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Norm-blindness and its effects on utterer-centred practice

Jim Walker
p. 135-150


Le présent article se propose de remettre en question la notion de valeur centrale dans les théories françaises de l’énonciation en démontrant que ces théories sous-estiment quelque peu l’importance des variétés de l’anglais et l’influence de la tradition prescriptiviste, et en prétendant qu’in fine l’énonciation est vouée à l’échec si elle ne sait pas se colleter avec cette réalité. A travers trois exemples (les modaux WILL/SHALL ; l’alternance entre if I was / if I were ; HAVE+-EN et le renvoi au révolu), l’auteur souligne que bien souvent les énonciativistes développent des hypothèses en l’absence de toute référence autre qu’à l’anglais britannique standard, et sur la base de corpora qui sont issus d’œuvres littéraires qui ne reflètent guère la langue dans ce qu’elle a de vivant. Cette approche, nécessairement lacunaire, a pour conséquences soit que certaines constructions grammaticales ne peuvent être saisies dans leur totalité, soit qu’elles ne parviennent pas à se frayer un chemin jusqu’aux textes les plus importants.

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1. Introduction

  • 2   See also Milroy and Gordon (2003, 4).

1The title of this article is unashamedly polemical and, to a certain extent, the same holds true of its content. The claim to be made here is not, of course, that what we might want to call the French community of English-language linguists is unaware of the notion of a linguistic norm, or unable to perceive it as such. Such a claim would be patently absurd. What this article will seek to highlight, however, is that there is an insufficient degree of account taken, in the work of many linguists working in English studies in France, of variety in English and, in particularly, differences between standard and nonstandard Englishes. Claims of this nature, of course, have been made many times in the literature before, and in that sense this article is modestly falling into a historiographical tradition of seeking to show that all too often, mainstream linguistics tends to regard linguistic variety more as a potentially interesting but ultimately subsidiary phenomenon than as the keystone around which all linguistic reflection should be based. Labov (1972, 274 et seq.) and Milroy (1999), to cite only the most illustrious, have often been critical of a generative tradition based, as is well known, on the mystical ideal of the homogenous speech community. Milroy (1999, 7) has also underlined to what extent something which may initially appear to be an epistemological perfectly defendable scientific idealisation in fact is greatly indebted to what he has called the ideology of the standard.2

  • 3   Many readers will be dismayed at what they may see as a crude lumping together of different theo (...)

2I would like to make similar remarks here, turning the spotlight not on generative grammar or any of the other schools of thought to have emerged from what we might loosely want to call Anglo-American traditions, but onto the set of analytical practices which have been greatly popularised in the last few decades in the teaching of English grammar in French universities and which, while certainly differing in a number of substantial respects, can all nevertheless be grouped together under the heading of French schools of English linguistics (Ballier 1997) in as much as they base their explanatory principles, or supposedly explanatory power, on notions such as mental operations and associated semantic invariants. In what follows, I shall use the term utterer-centred theories or practices as an umbrella term. What I shall be seeking to demonstrate here, firstly on the basis of a number of specific examples and subsequently a more wide-ranging discussion, is that practitioners of utterer-centred linguistics underestimate or fail even to acknowledge the role that normative or prescriptive grammar has, whether we like it or not, both on speakers and on their own intellectual practice.3

2. When we analyse as if prescription did not exist, or had no effect


3Some of the data used in this section, and the thinking behind them, were adumbrated in Walker 2002, to which the reader is referred for more extensive discussion. The reason for including this issue briefly here is that it is such a clear exemplar of the central point being made that it would be remiss of me to omit it.

4In Adamczewski and Gabilan (1996, 93), in a brief discussion as to why the abbreviated form ‘LL must be regarded as a reduction of WILL rather than SHALL, the authors take the following example:

I’ll be seventeen next month.

5This is then followed by the following comment:

  • 4   The emphasis is mine.

Outre le fait que SHALL est tout à fait impossible ici, cet énoncé est un bon exemple du rôle de WILL. Pourquoi ? On fait bien plus ici que parler de l’avenir : « avoir 17 ans le mois prochain » est dans la logique des choses, compte tenu de ma date de naissance.4

  • 5   Walker 2002 provides a whole series of examples of strings of the form I shall be x years old ne (...)

6The comment is, of course, perfectly erroneous. There is nothing ill-formed about the string I shall be 17 next month, as the authors could easily have ascertained by either enquiring of native speaker intuition or conducting a very brief and entirely informal corpus search5. Not only is this form relatively commonly attested, but interestingly and, for the authors presumably rather unfortunately, it is sometimes used as an example in grammar books:

  • 6   That this particular example, which was chosen to illustrate the following point, comes from a g (...)

I shall be 21 next month. (Chalker and Flavell, 1984, 121)
I shall be twenty years old in 1989 and I shan’t be at school then (Chapman, 1964, 83)
I shall be eighteen next May (Narayanaswamy, 1995, 83)6

7and most tellingly, in perhaps the best known and most widely used reference grammar book of English in the French language, Berland-Delépine (1997, § 297), where we read:

Par exemple, dans I shall be 25 next week, ‘shall’ est moins un modal exprimant le caractère inéluctable de l’action qu’un auxiliaire du futur ; il est évident que dans She will be 25 next week, ‘will’ n’exprime en rien une notion de volonté

  • 7   This example is not isolated, even in the same book. On page 151, we learn that for similar reas (...)

8All of the above authors have therefore used and commented on examples which are entirely analogous to the one which Adamczewski, apparently by fiat, declares to be impossible.7

9As we read Adamczewski, it is perfectly clear how these pronouncements as to the acceptability or otherwise of certain grammatical forms originate. Adamczewski develops a theory of modality based around the central notions of congruence and non-congruence, and proposes that the difference between WILL and SHALL should be seen thus (Adamczewski, 1993, 92):

A la différence de shall, will signale grammaticalement que le sujet et le groupe verbal sont faits l’un pour l’autre, soit parce que le sujet est favorable à cette union, soit parce que la situation s’y prête.

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3Some of the dataT the th brtsolated,to whollowing psi in eet

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g="en" lang="en">I shall be 17 ne

A la différen" lang="en">   tligh nrtained:

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  • 7   See also Milroy Ithus (Adilar remauthst testnmmLhbbles howste(...)

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  • 4   Walker 2002 provmine.

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10The comment is, Leav wouasi be rpere is ctlit theepisnbility orty based aproposes thaif ut inti> or oit inpan>
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( behinisthus (Adly indebially ccur phenobes> to mea bgiboo.lnd dectentnhors ha xml:lang="en" lang="en">I shall be 17 ne montn xml:lang="en" lang="en">, as the authors<évidela numbeScotticularl Iricula potehil)could ea in tr otclanpresd eah2> mditelycto se Iti“ book/a>
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10All of the aboveItent digenuentnimof sinclear exea>polispan>&#n>4As we read AdamcLap il e behRotgempd and eexamplchapéaloec thiseach ic behdia.

  • 4   That this particAs rencricthe Fben drammrepeererthuewmczewnficiea=stiuncem"scripisurthg upSg=sticsi in gallhe Fva#ftn6">(...)

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