A terrible thing is happening to the French language; terrible, at least, from the standpoint of those who have to teach introductory linguistics classes. For many years now, everyday spoken French has not had any discontinuous negative morphemes; i.e., ne...pas, ne...rien, etc. Speakers nowadays simply dispense with the ne part of the morpheme, saying, for example ‘Il va pas’ rather than ‘Il ne va pas’. Luckily, standard, or “fake” French, as prescribed by the French Academy, retains the discontinuous ne, so that writers often use it and teachers of French as a foreign language always require it.
Why is this lucky? Well, as any teacher of introductory linguistics knows, French ne...X
is one of the standard examples used in beginning discussions of
morphology, comparable to Eskimo snow words in discussions of culture
and words for ‘mother’ in comparative Indo-
Probably some of you readers are thinking, “You’re right, there would be a problem if ne...X were to die, but why worry? The French Academy decides such things, and they’re even more conservative than Edwin Neumann.” So I used to think, as well, until just recently. For last year, to my horror, the French Academy announced the abolition of the circumflex. Think of that: they abolished an entirely unpronounced orthographic mark whose only purpose was to let pedants like me know that there used to be an s in the word in question. Now, if the Academy is going to go around destroying useless anachronisms of that nature, then what, I ask you, is sacrosanct? Certainly not ne...X, which we can expect to see eliminated by the end of this decade unless we organize to save it.
Here is what I propose. In most cases, eliminating the ne of ne...X has no effect on comprehension; speakers understand ‘Je vais pas’ quite as well as ‘Je ne vais pas’. However, in the crucial case of ne...plus, this is not always the case. For example, if several people were waiting inside a building for rain to stop, and one of them went to check whether it was continuing, imagine the confusion if he came in and said, “Il pleut plus.” Would he mean ‘It’s raining more’ or ‘It’s no longer raining’? Most likely his listeners would beat him over the head for daring to be ambiguous. At least, so we could claim to the members of the French Academy, who, being impressed by the rigorous logic of our arguments, would no doubt give our conclusions favorable consideration. Of course, we’ll have to make sure that we get French linguists to advance our arguments; the Academy is unlikely to listen to Americans. With luck, ne...X will be saved, and we’ll be spared the trouble and unfortunate consequences of finding a substitute.
|Tim Pulju||Rice University|