Jean Pruvost

In collaboration with the radio des cinq académies de l’Institut de France (Canal Académie)

The Speaker

Jean Pruvost is a professor at the University of Cergy-Pontoise, where he teaches lexicology and lexicography and directs the Master of Sciences in Language program as well as the CNRS [National Center for Scientific Research] laboratory, Métadif (Lexicons, Dictionaries, IT), which is devoted to dictionaries.
Each year he organizes Dictionary Day, an international meeting of lexicologists and lexicographers.

The author of more than 340 publications, including two in the Que sais-je? series, in 2000, Jean Pruvost received the Logos International Linguistics Prize for Dictionnaires et nouvelles technologies [Dictionaries and New Technologies] (PUF) and, in 2007, he received the prize from the Académie Française for Les Dictionnaires français, outils d’une langue et d’une culture [French Dictionaries, Tools of a Language and of a Culture] (Ophrys).

He oversees and writes dictionaries for the publisher Bordas, and has just published a Dictionnaire de citations de la langue française [Dictionary of Quotations from the French Language] (2007, Bordas), a Dictionnaire du Japon [Dictionary of Japan] (2007) and a Dictionnaire de la Chine [Dictionary of China] (2008), with the publisher éditions des Silves.

Jean Pruvost is a member of the Institut de langue française [French Language Institute], of the Conseil national des Universités [National Council of Universities] and of various editorial committees for international reviews. He is also the editor-in-chief of Études de linguistique appliquée [Studies in Applied Linguistics] (publisher: Didier érudition) and heads the division for scholarly collections with B. Quemada at the publisher éditions Honoré Champion in addition to having co-directed the Cahiers de lexicologie [Lexicology Notebooks].

Since 2007, he has been the director of a high-level international electronic scientific review on words and dictionaries.


The Female/Male Relationship in the French Language from Yesterday to Today

In the dictionaries of the 17th century, for example, Richelet’s 1680 edition, the definition given for woman is disconcerting to us today: “a reasonable Creature made by the hand of God to keep Man Company. Taking a wife is a strange thing, and it’s a good to think about all one’s life.” In addition, negative qualities are always attributed to women and positive qualities to men. Thus, for the word intelligent, the example will be “he is intelligent” and for imbecile, “she is an imbecile.”

It was not until the end of the 20th century that a woman, Marguerite Yourcenar, entered the Académie française and today it is a woman, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, who is the Perpetual Secretary. However, according to her wishes, she is Madame le Secrétaire perpetuel, in the masculine form. There is a new debate on the French language when it comes to jobs and job duties. Madame le professeur or la professeure? L’auteure [versus the traditional auteur], l’écrivaine [versus the traditional écrivain]? The current usage seems to be in the process of changing.
Taking a closer look, we see that until the 16th century, it was the masculine “un” rencontre [meeting], “un” armoire [cupboard], and in the middle of the 19th century, the feminine “une” cyclone. “Le” rencontre had an aggressive connotation whereas “la” rencontre can have a pleasant connotation: the gender of words and the corresponding evolution probably also represent a facet of the masculine/feminine relationship.

In today’s dictionaries, “political correctness” drives dictionary authors to offer militant examples: “Papa and his son are doing the housework”; “Mama and her daughter are repairing the car”. It remains a touchy subject…

The History of the French Language and Its Support: From the First Dictionaries to the Internet

Approximately ten centuries passed between the conquest of Gaul by the Romans and the Serments de Strasbourg [Oaths of Strasbourg] in 842, which were written in the French language. During that time, French was forged, mainly from Latin, though it was also influenced by Germanic invasions and enriched by words borrowed from the language of the Vikings and by many words from the Arab civilization and from Italian. 

In 1539, the first bilingual French-Latin dictionary was produced by Robert Estienne’s print shop. In the 17th century, the Académie française was created, along with the first three monolingual French dictionaries: Richelet, Littré and Robert.
In the 18th century, the Enlightenment brought technical and scientific progress, including Diderot and Alembert’s Encyclopédie and their plates. Following the French Revolution, dictionaries very rich in vocabulary were published, in the excessive style of the Romantics, and the first “academic” dictionaries appeared on the new market.
During the 20th century, we witnessed the democratization of the dictionary, where small and large dictionaries appeared en masse in French households. By the end of the century, dictionaries would be free of charge on the Internet. Indeed, electronic support will considerably modify the creation and consultation of dictionaries.  A new metamorphosis of “electronic” dictionaries is unquestionable underway at the dawn of the 21st century.

The Adventure of Words in the French Language: Archaisms, Neologisms, Etymology and Challenges of Translation

A language only lives and develops if it adapts itself to the needs of a linguistic community. The economic, scientific, technical and industrial evolution of this community, as well as its cultural metamorphoses sometimes require construction of new words (computer science, office automation, Internet chat), or a radical modification of meaning (in the 19th century, the verb énerver meant the state of being soft, “without nerves”) or the addition of a new meaning to an existing word (the computer mouse). 

Literature gives birth to words, which, most often, do not enter everyday language but are an example of the richness of expression of a language. It also leaves in our minds words of yesteryear which are no longer in use, except for mentioning older works and with a sometimes ironic usage (Qu’ouïs-je ?; Tire la bobinette, la chevillette cherra). It is inevitable that words disappear at the same time that others appear and thousands of new words are submitted each year to the National Institute for Industrial Property.

Language also has its strata based on age and milieu. It is normal that an adolescent creates his own personal lexicon to mark his territory, which he or she wants to be different from that of adults. Finally, each year, advertisements invent any number of words and expressions that get stuck in our minds. All of this contributes to the history of the language, the history of words and their etymology.

Translation is a very difficult exercise; for all practical purposes one must perfectly master the mechanisms of creation in each language and find precise ways to bridge cultural differences. How do we translate “He got a 14 in philosophy on his bac” without turning to the history of words and the cultural context?

Link to an interview of Jean Pruvot on the radio des cinq académies de l’Institut de France (Canal Académie):

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