Frontispace of Vaugelas's Remarques sur la langue française (1647)

The purity and linguistic correctness of the French language has been closely guarded by the French for centuries. Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett is exploring the reasons behind this national preoccupation.

Someone arriving new to the King’s court would need to know not only how to dress and eat properly, but perhaps above all how to speak correctly, so as not to offend polite society.

In these globalised times, when international communication has taken some endangered languages to the point of extinction, it is fascinating to consider how one nation has resisted the encroachment of other languages in the interests of keeping its language pure.

The French have long been keen advocates of linguistic correctness or ‘good usage’. Indeed, it is often said that France provides the most extreme example of a prescriptive, interventionist and purist attitude to use of language. Even today, ministerial commissions recommend acceptable terminology for fields as diverse as IT and nuclear energy, and the Académie française (the French language academy), advises on proper usage of French vocabulary and spelling, as it has done since the 17th century.

In a major research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett is directing a collaborative project researching the origins of this concern for linguistic correctness and the broader symbolic values associated with it.

Remarks and observations

The French preoccupation with language purity is reflected in the founding of the Académie française in 1635 and, perhaps above all, in the publication of a particular type of metalinguistic work. In 1647, Academy member Claude Favre de Vaugelas published hisRemarques sur la langue française, a collection of short, randomly ordered remarks and observations intended to resolve points of doubtful usage and provide clear guidance on the good use of French.

Vaugelas’s book quickly became a bestseller and was highly influential. We know, for instance, that in 1660 the great playwright Pierre Corneille reworked the language of his plays to take account of Vaugelas’s judgements and that Jean Racine, author of some of France’s finest tragedies, is said to have taken a copy of the work with him to the south of France so as not to become ‘contaminated’ by regional speech.

To understand the appeal and influence of such works in their day and beyond is to examine the social and cultural history of France. In a period of great social mobility, when nobility could be purchased by the newly rich, the volumes acted as a kind of linguistic courtesy book. Someone arriving new to the King’s court would need to know not only how to dress and eat properly, but perhaps above all how to speak correctly, so as not to offend polite society.

A rich resource

Many volumes of remarks and observations have been published by various authors down the centuries. All are typically intended not for foreigners but for competent native speakers who wish to perfect their usage of French.

These volumes provide the focus of the research project, which brings together scholars from North America, France and other parts of Europe to address key questions about the genre and to create a corpus of the principal texts, to be published online and as critical editions. This valuable research tool will provide those working on contemporary French with a historical perspective to their research: many of the most troublesome rules of French grammar used today, including past participle agreement, date from these early remarks on the French language. Moreover, one of the most fascinating aspects of the research is that the volumes of remarks provide unique data on how people actually wrote and spoke in the period.

The writers of remarks continually strived to define what is French and to exclude the unwanted ‘other’, whether this is regional, low-register or foreign usage. Notions of language, nation and identity are thus closely intertwined. In short, to research the history of standardisation and linguistic correctness in France involves consideration of what it is to be French.

For more information, please contact the author Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett ( at the Department of Linguistics.

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