À Paris/sur Paris: a variationist account of prepositional alternation before city names in Hexagonal French




Buaillon, Emmanuelle

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À is the prototypical preposition used before city names in French, yet there are reports that, since the mid-20th century, sur also appears in this context in vernacular varieties of European French. To date, research on the choice between à and sur has focused on semantic and pragmatic differences between the two, and has relied on made-up examples, small participant usage surveys, or empirical datasets that were not systematically analyzed. Moreover, the influence of social factors has received only scant attention. This thesis addresses these shortcomings by providing a quantitative, variationist and longitudinal account of à/sur alternations. It asks the following question: Which factors (linguistic and social) can account for prepositional variation before city names in Hexagonal French? The data was drawn from two publicly available corpora of spoken Hexagonal French, representing three locales: the Parisian city-centre, a group of suburban cities surrounding Paris, and the midsize provincial city of Orléans. The speakers (N = 151) were born between 1878 and 1994, providing a mixture of real- and apparent-time perspectives on variation. Following variationist methods, the analysis considers all contexts where à/sur variation is possible (N = 2542) and seeks to elucidate the variable grammar. Results indicate important differences between the three areas under study, both in terms of social patterns and in terms of linguistic constraints. In Paris, the use of sur is restricted to a few speakers and a few linguistic contexts, and is overall very infrequent. In the suburbs and Orléans, sur is more widely attested across speakers and contexts, but it remains a minority variant which seems to be on the decline, especially in the suburbs. Further, in Orléans, the variable grammar is less linguistically constrained, suggesting a trajectory of geographic diffusion. Overall, the quantitative findings support some of the semantic and pragmatic hypotheses proposed in earlier work while shedding light on how geographic, social and linguistic factors combine to explain a phenomenon of variation that has never been studied using variationist methods before.



language variation and change, variationist sociolinguistics, French language, prepositions