Le Bon Usage and prescriptivism

It is often written that the Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking world has a monopoly on prescriptivism. Obviously other language communities have their own ideas as to what constitutes good Navaho, good Turkish, good Igbo, good Japanese, etc. The anthropological literature has references to people’s comments about who speaks the language well and who doesn’t. This probably comes as a surprise when we discuss Native American languages and so-called “tribal” languages because most people associate prescriptivism and doctrines of correctness with the cultures of Europe. However, many observers believe the Anglo-Saxon dominates the Chicken-Little crowd that believes a split infinitive will bring the barbarians through the gate.
However, we’ve all heard of French persnicketiness and its infamous Academie. What was interesting to me is that the French have developed the same, sad attitude toward the connection between themselves and their language that so many Anglo-Americans have: they just don’t measure up.
So I read in Colloquial French Grammar: A Practical Guide by Rodney Ball. He says:
The divergence between standard and non-standard French, and the veneration with which the bon usage heritage is regarded, have made the normative language tradition a central component of francophone culture (‘francophone’, not just French: some of the best-known commentators are from outside metropolitan France, the Belgian Maurice Grevisse and Joseph Hanse being cases in point).
The ordinary speaker of French, however, is in the unenviable position of making daily use of a range of forms which are officially proscribed or ‘blacklisted’. Moreover, such prominent components of the standard language as the past historic, the imperfect subjunctive, the agreement of the past participle, or even certain features of relative clauses, have little or no currency in contemporary colloquial usage, and are therefore to a greater or lesser extent unknown territory to a surprisingly large number of francophones.
The result, even among middle-class speakers, is a widespread sense of failure to measure up to the norm, a distinct uneasiness about grammar and grammarians, and a belief that French is a difficult language which they do not ‘speak properly’ an odd belief on the face of it, given that those holding it are native francophones. Such preoccupations account, among other things, for the continued viability of the chroniques de langage in the press, for the proliferation on bookstalls of ‘guides to correct usage’, and for the fascination with the intricacies of spelling revealed each year in the annual international dictation contest ‘Les Dicos d’Or’, with its televised final.
Another consequence of this sense of insecurity is that, in their struggle to speak and write ‘correctly’, language users sometimes overshoot the mark, as it were, and produce forms which are actually distortions of the norm at which they are aiming. Examples of hypercorrection exist in English: the legendary Cockneys who pronounce the h in honest, or the large number of speakers who say ‘between you and I’ instead of ‘between you and me’ (on the assumption that, because ‘you and me’ is sometimes incorrect, it must always be incorrect). An example of a hypercorrect form in French is je n’ai pas rien vu, where eagerness to include ne, as required by the norm, leads to the insertion of pas as well, though this is not of course ‘correct’ when rien is present.
From time to time in the chapters that follow, examples will be given illustrating various hypercorrections and other classic fautes de francais of which linguisticall insecure francophones are sometimes ‘guilty’, as the purist would put it. Meanwhile, here are two representative comments in which speakers give expression to the feeling that the language they habitually use is ‘not proper French’, or ‘not good French’:
(a l’imparfait du subjonctif—le passe simple… ce sont des temps qui sont d’une autre epoque peut-etre…..mais qui sont…..le vrai francais….le bon francais emploie ces temps-la. (59 year old secretary)
b -Qu’est-ce que vous pensez de votre facon de parler le francais?
– Oh, elle est surement tres mauvaise [rires]
– Pourquoi?
– Che pas…. tous les Francais parlent mal [rires], eh, c’est comme tout le monde…. on parle toujours un francais qui n’est pas tres pur, hein.
– Vous croyez?
– Y a des fautes de francais, oui, on fait des fautes. (33 year old doctore
The position was aptly summed up by the linguist Andre Martinet, when he likened standard French grammar to a minefield through which speakers have to pick their way:
Les Francais n’osent plus parler leur langue parce que des generations de grammairiens, professionnels et amateurs, en ont fait un domaine parseme d’embuches et d’interdits.
So not much different from most Americans the French can’t speak French. I esp liked the spelling Che pas for Je ne sais pas.

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