Book Notice

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Dec 23 13:43:00 UTC 2005

Forwarded from Linguist-List, 21-Dec-2005

AUTHORS: Le Du, Jean; Le Berre, Yves; Brun-Trigaud, Guylaine

Lectures de l'Atlas Linguistique de la France de Gillieron et
Edmont: Du temps dans l'espace
PUBLISHER: Comite des Travaux Historiques et Scientifiques
YEAR: 2005
Announced at

Reviewed by Melanie Jouitteau, University of Nantes

The book is written in French. The prototypical reader is a French
speaker, described as part of a ''large enlightened public'' (p. 5).


The book opens with a preface, followed by an introduction.

The preface states that the goal of the book is not to explain what
language is, but to propose a description, among others, of what
''France'' is, departing from linguistic data collected at the end of the
19th century in a rural world, which has now almost disappeared.  The
dialectic develops on the opposition between, on the one hand, an extreme
diversity of variations illustrated by the data collected in the Atlas
Linguistique de la France of Gillieron and Edmont (Linguistic Atlas of
France, henceforth ALF), and, on the other hand, the construction of a
common idiom, French.

The introduction begins by exposing the genesis of the book and how the
decision had been taken to rework Pr. Falc'hun's notes on the ALF,
following his hypothesis that geography and economy highly influence
lexical borrowings in a given language. The authors next present the
methodology of data collection for the ALF, noting that the ALF served as
a reference for the collection of Breton data by Pierre Leroux for the
constitution of the Atlas Linguistique de Basse- Bretagne (Linguistic
Atlas of Low-Brittany, henceforth ALBB). The authors finally indicate how
to read the maps of the following study.

The study proper is divided into three parts, respectively
entitled ''Time'', ''Space'' and ''Movements''.

The first part, ''Time'', presents a selection of 40 maps illustrating the
distribution and variants of different words, revealing their origins,
from the age of iron to the low middle age.

The second part, ''Space'', investigates the characteristics of each
region of the French State, with more than 300 maps. Different
geographic characteristics are shown to produce different behaviours
in terms of sensibility to exterior influences. The studied areas
distinguish mountains, rivers that can sometimes block humans from
crossing, or longitudinally accelerate human exchanges and thus
favour borrowings and influences. The study closes on the study of
linguistic particularities characteristic of isolated areas.

The last part of the book, ''Movements'', is concerned with the study
and geographical characterization of lines of resistance to external
influences, providing the reader with about 146 maps illustrating
movements of lexical exports from the centre to peripheries, from
north to south, and a typology of other noted movements.

Most maps concern uses of a particular lexeme for a given object, such as
the different words used for 'chair' (p. 36). Some rare maps illustrate
semantic distinctions, such as the geographical repartition of the
distinction made or not between 'cheveux' ''hair'' and 'poils' ''hairs'',
(p. 120). As for syntax, information is sparse, but a beautiful collection
of maps illustrate the northern zone where realised subjects were in use,
the south zone where null subjects were in use, and the Gascon area using
the C particle 'que' in place of the subject (pp. 186-7).

The authors propose a redefinition of certain linguistic terms. They note
that the term 'dialect' is linguistically incorrect as it contains an
underlying reference to a central language, whose very existence can be
called into question. They add that the term 'dialect' is affectively
charged (in French) and they consequently militate for its elimination.
They propose to replace the language/dialect opposition by a pyramidal
construction. The atomic unit, the 'badume', is the most local consistent
variety. It is spoken in small communities geographically and culturally
isolated from exchanges with the exterior. The 'badume' is consequently
stable and conservative in nature. The written form of some badumes
adopted in a larger area is called 'regional standard'. Finally, over an
area larger than that of 'regional standards', the normative pressure of
centers of influence constitutes, over time, a language (such as French).
This language is constituted from material adopted from different badumes,
and new creations spreading as fast as the prestige of the central area
spreads. The authors depict a situation over time where a mosaic of
non-inter-comprehensible badumes progressively competes with a language
targeted for communication over larger areas: French. The fact that in the
territory considered in the book, such very local varieties are organized
in different linguistic systems such as Romance, Celtic, Basque or
Germanic, is of no importance, since the badumes, the local varieties, are
defined by their lack of inter- comprehensibility.



The main methodological problem is underlined by the authors themselves
and comes from the material that is used: as we do not have access to the
questionnaires used to collect the data, it is impossible to know how a
given word has been obtained. The entire results and subsequent analysis
rely on a complete confidence in the methodology used by three linguists
(Gilliron and Edmont for ALF, and Leroux for ALBB) at the beginning of the
20th century. However, the profusion and precision of the data coming from
such a wide area is in itself a treasure that the authors successfully put
to use.

The focus on Breton

To Gillieron's inventory of geographic repartition of words coming from
Romance, Gaulish or Latin, the authors add, whenever they think it is
accurate, corresponding borrowings in use in Low Brittany, a Breton
(Celtic) speaking area. The borrowings in Breton are very well documented,
and they nicely illustrate the authors' assumption that words travel
without regard to the local linguistic variety in use. We could regret in
this respect that other documented non-Romance languages in the French
State were not used to illustrate the same point: Basque is for example
extensively documented, and adoption of Latin words into the lexicon of
this non Indo-European language would have strengthened the point.

The global image would also have been more balanced; as it stands, Breton
seems to be alone in its constant borrowing from Latin. This would be no
harm if a non-linguist such as the declared targeted reader had been
provided in the introduction with a brief but clear schema of the
different languages in use in the French State, clearly stating that
Breton is a Celtic language, which happen not to belong to the Romance
languages. In place of that, the non-specialist is left alone with
assumptions such as ''The Breton language, an essentially mixed language
[...], has lived for centuries close to romance 'parlers'''(p. 227). The
status of the Breton data globally suffers from this ambiguity.

The presentation of the Atlas Linguistique de la France of Gillieron and
Edmont in the introductory part should clearly state that Breton was out
of the research area. In place of that, we can only deduce from the map on
p 20 that Brittany was included into the investigated area of the ALF. On
the following page, we see that this area appears in none of the 8
missions of Edmont. Brittany reappears on p. 22, and only High-Brittany
remains on the map p. 24. Finally, the authors point that Gilliron had
excluded all non-Romance varieties in the French State (Basque, Breton,
Alsaco, Lorrain). Where thus does the Breton data come from? The authors
explain that they have added data collected 10 to 20 years later by Leroux
into the Breton speaking area. However, twice in the book (p 37, 103), the
authors state with force that they restrict themselves to Gillieron's data
(that is to an area excluding Brittany). The global image remains
scrambled and all maps in the book differ from the original version and
the augmented one in including Low-Brittany.

A clear and brief introduction to the different varieties of languages
present in the investigated area would also have avoided possible
confusions for a non-specialist. To cite another example, the map p.  63
illustrates the Basque influence on Romance, beginning the paragraph
entitled ''Before the age of iron: Preceltic''. Of course, the authors are
not claiming that Basque is synonymous of Preceltic, but the lack of
precise information could lead a sincere but non-specialist reader to deep
confusions. A glossary is provided at the end of the book, giving the
reader some definitions of basic notions, but no link from the body of the
book points toward this glossary, and a reader discovers it with surprise
as a subpart of the annexes, after reading the book.

Again, such confusions are particularly of importance considering that the
targeted reader is typically a non-linguist of French education.  More
clarity in the introduction would have added value to the fact that
integration of the Breton facts for illustration of lexical spreading is
indeed very interesting, showing that, where there was a route for human's
exchanges, there also was a route for lexical exchanges, whatever the
linguistic distance of languages in contact.

As it stands, the confusion in linguistic affiliations leads to unclarity
in another of the proposals that the authors advocate for: ''the
historical displacement of linguistic features in geographical regions
beyond linguistic boundaries'' (p. 43). For example, the map p. 42 is
entitled: ''Area of conservation of the consonant that became final''.
This synthesis of maps is used to illustrate the evolution of final
consonants, with six lines of comments on the different variants of the
ending in the word for 'cat'. A flashy yellow area, in the Western part of
the actual French State, calls attention to a final /s/. This notation is
not commented on, and the targeted reader defined above cannot but
conclude that in this area, the fate of the final syllable in the Latin
'cattus' let place to a final -s (leading to 'cas'?). This area was not
present in the Atlas Linguistique de la France de Gilliron et Edmont that
the main title of the book claims the authors comment on, because this
area is the Breton speaking area, that Gilliron and Edmont consequently
didn't investigate. The authors here have added data from the Atlas
Linguistique de Basse Bretagne. The -s notation thus must refer to the
ending of the Breton word 'kazh' (/kas/), and not to the variety of French
spoken by the (rare) bilinguals in Brittany in the beginning of the 20th
century. It is up to the reader to fill in, or not, that Breton kazh
reflects borrowing also of Latin cattus, like the Romance words for 'cat',
but into Brythonic.

A central assumption of the authors is here not spelled-out: the authors
assume that generalizations on the evolution of consonant endings can be
built without regard to the particular linguistic system from which the
data is extracted (here Romance vs. Celtic). The map treats a word
borrowed from Latin and integrated into a Celtic language on a par with
development of the same Latin word in a Romance language: pronunciation
such as treatment of a consonant ending is taken to be a 'feature of
language' that travels as easily as a given word. This hypothesis is also
presupposed for treatment of initial consonants (map 11, p. 44) or the
treatment of vowels (map 12, p.  45), with total disregard to the entirety
of the linguistic system in which the borrowing takes place (intonation,
liaison, sandhi, etc.). As this is not exactly a standard assumption, it
would have been interesting here that the authors spell-out and develop
their hypothesis. Does it mean that all variation has to be attributed to
external influence? If not, what is the contrast with evolutions not
triggered by an external influence? Do they mean that historical
linguistics should never take entirety of a given linguistic system into
account? Then how to explain the remaining differences between languages
in contact for long periods such as, for example, Basque and the different
surrounding Romance varieties? How to explain resistance to some feature,
like resistance of Breton to the massive French palatalization? To what
influence should the French palatalization be attributed? etc.

Moreover, the information also lacking in this map p. 42 is that the
principal sound-change in question, /tt/ into /th/ (as in English 'thin')
is in fact a Celtic feature, supposed to have occurred in the ancestor
Celtic language spoken mainly in Britain before the sixth century (cf.
Welsh 'cath', Cornish 'cas'). This Celtic sound change has been followed
by much later (and dialectally divergent) change of /th/ (from various
sources) to /s/, /h/. As the issue of the linguistic characterization of
Breton is mentioned in several places of the book, the reader could
appreciate that the authors make precise that this Latin borrowing is not
an argument for Breton being closer to other Romance languages (but, in
this case, to other Celtic languages).

If the geographical constraints applying to lexical spreading and the
quasi-immunity of this lexical expansion to linguistic boundaries is
straightforward and nicely illustrated, the application of this hypothesis
to phonological properties is not clearly spelled out and would have
merited more discussion.

Finally, another assumption would have called more discussion. The authors
posit an irreducible difference between languages and local linguistic
varieties (be they called dialects or badumes). I see no linguistic
argument illustrating this point: the differences that the authors point
out between the two seem all extralinguistic to me.  Orality is not a
linguistic feature because so-called oral languages become written
languages as soon as someone writes them. A pejorative/laudative attitude
toward a linguistic variety has nothing to do with the linguistic material
in itself. Moreover, the authors themselves fully demonstrate that a given
linguistic feature can be freely adopted or rejected for extra-linguistic
(political) reasons.


The maps are colourful and precise. Provided that the user handles the
subject well enough to avoid misinterpretations, the pedagogical use of
the maps (wished for by the authors) is easy. The comments on the maps are
usually clear, but some maps could gain from a more careful treatment. In
particular, a definition of the semantic content tied to the studied word
could have clarified many readings. It could also have opened the
readership to non-Contemporary-French specialists and ensured complete
intelligibility in the coming years. For example, the map entitled
''traire'' p. 30 shows a large yellow area covering half of the actual
French State (the so-called central area included), where the word 'tirer'
was in use, the rest of the territory using 'traire' or 'molzer'. The
explanatory notice indicates: ''The two words [traire and tirer] covering
two close meanings, Central French has spread 'traire' in the restricted
meaning that we know.'' The convention adopted by the authors is that a
map tracing a lexical variation is entitled by the corresponding lexical
item which survived in Standard contemporary French. We thus know that
'traire' is the form that survived in Contemporary French because it
stands as the title of the map. But what does here 'Central French' refer
to, because the central area is precisely not marked with this form? Is
Central French spoken in the Central French area and if so, did the use
change there or did the zone 'tirer' select 'traire' for another
restricted meaning, in addition to the mentioned 'tirer'? What is exactly
this meaning that 'we' know, and who is 'we'?

In general, the reader needs to be already familiar with French
administrative departments and geography. As physical geography is a
central factor for the spread of a given word in the author's hypothesis,
an additional map giving the names of rivers and precise locations of
mountains could have helped a non-Franco-French reader to follow the
argument. The reader may also be surprised that, in a linguistic book
concerned with socio-linguistic factors, the human groups are persistently
and specifically qualified as men (p. 7, 32, 34, 41, 55, etc.). Finally,
the potential reader will also need to handle some French lexical
subtleties such as 'Fille ane de l'glise' ''elder daughter of the Church''
standing (without explanation) for 'French State' (p. 56).

Stylistically, some aggressive metaphors could have been avoided.
The authors for example posit that ''It is necessary, once for all, to
twist the neck of the common place that pretends that a language is
merely a language that has been successful'' (''Il faut une fois pour
toutes tordre le cou au lieu commun qui pretend qu'une langue, c'est
un dialecte qui a reussi'', p. 327). In fact, the authors choose to reject
one interpretation of this sentence among others. They reject the
interpretation of the sentence being ''any official language come from
one and unique more local linguistic variety'': they insist with reason
that the present-day standard French cannot be analyzed as coming
from one and unique linguistic ancestor, which one could localize on
the map within the actual linguistic territory of influence of French.
However, the targeted sentence has another, more acceptable
interpretation: ''the difference between something defined as a dialect
and something defined as a language resorts to politics, not to

Finally, I do not comment on presuppositions that I do not share, such
as the association of linguistics signs to a particular meaning resorting
to (social)-psychology (p. 7), or the stated necessity for a standard
language to eliminate all competing idioms within its area of influence
(p. 91).


The reviewer, Melanie Jouitteau, is affiliated with the University of
Nantes (laboratory LLING). She completed her PhD thesis on the
comparative syntax of Breton in 2005.

Harold F. Schiffman

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list