed under institutional pressure later.

Chapters 4-6 deal with variable interrogation. This area of variable syntax has also been investigated by several researchers previous to Coveney. The latter's findings confirm through quantification that inversion of clitic subject and verb (Quand pars-tu? Voulez-vous la tisane?) is now very rare in everyday spoken French; what speakers mostly use are the interrogative particle est-ce que in WH questions (first example), and declarative structure plus interrogative intonation in Yes-No questions (second). This is of course grossly to simplify a formidably complex area of variation. As indicated above, Coveney's original contribution here is an acute and thorough analysis of the problems which confront the researcher who is attempting to study variable interrogation using quantitative methods: these methods of course require the setting up of syntactic variables and their variants, and the difficulties which attend this enterprise, on the levels of semantic and pragmatic equivalence, seem to have received here their first full and adequate treatment.

This is a valuable book, both as a source of original findings and argumentation and as a summary and assessment of previous research. The book started life as a PhD thesis, and its density is at times a trifle daunting, but it is never 'Phenomenally Dull', to evoke the jocular source of the acronym. It is also very well written. It will be indispensable to all researchers working in the variationist paradigm, as well as to lecturers seeking fresh language data to inject into their sociolinguistics courses.


Milroy, L., 1987. Observing and Analysing Natural Language. Oxford: Blackwell.
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