THE POLITICS OF PARTICIPLES.

A comment by Ran in this thread was so interesting I thought I’d give it its own post. He quotes from Bescherelle: La Conjugaison pour tous, a comprehensive description of French verbal conjugation (I’ll give his translation, slightly emended by me, since the original French is available in his comment):

131 Some remarks on past participle agreement
The subject of past participle agreement involves significant developments that could suggest that it’s one of the most important aspects of the language. To take an accurate measure of the import of the problem, the following remarks should be kept in mind.
- A matter of spelling
Past participle agreement is almost exclusively a matter of spelling. Gender agreement makes itself heard in speech in only a small number of participles: for example, offert. By far the greater number of past participles have masculine forms ending in -é, -i, or -u, and only mark their feminine forms in spelling: -ée, -ie, -ue. As for agreement in number, it never manifests itself in speech, except in the case of liaison, itself rather rare.
- Little-respected rules
Even in those cases where gender agreement is apparent in speech, we often find, in today’s language, that the rules aren’t observed, notably for the agreement of a past participle with a preceding direct object. We very often hear *les règles que nous avons enfreint or *les fautes que nous avons commis instead of the regular enfreintes and commises.
- An artificial rule
The rule of agreement of a past participle with a preceding object is one of the most artificial in the French language. Its introduction can be dated with precision: the poet Clément Marot formulated it in 1538. Marot took as his example Italian, which has since partially abandoned this rule.
- A political matter?
Marot’s rule was nearly abolished politically. In 1900, a courageous minister of public education, Georges Leygues, published an order that “allowed” [tolérait] non-agreement. But the French Academy brought so much pressure to bear that the Minister was forced to replace his order in 1901 with a text that did away with the acceptance of non-agreement except when the participle is followed by an infinitive or a past or present participle: les cochons sauvages que l’on a trouvé or trouvés errant dans les bois.

This little story is a perfect illustration of the idiocy both of imposing artificial rules on a living language and of allowing academies to keep the language from throwing them off. Georges Leygues, je vous salue!

Comments

  1. Damn, this is one of my favourite rules of French grammar. It’s so useless and anachronistic. Like Bardi’s rule that agreement with “raft” is plural.

  2. If it was only the “agreement with the preceding direct object” rule. At least that one’s half-way logical. But the exceptions to that rule and the exceptions to those exceptions (and to the exceptions concerning the rule of agreement-with-subject for verbs that take “être”) are going to be the death of me one day. They are one of the major reasons why I feel less comfortable writing in French than in English, even though my French is supposed to be better than my English.
    (My latest phrases of agreement anguish were “ils se sont crus poursuivis” — a case where the German equivalent, “glauben”, takes the Dative case while the French verb takes a direct object, which always throws my intuition off; and “la lettre que vous m’avez fait parvenir” — rules would say “faite”, but the p.p. of “faire” + verb … is an exception.)
    Now you’re right that academies etc. play a role in the persistence of these rules from hell. But another problem is if you ask in particular younger French people, who all have problems getting this right and will make loads of agreement errors, they are outraged at the idea of “dumbing down” the grammar. It happened to the last spelling reform — simplifications backed by the Académie: surveys show that in particular those who in practice are most aversely affected don’t want their “errors” to be recognized as acceptable.
    Much of the grammar teaching that French-speaking youths receive all through secondary school is not about something they would naturally have picked up during their phase of first-language acquisition, because it concerns inaudible (or nearly) spelling variations.

  3. Glad you found it so interesting. :-)
    Also, thanks for fixing the translation for me; I’m very much out of practice.
    BTW, since we’re opining on the rule itself: the last quoted bullet-point notwithstanding, I think the biggest problem with the rule is inconsistencies such as those that Leygues ended up introducing. If a past participle *always* agreed with its absolutive argument (if it has one), the rule would be a lot easier to follow. It makes no sense, for example, to write “Je les ai vus manger” (“I saw them eat(ing)” – “seen” agreeing with “them”), but “Je les ai fait manger” (“I had them eat” – “had” remaining singular in form).
    Of course, French just wouldn’t be French if it were consistent. ;-)

  4. This made me pull down from my shelves Uncertainties in French Grammar (LC Harmer, eds P Rickard and TGS Combe, 1979, Cambridge UP), which devotes a full tenth of its 470 pages to a disquisition on lapses from participial agreement. I started to read through it, noted the due reference to Marot’s rule, and tried to fathom the whole tangled mystery. At length, however, I observed to myself what Oliver Edwards confessed to Dr Johnson: “I don’t know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.”
    And so to bed: for bedtime it is, in the land of Oz.

  5. surveys show that in particular those who in practice are most aversely affected don’t want their “errors” to be recognized as acceptable.
    *takes to his bed*

  6. Damn, this is one of my favourite rules of French grammar.

  7. michael farris says:

    It’s things like this that make me very glad I never tried to learn French, a lot of picky, irregular rules to capture in writing what doesn’t exist in speech.
    Perverse doesn’t even begin to describe it.

  8. A bit like english spelling then…

  9. michael farris says:

    But carried from the phonologiccal to the morphological level. Lots of orthographies do a less than wonderful job of phonemic representation but I suspect that this kind of wholesale morphological makeover in writing is rare (somewhat as if reconstituted-e endings-en were-n added to written-e English-en without affecting the pronunciation-e)

  10. Marot is a fun poet, IIRC. He was arrested twice and imprisoned once for eating bacon in Lent, and edited Villon.

  11. On a superficial note, LH, did you notice that this post has caused Google to display ads for gender-reassignment surgery on your page?

  12. Heh. No, I missed that (I’ve trained myself not to notice ads unless they’re actually blaring in my face).

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