A study, with critical editions, of the genre of Observations on the French language

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: French


Seventeenth-century France witnessed the emergence of a new kind of work on French. These volumes of observations and remarks about points of doubtful usage constitute vital sources for the history of the standardisation of French and provide invaluable information about variation and change.
The first, and most important, text is Vaugelas's Remarques sur la langue Francoise (1647) which quickly became the authoritative work on good usage. Subsequent volumes adopt and adapt Vaugelas's format, commenting on his pronouncements.
This project aims to provide paper and electronic editions of the major volumes and a monograph on the genesis of the genre.


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Description The French have long been preoccupied with notions of linguistic correctness or 'good usage'. It is often said that France provides the most extreme example of a prescriptive, interventionist and indeed purist attitude to use of language. This project researched the origins of this concern for linguistic correctness in the seventeenth century, the period of the founding of the French Academy, whose statutes explicitly state that its mission is to rid the language of 'impurities'.

Bringing together scholars from North America, France and other parts of Europe, the project focused on a particularly French type of text, Remarks and Observations on the French language. The earliest example, Vaugelas's Remarks on the French Language, published in 1647, aims to prescribe good written and spoken usage not for foreigners, but for those who already have a good mastery of the language. The work was a best-seller and highly influential in its day: we know, for instance, that in 1660 the great playwright Pierre Corneille reworked the language of his plays to take account of Vaugelas's judgements and that Jean Racine, author of some of France's finest tragedies, is said to have taken a copy of the work with him to the south of France so not to become contaminated by regional speech. To appreciate the appeal and influence of these works requires an understanding of the social and cultural history of France. In a period of great social mobility, when nobility could be purchased by the newly rich, these works acted as a kind of linguistic courtesy book. Someone arriving new to the King's court would need to know not only how to dress and eat properly, but perhaps above all how to speak correctly, so as not to offend polite society.

The project has resulted in an electronic corpus of fifteen key texts which will be a valuable tool for future research in a number of disciplines. We also published a series of paper publications (books, articles, critical editions), most notably a monograph on the history, evolution and importance of the genre, both for the history of French and for the history of linguistic thought in France. Indeed its impact still resonates today - it is surely no coincidence that the author of the most influential grammar of contemporary French, Maurice Grevisse, in a work which significantly bears the title 'Good Usage', is described as the twentieth-century Vaugelas.
Exploitation Route The electronic corpus is to be available under national licence to all public libraries in France (some 8,000-10,000 university, town, hospital libraries, etc.). This will allow anyone interested in the French language to search the origin of certain rules of grammar or pronouncements about the correct usage of French.
Sectors Education

Description The corpus has been widely used and cited for research on the history of French and the history of linguistic thought in France. The monograph, which won a French Academy prize, is cited as the key text on the history and description of the genre of observations on the French language.
First Year Of Impact 2011
Sector Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software)
Impact Types Cultural

Title On-line database which has replaced the original CD-ROM 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No