archives henri wittmann archives
contributions to linguistics
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
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
in morbo er-a-m
(3)a je mange
ch-tà-àprà-manjé / ch-tà-àprà-manjé
ch-tà-màlàd / ch-tà-màlàd (moué)
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
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.
l-ab(-la) (moué) "(I) AGRs-AGRo-see
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.
u-ona m-ti "(I) AGRs-PRESENT-AGRo
i-ona mi-ti "(I) AGRs-PRESENT-AGRo
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.
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
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).