Manno, Giuseppe, 1994.

Le français non conventionnel en Suisse romande.

Berne, Berlin; Frankfurt/M., etc.: Peter Lang. Pp. 301. ISBN 3-906752-46-1 (hardback/paperback), SF 62,- / DM 75,-.

reviewed by

Alan Smith

Department of French Studies, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU. E-mail:

[Download this Review (15K, Rich Text Format)]

Copyright Notice:

First published in Web Journal of Modern Language Linguistics in association with the publishers (to be announced). © 1998 Alan Smith.
The moral rights of the author(s) to be identified as author(s) of this work are asserted in accordance with §§.77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. This work may be reproduced without the consent of the author, in part or in whole in any manner and in any medium subject only to the two following conditions:
(a) no charge shall be made for the copy containing the work or the excerpt,
(b) a copy of this notice shall precede the work or the excerpt.

This book, originally a doctoral thesis submitted at the University of Zurich in 1993, is based on a survey of non-standard French lexical items carried out in two Swiss towns: Geneva and Neuchâtel. Manno's main aim was to obtain empirical evidence to determine whether French-speaking Switzerland now shares the same stock of colloquial lexical items and expressions as speakers in metropolitan France, or whether it has managed to retain its regionalisms to any great extent.

It is frequently asserted (for example by Walter 1988:122) that France's dialects have converged in the twentieth century. This is generally attributed to the increased opportunities for travel in the modern age and the development of the mass media. As Paris is still very much the centre of economic, social and cultural life in France, it is not surprising that this levelling influence is said to originate in the capital, spreading out to the rest of the country. The forces of convergence are exercised simultaneously in two directions: towards the standard language and towards what Gadet (1992) calls français populaire : a convenient label attached to an accumulation of non-standard linguistic features associated with the Parisian working classes, although in reality these features are characteristic of informal speech in general. The main issue addressed by Manno is whether colloquial Parisian expressions can successfully cross national boundaries as well as prestige standard norms evidently can.

Manno was not only concerned with geographical variation in the use of non-standard lexis, however; he also sought to correlate the frequency of colloquial expressions with the demographic variables of socio-professional status, age and sex. Here he hoped to uncover some of the linguistic effects of the blurring of social divisions that he asserts has taken place in Switzerland in recent years.

In the two towns where Manno conducted his study, he divided his informants according to sex, three age bands and three socio-professional categories. Rather than aiming for a true microcosm of the populations of Geneva and Neuchâtel, he tried as far as possible to ensure that every social group was represented in his study in sufficient numbers.

Manno's study was composed of an "active" and a "passive" phase. The passive phase involved reading out a list of thirty non-conventional lexical items and expressions to the informants, checking first on whether the term was known to the informants, and then whether it was actually used by them or by their circle of acquaintances. Conversely, the active phase consisted of giving the informants twenty common concepts and asking the informants to give as many non-standard synonyms as possible for these concepts.

The results of the first phase demonstrate impressively that non-standard vocabulary is no longer restricted to the lower social orders. Therefore such prescriptive labels as français populaire and français familier are highly inaccurate, and probably only of use to foreign learners so they can distinguish these items from standard expressions on the one hand and outright vulgarities on the other. Manno started with the working hypothesis that the upper-ranking social groups use fewer unconventional lexical items and resist linguistic innovation. However, he concludes that speakers from any social group now utter the non-standard lexical items considered in his study, although he adds significantly that the higher-ranking social groups are more deliberate in their usage of unconventional items, tending to vary use according to the speech context.

Manno's findings therefore agree broadly with those of Lodge (1989), who carried out a similar study in Clermont-Ferrand several years ago. Lodge concluded that differences between standard and non-standard lexical items no longer reflect differences in social status but are principally functional; that is, non-standard vocabulary can be used by competent speakers on the appropriate occasion to indicate, for example, friendliness and a narrowing of social distance with regard to hearers. Although Manno makes a plea for the association of colloquial French with the lower social classes to be abandoned, he nonetheless points out that access to different speech contexts is not independent of social class.

As for the linguistic differences between the sexes, these have not closed completely as predicted by Manno's working hypothesis, especially for those lexical items with strong masculine connotations.

In the active phase of his study, Manno found that non-standard regional terms have diminished dramatically in favour of colloquial terms imported from France. Unsurprisingly, cosmopolitan Geneva appears to be slightly more receptive to linguistic innovations than 'conservative' Neuchâtel.

But the problem with this book (apart from the pages missing from the conclusion and the autobiography in my copy) is that it seems to have undergone little or no editing from its thesis form. Its conclusions are therefore somewhat obscured by a mass of detail and qualification, which makes for a rather tiring read. I also found the presentation of the data rather difficult to follow at times.

That said, Manno's research will be of great interest to any linguist working in the field of lexical variation in French. The study was well conceived and seems to have been rigorously conducted. The active phase was a clever way of trying to correct the drawbacks of the passive phase: i.e. the well-known tendency of speakers in sociolinguistic research to underestimate their usage of non-standard lexical items in studies based on reported usage. Indeed, Manno found that there was a marked sense of linguistic inferiority felt by some informants vis-à-vis standard French. Also, as Manno remarks (p. 204), a term mentioned spontaneously by an informant is more likely to be actually used by that informant than a term to which the informant is asked to respond with a "yes" or a "no".

Above all, what one draws from this book is an awareness of the serious difficulties encountered by linguists working in the field of lexical variation. If the data in such studies is to remain manageable and produce clear conclusions, then some simplification seems inevitable. Manno's observations should prove useful to any linguist engaged in this fascinating area of research.


Gadet, F., 1992. Le français populaire . Paris: P.U.F.

Lodge, R. A.., 1989. "Speakers' perceptions of non-standard vocabulary in French." Zeitschrift für Romanische Philologie 105(5-6): 427-444.

Walter, H., 1988. Le français dans tous les sens . Paris: Laffont.

Return to The Issue 3 Contents Page | The WJMLL Home Page