Two changes in French negation

I realized today that I hadn’t yet blogged about my dissertation, the Spread of Change in French Negation. That’s too bad, because I like my dissertation topic. It’s fun, and it’s interesting.

You may see here, from time to time, posts about my dissertation research. I’ll try to make them accessible to anyone, not just the specialized audience that I wrote the dissertation for. If you have a reaction or a question I hope you’ll comment or send me an email. If there’s anything you don’t understand, please tell me, because I mean for this blog to be easy to understand.

When I studied French in high school, I learned the standard line: that to negate a sentence you put ne before the verb and pas after it: Je sais becomes Je ne sais pas. But then my teachers were smart enough to show me a movie that aimed for authentic language. Diva, the 1981 action film, features a moped chase in the Paris Métro, and a pair of grumpy hitmen. One of the gangsters is a man of few words, but he repeatedly takes the time to say that he doesn’t like whatever’s at hand. And in one scene with cars, he says, “J’aime pas les bagnoles.” In case our French wasn’t good enough, we had the subtitle: I don’t like cars.

I laughed, I repeated the line, mimicking Dominique Pinon’s terse delivery. Then I realized: what happened to the ne? The other lines where the hitman declared his dislike for elevators and other burdensome features of the environment were also missing the ne. And years later when I went to live in Paris and walk through the same métro stations, I heard lots of negation with the pas only, no ne. I learned to negate my own sentences with just a casual pas after the verb, because when in Paris, do as the Parisians do.

Another six years later, in a class on Frequency Effects in Language Change, Joan Bybee asked us to pick a change for our term project. I chose to look at French negation. I was sure the story of the missing ne would turn out to be a compelling one.

I was right. It was so compelling that it already had a big literature on it. Worse, because it had only recently entered mainstream media, the data on ne-dropping were hard for me to get in time for a term paper. But as I looked further back in time, I discovered an earlier change. This one had been studied a lot, but not quite as much, and there was quite a lot of data. This was the original addition of pas to the ne. Or, as I was to find out, the large increase in the use of ne … pas.

Want to read the rest of the story? Stay tuned to this blog. If you can’t wait, go read my dissertation. Oh, and ask if you have questions!

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