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Name: Emma Humphries

PhD: French Sociolinguistics

Thesis Title: Defending the French language: Comparing 19th century and modern-day attitudes to ‘good’ and ’bad’ language in France


Thesis Description:

My PhD will analyse lay conceptions of ‘acceptable' and 'unacceptable' language in France in the 19th century and today, to investigate the development of lay language ideologies in French and so contribute to the growing fields of historical sociolinguistics, CMC (computer-mediated communication), and language history from below (the history of language use by ordinary people). The 19th century is crucial because - with compulsory education leading to wide literacy - it marks the beginning of widespread lay linguistic concern about using French ‘correctly’, but this sociolinguistic development has been very little studied. The present-day period has received more attention but lay commentary on language errors and non-standard use in new media, although rife, is still under-researched. This study will be based on corpora compiled from readers’ questions and answers in Le Courrier de Vaugelas, a newspaper which addressed readers’ language worries and which has not previously been studied (240 issues, 1868-1881, available online through the French National Library), and online corpora (both Twitter data and modern equivalents of Le Courrier de Vaugelas, websites dedicated to language matters). In a pilot study as part of my MA by Research I developed a methodology for harvesting and analysing Tweets, and raised areas for further research. For instance, a tendency on Twitter to critique the language user (e.g. as lacking intelligence) rather than the language itself has been shown, which contrasts with historical cases of language ideologies, where the usage itself tended to be the object of criticism.

This research will shed light on lay attitudes to language in France, focusing on the comparatively new dimension of CMC and on the lesser studied 19th century. The project is original in three ways. 1. It will compare language attitudes in the two time periods, to contrast the ‘errors’ perceived as common and to investigate what is/has been considered ‘good’/’bad’ language in France, and why. 2. The sociolinguistic history of the 19th century has recently begun to receive attention for other languages, especially German but has been neglected thus far in the French context, where work has been concentrated on the 16th to 18th century. 3. Modern attitudes have been explored but the special case of CMC has not; it has been suggested anecdotally that the digital world abounds with hypercritical and extreme opinions on language use – this project will seek evidence for such claims. Questions of language and correctness are currently very topical (see language blog Langue sauce piquante), so the project has significant potential impact, particularly for French language teaching (as a first and foreign language), e.g. by identifying errors which French-speakers consider the most ‘unforgiveable’ but also those which are beginning to be considered acceptable. The comparative element of the project will provide a critical insight into how attitudes towards language have changed amongst laypeople, as well as changes in communication brought about by the internet.


Supervisors and Institution(s): Professor Nicola McLelland and Dr Olivia Walsh



Scholarly / Public Engagement Activities:


  • University of Nottingham Research Showcase



Other Research Interests:

Language prescriptivism; linguistic purism; metalanguage; language and power; language standardization; shared language ideologies; lay-linguistics


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