October 10, 2003

Quoi ce-qu'elle a parlé about?

According to Ruth King's plenary address at NWAVE32, preposition-stranding infiltrated Prince Edward Island French in a shipment of infected lexical borrowings.

King started from the fact that sentences like

Le gars que je te parle de ...
the guy that I you talk of
"the guy I'm talking to you about ..."

Quelle heure qu'il a arrivé à?
what time that he has arrived at
"what time did he arrive?"

which are unthinkable in standard French, are normal and common in some (but not all) varieties of Canadian French.

This looks like a case of borrowing a syntactic pattern, but King argues that the effect is indirect. According to her analysis, Prince Edward Island French borrowed a bunch of English prepositions, which carried with them the ability to be "stranded" in questions and relative clauses -- as in the title of this entry, which is modeled on one of King's examples. This "strandability" then spread to native prepositions in a second step.

As I understood her talk, King's main argument for this view is a correlation between preposition-borrowing and preposition-stranding among different geographical variants of Canadian French. I believe that the details of this argument are presented in her recent book The Lexical Basis of Grammatical Borrowing, which I haven't read. From the evidence she presented in her talk, I gather that the number of varieties for which this correlation has been checked is fairly small -- perhaps half a dozen, of which two show both preposition-stranding and preposition-borrowing, while the others show neither trait.

King proposes that all cases of grammatical borrowing in language contact situations are similarly mediated by borrowed words. The general claim is very interesting, though I find it hard to believe. The particular claim about Canadian French preposition stranding is also a fascinating one, but it raises some questions for me. Is strandability really a property of prepositions? Could individual prepositions in some language be strandable or not? How can one arrange this without also allowing individual verbs to choose whether or not their objects can be moved (e.g. questioned or relativized)?

On a more descriptive (and entertaining) note, King pointed out that PEI French has borrowed not only English prepositions, but also many verb-particle combinations. Her handout gave a long list of borrowed verb-preposition combinations, including these:

bailer out ganger up puller through
bosser around grower up setter up
chickener out hanger around shipper out
se dresser up kicker out singler out
fooler around layer off slower down

These examples (along with dozens of others) were found in the transcripts of hundreds of hours of interviews, in which all participants, including the interviewers, were native speakers of the local version of French.

[Update 4/23/2006: Benoit Essiambre writes

Let me start out by apologising for this late comment just after the publication of the first Language Log book. Going through the table of contents and stumbling upon the title "Quoi ce-qu'elle a parl&eactue; about?", I was pleasantly surprised by this perfect example sentence of my hometown language, le Chiac. I went on to read the online post (I don't have a copy of the book yet) which was a great illustration of the idiosyncrasies of Chiac, however I was shocked that the language I grew up with was attributed to Prince Edward Island when everyone in the maritime provinces know that it is mainly spoken around the New-Brunswick city of Moncton. Of course, it is quite probable that small P.E.I communities use it as they are situated just a little more than an hour away from Moncton, however I can assure you that it's not its focal point.


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 10, 2003 07:32 AM