Accessible Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton May 1, 2013

The evolving grammar of the French subjunctive

Shana Poplack, Allison Lealess and Nathalie Dion


This paper compares the evolution and contemporary distribution of subjunctive and indicative in spoken Quebec French with the development of normative injunctions on variant choice over five centuries of grammatical tradition. The subjunctive has been prescribed with hundreds of lexical governors, verb classes and semantic readings since the 16th century, but in spontaneous speech, it is virtually limited to a handful of matrix and embedded verbs. Our analysis shows that the overriding determinant of variant choice is not meaning, as most would claim, but the lexical identity of the governor. The only other factors that play a role are those pertaining to the construal of the context as canonical for subjunctive (e.g. suppletive morphology, presence of the complementizer que, and adjacency of main to embedded clause); where these are present, subjunctive is favored. Quantitative discrepancies among governors and embedded verbs, their previously undocumented associations (or lack thereof) with the subjunctive, and the unpredictable mood preferences they display at different points in time have all conspired in obscuring community patterns. Once actual usage facts are systematically analyzed, however, the grammar of subjunctive selection emerges as regular and stable. Its discrepancies with respect to both normative and theoretical linguistic accounts stem from attempts to impose the doctrine of form-function symmetry on a phenomenon which is inherently variable.

Department of Linguistics, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Published Online: 2013-05-01
Published in Print: 2013-05-02

©[2013] by Walter de Gruyter Berlin Boston