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What principles have governed basic sentence structure during the history of French? In particular, what changes have taken place, and when did they happen?

The two-case system of Old French allowed for much flexibility in word order. As this system was abandoned through the history of the language, the range of possibilities for the arrangement of subject, verb and object within a sentence narrowed. Despite a more recent literary style which was freer in its use of the three basic elements of a sentence, modern French has adopted the pattern subject, verb, object.

Old French had a case system, a remnant of Latin, which distinguished nouns in the accusative from nouns in the nominative. This meant that, whatever the order of subject, object and verb within a sentence, its meaning was normally clear. Confusion could arise in the case of feminine nouns, but the context usually cleared up any ambiguity. All six variations of the arrangement of subject, verb and object were possible. Nevertheless, some were more common than others.

It is interesting to note that the modern system, of subject, verb, object, was one of the most frequent formations. It was common both in prose and poetry. Eg. "Li vilains apele son fil". However, the inversion of verb and subject was also extremely popular. It was in fact the norm when the sentence or clause opened with an adverb, adverbial phrase, or grammatical object. An example of an Old French sentence based on the ovs template is: "Ses barons fist li rois venir". The word-order may be surprising at first, but the meaning is clear from the case of "li rois". Looking now at the sov formula, this was more common in poetry than in prose. Eg "Li rois Tristan menace". The vos construction is mainly found in older, verse texts, with verbs such as ‘veoir', ‘o r' and ‘dire' followed by noun subjects. Eg. "Voit le li rois".

When we look at what happened in the case of interrogation, there is little surprising. The usual pattern was that the subject and verb would be inverted, eg. "Veistes vos cinc chevaliers?". Sometimes, as today, the context would suffice, perhaps accompanied by a slight raising of the voice, as in the following example: "Sire, ne sai" -"Vos ne savez?". In both of these instances, we can trace the origins of the current-day French constructions.

Having looked at the situation in Old French, let us now move on to examine the changes which took place in the Middle French period. It was early in this period that the two-case system was abandoned, and the language's word-order very slowly adapted itself to the new state of affairs. One of the phenomena which flourishes in this period is that of reprise, where a word or phrase is isolated at the start of a sentence, then ‘taken up' later by means of a pronoun. This had existed in Old French, but it is only later that it comes into its own. For example, "Cest ome vi ier" in Old French would often become "Cest homme, (je) le vi ier". Inversion, and the sov construction are both on the decline in this period. One common feature of Middle French is the separation of coordinated adjectives from the substantive they quantify: "Tres mauvais homme et cruel", "Ce bon vin et frais", "Un beau chasteau et plaisant".

There were several interesting characters involved in the evolution of French grammar during this period. Unlike in spelling, where the publication of the Académie Française's dictionary influenced the situation, there was no such creation for syntax. Indeed, despite its declaration at its founding in 1635 that it planned to produce a French grammar, said book did not appear until as late as 1932! There were however certain prominent men of letters and grammarians who voiced opinions on the matter of word-order. François de Malherbe (1555 - 1628), although primarily a poet, held strong, if rather dogmatic, views on sentence structure. He attacked archaism, and his pronouncements were taken seriously not only by other poets but also by many educated men and women. Later in the period came Rivaral. In 1784, he declared that,

"Le français nomme d'abord le sujet du discours, ensuite le verbe, qui est l'action, et enfin l'objet de cette action"
There is much truth in this statement, and it was even generally the case one hundred years before the pronouncement. His opinion, however, that this happened because "la logique naturelle tous les hommes" insists on it, is less acceptable to modern day grammarians! By the end of the period, Rivaral and his contemporaries had succeeded in creating a rigid word-order. This was generally viewed as a great achievement, although some did regret the loss of flexibility in the language, feeling that poetic elegance and spontaneity were being hindered.

From this period onwards, the word-order of French remained largely unchanged until after the Revolution. Since then, there has been a considerable rise in the use of inversion. It is still the case that inversion is required after certain grammatical constructions, yet there are more instances of inversion being used as a matter of style. It can be employed to aid rhythm and balance. It often occurs in subordinate clauses where the subject is a long one, and the verb is short and / or semantically weak. The practice can also be used to lend clarity when it enables a relative immediately to follow its antecedent. It is most frequently used in subordinate clauses, but usage in main clauses has also increased. Inversion of this sort can be used to great effect when a tone of emphasis or even surprise is required. A similar development has taken place whereby, largely under the influence of the Goncourt brothers, verbless sentences have become acceptable within literary pieces. An example sentence: "Clochettes de mulets chargés de charbon". Similarly, they would employ a semantically weak verb to add emphasis to other parts of the sentence, as in this description of a bicycle race: "Puis ce fut l'abandon".

We see, then, how French has developed from its origins in Latin, where word-order was highly flexible. After continuing this trend in Old French, there was a reaction against ambiguity and liberal use of language in the Middle French and Classical Periods. Since then, more modern ideas have led to a restored freedom, to some extent. This new, freer approach to syntax is not so much a return to the past as a modern development.


I'm noding my homework. This was an essay for Richard Ashdowne of New College, Oxford.

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