University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics


The French interrogative system, which allows for variation among several distinct syntactic structures, constitutes a domain in which normative prescription and actual usage differ greatly (Elsig, 2009). Although many sociolinguistic studies have examined this variation (e.g., Ashby, 1977; Behnstedt, 1973; Coveney, 1989, 2002; Fox, 1989; Myers, 2007; Quillard, 2000), most can be characterized as synchronic. This study traces and contrasts the increased usage and decreased stigmatization of the nonstandard interrogative variants—wh- in situ and fronting—with the decline of prescriptive forms—inversion and est-ce que—in French films spanning the 1930s to present day. An analysis of the social variables of sex and social class in a corpus of 20 films reveals that (a) yes/no questions—as opposed to wh- interrogation—have not changed over time, showing an overwhelming and constant preference for rising vocal intonation; (b) different interrogatives pattern differently such that certain wh- words prefer certain wh- constructions; (c) post-1960, there is a robust increase in the rates of fronting and wh- in situ that directly opposes a sharp decline in inversion; (d) working class usage of nonstandard forms is shown to be relatively stable, whereas usage by middle- and high-class speakers has shown an increasing preference for nonstandard forms; finally (e) across decades, men use more nonstandard forms than women; post-1960, women’s and middle- and upper-class men’s usage of nonstandard forms appears to be on the rise.