linguist of the month of February 2017
Echo Park, Los Angeles
The Cam River, Cambridge
Wendy Ayres-Bennett, Professor of French Philology and Linguistics at the University of Cambridge,  works on the history of the French language and the history of linguistic thought, particularly in seventeenth-century France. Her major research interests include questions of standardisation and codification, linguistic ideology and policy, variation and change, from the sixteenth century to the present day. A bibliography of the selected works of Professor Ayres-Bennett, appears after this interview.
LMJ : For how many years did you learn French at school and at what point did your interest in French become so rooted that you realized it would become the cornerstone of your career?
W A-B : As was typical for my generation in the UK, I began studying French at the age of 11. I continued studying it at school for 7 years, and completed high school with Latin as my second language, and German as my third. My parents and sister were keen mathematicians, but I was drawn to languages, thanks to an early fascination with words, crossword puzzles, dictionaries, etc. I did my undergraduate degree in French and German at Cambridge and then went on to do postgraduate studies leading to a DPhil. at Oxford. I am currently a Professorial Fellow of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge.
LMJ : What was the subject of your doctorate?
W A-B : As an undergraduate I loved the history of linguistics, the history of the French language and seventeenth-century French literature. As a result I became fascinated with the mid-17th century linguist, Claude Favre de VAUGELAS. He established a reputation as an influential commentator on the French language but the specific contents of his work, Remarques sur la langue françoise utiles à ceux qui veulent bien parler et bien escrire, Paris, 1647, were less known. They intrigued me and I wanted to study them in detail.
LMJ : You were the lead researcher on a project on the genre of observations on the French language. The Corpus des remarques sur la langue française (XVIIe siècle) was published by Classiques Garnier Numérique in 2011 and constitutes an important part of the Grand Corpus des grammaires françaises, des remarques et des traités sur la langue (XIVe-XVIIe siècles).
What were the stepping stones that led you to that particular field of research?
W A-B : Vaugelas's observations generated a whole series of other works of a similar kind. These volumes of observations are typically French, and complement dictionaries, grammar books and more formal teaching manuals. For those who are familiar with the contemporary French linguist, Bernard Cerquiglini, his book "Merci Professeur," and his popular video segments under that title make him a modern-day equivalent of the 17th-century writers of observations.
In 1635 when the French Academy was founded, the Academicians promised to publish a dictionary, a grammar, a work on poetics and a work on rhetoric. The first edition of the dictionary did not appear until 1694, and the Academy was slow to make progress on the other works. Instead, Vaugelas's observations took the place of the grammar, a series of observations on good French usage or, le bon usage, the title adopted by Maurice Grevisse for his famous grammar in the twentieth century. It is hard to imagine the influence that Vaugelas's remarks had in his day. For instance, the playwright, Pierre Corneille revised his plays in the edition of 1660 to bring the use of French more in line with Vaugelas's grammatical pronouncements. And Racine was supposed to have taken his copy to Uzès in the south of France to prevent his good French usage from being corrupted!
LMJ : Does anything exist within the French Academy or independently of it that may be regarded as the 20th century version of those observations?
W A-B : Yes, the French Academy's website now has a column called, "Dire, ne pas dire" which contains such linguistic "dos and don'ts". French national and regional newspapers with language columns or chroniques de langage are another source of guidance on matters of the French language. As mentioned, linguists like Cerquiglini are also in some ways successors to Vaugelas and what we call the French remarqueurs.
LMJ : One of your fields of study has been diachrony. Can you explain that field to our readers and how etymology relates to it.
W A-B : This is basically a simple concept: diachrony considers how and why language changes over the course of time. Etymology deals essentially with the origin of particular words or the historical development of their form and meaning. My own interest is principally in the history of particular French constructions, e.g. the history of French word order or of negative constructions.
Traditionally the history of French relied on looking at literary texts, but I have tried to trace changes in more common usage or the vernacular by looking at other types of texts. It is not really until the 20th century that we get recordings of speech, so we have to be ingenious as historians of a language to try and find sources that best reflect more informal and spoken styles.
LMJ : From Cambridge, the centre of your work since 1983, the influence of your research has gained recognition in France and beyond. Can you mention some of the awards and prizes you have received?
W A-B : I was fortunate to be awarded the Prix d'Académie by the French Academy in 1997 and then again the Prix Georges Dumézil in 2013 for my work on Vaugelas and the French remarqueurs. In 2004 I became an Officier dans l'Ordre des Palmes Académiques for my services to French education and culture.
LMJ : One of the two most recent works that you edited was Bon Usage et variation sociolinguistique: Perspectives diachroniques et traditions nationales (Lyon: ENS Éditions, 2013). Which sociolinguistic aspects do you think are of the greatest interest to the layman.
W A-B : Sociolinguistic variation looks at how language changes according to the sex, age, education or socio-economic status of the speaker. I have looked at this type of variation historically for French and have been interested, for instance, in exploring how men and women's language differed in the past or whether we can see the direction of future change in the speech of young people.
In seventeenth-century France there was a movement against grammar being too formal or pedantic and that is why the volumes of observations did not follow the format of part of speech grammars but were intended to deal with points of doubtful usage in a pleasing way (just as Cerquiglini does today). At this time, women came to be seen as the arbiters of good usage, because their view of "good" French was not "contaminated" by any knowledge of Greek or Latin grammar.
LMJ : Your latest project is the MEITS research project, of which you are the Principal Investigator, leading teams from four prominent British universities and comprising about 35 researchers. Can you describe it in a nutshell?
W A-B : MULTILIGUALISM: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies, launched last year on the European Day of Languages, is a major interdisciplinary research project funded under the Open World Research Initiative of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The Universities of Cambridge, Queen's (Belfast), Edinburgh and Nottingham are the partners conducting it. We are also working with a whole range of non-academic partners, ranging from small grassroot bodies such as the Cambridge Ethnic Community Forum to major bodies such as the British Chambers of Commerce or Age UK. Linguistic competence in more than one language – being multilingual – sits at the heart of the study of modern languages and literatures, distinguishing it from cognate disciplines. Through six interlocking research strands we investigate how the insights gained from stepping outside a single language, culture and mode of thought are vital to individuals and societies.
LMJ : The MEITS research proposal appears to be very ambitious in its vision, its goals and the different aspects of multilingualism set down. We cannot cover all these aspects within this interview but we will encourage our readers to access the material available digitally.
Some of those goals are at a macro level, e.g. "To create a cultural shift in the conception and practice of language learning." At the micro level one of your aims is "to have a transformative effect on language learning at the level of the individual." How will all the conclusions and fruits of your research filter down to the prospective multilingual student or practitioner?
W A-B : MEITS seeks to show how languages are important to key issues of our time, such as social cohesion, conflict resolution and national security. Instrumental arguments in favour of learning a language have tended not to succeed because English speakers know that they can 'get by' in many places in the world without knowing the local language. So we are looking for other reasons to encourage language learning. For example, we are beginning to discover that learning other languages offers enormous cognitive benefits. Research is showing that the study of languages by people in their 60s or older can improve their attention span or indeed help slow down the onset of dementia, and such findings will be important for an aging society. We plan exciting new research conducted through a holistic prism. We hope that people will come to realise the beneficial and intrinsic value of learning languages. The scale and scope of MEITS will hopefully make it transformative, and we are going to work with schools and other bodies to ensure our results are widely disseminated.
LMJ : Which other bodies will be brought in?
W A-B : We plan to have an outreach programme that will involve schools, policymakers, charitable bodies, and other non-academic partners, who will all disseminate the results, and help elevate the status of language learning in the public perception. To give you an example, my team will be working in Northern Ireland with Co-Operation Ireland (an all-island peace-building charity) and particularly its LEGaSI project which seeks to develop leadership skills and confidence in disenfranchised loyalist communities. The alienation felt by this community towards Irish language and culture is being tackled in two ways. First, through the study of place names. In showing that Irish is part of the shared 'linguistic landscape' of Northern Ireland, greater awareness of the rootedness of the linguistic traditions is promoted across the whole community. Empowerment of loyalist communities, including former paramilitaries, is also being facilitated through language training in Irish. This allows them to feels some ownership of the language as well as developing the soft diplomatic skills which will help them to negotiate respectfully across the community divide. This then is a good example of how learning languages can help build bridges.
LMJ : You mentioned that you discovered museums in Britain for things as uncommon as lawnmowers, but none for languages. Please elaborate.
W A-B : As a further step in bringing the benefits of MEITS to the wider public, we are going to set up pop-up museums in various high-street shops across the UK which will have fun and interactive displays and activities explaining our results to the general public. When I started putting the project together, I was astonished to find that the UK has a museum for dog collars and another for lawnmowers, but not for languages, despite their centrality to so much of human activity. We hope that these temporary exhibitions will in time lead to a permanent national museum.
LMJ : We have published two articles on this blog that take up issues raised by Professor Claude Hagège, an articulate "defender" of the French language, who has written books and articles and appeared on TV shows, expressing strong views opposing the domination of English. As my closing question for the benefit of those readers who may have followed this debate and who may have strong views on this subject, what is your view?
W A-B : At French and other Universities where I have been a guest speaker or visiting professor  I have found my French colleagues to be torn between the desire to protect their own language and the need to have their research published and read globally, which can be easier if they write in English. Across Europe there is a move to offer university courses in English to attract more international students, but this cannot be at the expense of French and other European languages. It is vital, in my view, that linguistic diversity is maintained and that we protect and promote all languages. This is why in my project we are also looking at 'minoritized' languages such as Irish or Welsh in the UK, Occitan in France or Catalan in Spain. Whilst it is undoubtedly valuable to speak English, this is not enough. That is why the promotion of multilingualism, both for the individual and for societies is crucial.
 the renowned British collegiate public research university, founded in 1209.
 Professor Ayres-Bennett was Pajus Distinguished Visiting Professor, at the University of California, Berkeley in 2012.
Ayres-Bennett, W. (1987)
Vaugelas and the Development of the French Language.
Ayres-Bennett, W. (1996)
A History of the French Language through Texts.
Ayres-Bennett, W. (2004)
Sociolinguistic Variation in Seventeenth-Century France.
Ayres-Bennett, W. and Seijido, M. (2011)
Remarques et observations sur la langue française: histoire et évolution d'un genre.
Paris, Classiques Garnier.
Ayres-Bennett, W. (2011)
Corpus des remarques sur la langue française (XVIIe siècle).
Paris, Classiques Garnier Numérique.
Le bon usage: using French correctly
UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE