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Henri Wittmann

emeritus professor of linguistics

Main contributions to the field of linguistics

    Henri Wittmann is no doubt the first modern linguist to have studied the non-standard forms of Québec French (notably Joual, Magoua and Chaouin) in a theory-orientated and comparative framework.

    In a general way, HW, a student of Andé Martinet in the fifties, has been the first to apply the latter's principles of chain reactions in phonology to inflectional morphology. In HW's view, the basic structure of the sentence is held together by functional items, with the lexical items filling in the blanks. Position in functional space must maintain functional equidistance and disturbances in functional equidistance set off error correcting chain reactions which are cyclical in nature and subject to drift. Thus, functionally salient lexical items will eventually set off a push chain conveyor belt pressure in functional space, sending functionally close-by affixes down the path of attrition. Such is the origin of agglutinating clitics of non-standard oral French from erstwhile lexical pronouns, setting of the attrition of functionally equivalent fusional means of inflection inherited from Old French and Latin: Loss of suffixal inflection on the verb, compensated by the rise of proclitic means indicating person, number and tense. Conversely, functional items going down the path of attrition leave behind functional gaps, triggering a drag chain effect on surrounding functionally salient lexical items. Such is the origin of the agglutinating prenominal class markers from earstwhile articles, compensated by the rise of postnominal means of expressing definiteness on the noun. With the fulfillment of each cycle of change, a morphologically consistent phonological representation is realized which serves as input to the next cycle of morphological change. The aforementioned processes of inflectional renewal are not without parallels in recent neurolinguistic research, notably in the works by Gabriele Miceli.

    Let's assume (1), (2), (3), (4) and (5) to be equivalent expressions of "I was eating" and "I was sick" in Latin, Old French, written Standard French, oral Québec French and Haitian Creole French.

(1)a (ego) ede-ba-m
(1)b (ego) in morbo er-a-m

(2)a (jo) manj-oi-e
(2)b (jo) malades est-oi-e

(3)a je mange -ai-s
(3)b j'ét -ai-s malade

(4)a (moué) ch-tà-àprà-manjé / ch-tà-àprà-manjé (moué)
(4)b (moué) ch-tà-màlàd / ch-tà-màlàd (moué)

(5)a mouen Ø-t-ap-manjé
(5)b mouen Ø-te-malad

Though étymologically analyzable as <je_suis-'tait> "I_am-was", the ch-tà of (4a) and (4b) no longer reveals the presence of any copular verb "to be" to anyone who doesn't master literary written French, including to speakers of non-standard French such as the French in usage in Québec and throughout other colonial establishments of the 17th-18th century. The author-composer Georges Dor, a non-linguist, came independently to the same conclusions. The residual function of ch- is that of agreement with the subject moué , which in Creole varieties of French pursues its path of attrition to zero. The particle tà/te pursues its separate existence as a tense marker in all varieties of colonial French.

    In Quebec French and other non-Creole varieties of colonial French, object agreement varies with postnominal la as expressions of definiteness on the noun.

(6)a j-l-oué l-ab(-la) (moué)         "(I) AGRs-AGRo-see CLASS-tree-the (Sg.)"
(6)b j- é-oué éz-ab(-la) (moué)         "(I) AGRs-AGRo-see CLASS-tree-the (Pl.)"

In Creole varieties of French (except for the Seychelles), postnominal la, derived from an erstwhile adverb "there", survives as the only means of expressing definiteness. The agglutination of the etymological articles le, la, les as class markers on nouns concording with the agreement features on verbs from erstwhile pronouns gives the language an exotic, bantu-like look.

(7)a n-a- u-ona m-ti         "(I) AGRs-PRESENT-AGRo CLASS-tree (Sg.)"
(7)b n-a- i-ona mi-ti         "(I) AGRs-PRESENT-AGRo CLASS-tree (Pl.)"

Noun class clitics pursue in creole varieties of French the path of attrition to zero or relative opaqueness though transparency survives notably in the distribution of prenominal z-/l- : Creole nouns with z- turn up in Québec French as vowel-initial masculine nouns, with l- as vowel-initial feminine nouns. Article agglutination is incipient in French since the Middle Ages as can be shown conclusively from French "lingua franca" texts in Coptic transliteration.

    HW's comparative approach to studying colonial varieties of French from Québec, the Americas and the Indian Ocean reveals that the structural gap with written French is inherent in the variety of oral French reflecting the speech of Paris exported from the cities of Northern France from the early 17th century onwards. The doubling of DP positions as agreement features and varying degrees of restrictions on verb movement are the only noteworthy developmental features that separate non-Creole varieties from Creole varieties of French. With his student Robert Fournier, HW debunked within the same theoretical framework the extravagant African-origin hypotheses of Haitian Creole French by Claire Lefebvre and similar far-fetched theories. In the end, neither the non-creole koine nor the creole varieties of colonial French turn out to be "Creoles" in the sense that Creolists would have it. They are both outcomes of "normal" processes of linguistic change and grammaticalization. There is no scientific basis for "Creole" origin hypotheses of Black French correlating overtly or covertly race and language learning abilities.

    HW also contributed significantly to the study of other languages, notably languages that are claimed to be substratal to different varieties of Creole French (Ewe, Yoruba, Mande, Bantu, Malagasy, Arawakian, Caribian).