May 21, 2005

More on Canadian French preposition stranding

Hervé Saint-Amand, a "23 year old French Canadian from Montreal" wrote to set me straight about sentences like "Le gars que je te parle de". He explains that they are far from being "unthinkable in Montreal":

I know many people who use that type of construction regularly, and sometimes I use them too. We all know they are incorrect, but many of us (chiefly young people) use them.

He goes on to say that "personally I never thought these constructions came from English", noting that he feels it has something to do with wanting to avoid the relatively formal relative-clause introducer dont, as in the "correct" alternative "Le gars dont je te parle". He cites as other examples:

l'hôpital auquel je vais
l'hôpital où je vais
?l'hôpital que je vais à

l'homme pour lequel je travaille
l'homme pour qui je travaille
?l'homme que je travaille pour

la ville d'où je viens
?la ville que je viens de

where ? marks phrases that have the same sort of status for him as "Le gars que je te parle de", i.e. understood to be non-standard but often used in informal contexts anyhow. He adds that

It's interesting (I myself am discovering all of this as I type), that some prepositions can't be used with such constructions, it would just sound completely goofy and unacceptable. For instance,

la fille chez qui je vais
*la fille que je vais chez

I can't picture anyone saying that. It's not just a matter of being incorrect with regards to "standard French". I can't imagine even the low-class school drop-outs saying that.

I imagine that some of the excellent syntacticians in Francophone Canada have explored this further. Perhaps there is relevant stuff in Yves Rorberge and Nicole Rosen, "Preposition Stranding and que-deletion in Varieties of North American French", Linguistica Atlantica, v. 21 pp. 153-168 (1999) -- but I can't read it on line.

Anyhow, Hervé agrees with me that the "French" examples that I cited from Elizabeth Bear's SF novel Hammered are not French at all, standard or not standard. With respect to "Comment massif parlons-nous de?" as an answer to someone asking for a "massive favor", he wrote that

I think nobody would use such a syntax, at least not in Montreal. To me it's an obvious word-by-word translation from English.

First of all, "massif" is not an adjective one could use in this sentence. The meaning of "massif" is slightly different from that of "massive", and off the top of my head I can't find any example of "massif" being applied to an abstract object such as a favour. I don't think Montreal people would ever say "une faveur massive" (other, more English-influenced regions may use that anglicism, though).

Then the syntax is also unacceptable. We may use similar constructions, though, such as

   on parle de combien gros ?
    on parle de comment gros?

which is definitely not "standard French", but is commonly used in Quebec, and roughly means "how big (an amount) are we talking about?". But intuitively I feel uneasy about putting other, more semantically refined adjectives in that mold, and this:

    ?on parle de combien massif ?
    ?on parle de comment massif ?

sounds akward.

Note that "comment" is commonly used in place of "combien" in Quebec.

With respect to the second example I cited, "Est-cela si beaucoup de demander?", Hervé's opinion was:

That one's even worse. First of all, "Est-cela" is not French, neither standard, literary, Quebec, informal slang or anything. "Est-ce" would be the correct form. "C'est-tu" would be the typical Canadian form.

"si beaucoup" is not something we'd use either. I'd be surprised if anyone, in any region, used that (I've been surprised a few times in the past, though). "Tant" is much shorter and easier to use. And it's even the correct, standard way of saying it! "Tellement" could also be used.

Finally, the "de" is akward. Maybe "à" would be better, but even that would be odd.

These variants could be used in Montreal:

    C'est-tu tant demander ?     C'est-tu tellement demander ?

The correct French way to say it would be

    Est-ce tant demander ?

but nobody talks that way, not round these parts anyway. It would sound theatrical.

I can confidently say that it wouldn't be normal for someone from Montreal to utter these sentences as they appear in the book, though.

So here's a suggestion to Bantam/Random House and Elizabeth Bear: before the sequel to Hammered comes out, hire Hervé to check out the Canadian French bits! C'est-tu tant demander?

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 21, 2005 09:19 PM