Past Participle Agreement in French: Aristocracy of Complexity

Almost every year, we hear or read the same question among French speakers: should we keep that complex grammar rule about past participle agreement when used with a passé composé [1]? This rule is not an original Old nor Middle French inspiration. It was implemented into French around the end of the Renaissance. Before the 16th century, the passé composé when used with the auxiliary verb être [2], was always agreeing with the subject of the verb, and when used with the auxiliary verb avoir [3], it depended on the dialect of French, on the regional language, and sometimes on writers. Some were always agreeing with the direct object, and other ones, never agreeing with anything.

However, in European monasteries, Bible copying monks introduced a subtle mistake whenever they wanted to respect the agreement norm. When the direct object was before the verb, they knew they had to make the past participle agree. But when the object happened to appear further away in the sentence, they didn’t know, at the moment they were writing the past participle, what grammatical gender and number the object was. When they finally arrived on the object, they suddenly realised that their past participle lacked something, an E or S or ES. It was too late to add the letters as they were writing tight on a parchment. Until the Renaissance era, this mistake spread across different countries. In Italy then, the use of agreement depending on whether the object was before or after the verb, started to get the favour of more and more writers.

When being asked by the king Francis I of France – François Ier – about a universal grammatical rule for newly designed printing of codices, French poet Clément Marot advocated for the Italian fashion in the French new grammar. Since then, Modern French retains an uneven rule that made many generations’ life hard when learning correct spelling of past participle in the passé composé’s conjugation. Until today, French speaking students are taught this rule and the Académie française of course, traditional symbol of French language centralism, insists on not accepting any other practice.

But this is not only an institutional preference. Many French people, even among those who are not aware of the origins of grammatical rules and don’t know any historical linguistics, are the actual ones who are fighting back each time someone suggests a simplification of the rules. Some scholars sustained by the French Community of Belgium proposed to remove the whole agreement with auxiliary verb avoir in order to make the rule uniform and easier to remember. This suggestion, of course, has been looked down on and despised by many French speakers from France but also from the world.

Each time the ideological crisis about French spelling or grammatical rules happens, I try to understand the reason for such an unnecessary identitarian fight. And the more I think about it, the less I believe it is identitarian. The complexity of past participle agreement cannot be a matter of cultural identity since the question has been shared by other Romance languages, such as Spanish, Catalan or Occitan, and society has culturally changed on other details which were much more radical than adding an E, S or ES at the end of a written word – and even not pronounced in most cases. The mental reason behind this kind of outcry from the language speakers themselves, has more to do with learning efforts capitalisation. Generations who have been trained to consider this complex spelling rule as something they had to master before leaving school as worthy citizens, have integrated in their mind the efforts in the grammar learning process as a proof of moral merit. And all our societies, in a way, be they capitalist, socialist, theocratic or meritocratic, force individuals to believe in worthiness. Even in education. Even in the grammar learning process. They have not understood yet that human merit is a socially constructed delusion.

It becomes suddenly understandable, from a human point of view – I would dare say ‘on an animal point of view’ – that what has been violently integrated as compulsory rules in which you can be proud of being proficient, has to be maintained and protected by institutions, even if new generations have to suffer from it, in order to keep on holding the sceptre of a cultural aristocracy. This has nothing to do with national pride defending against foreign savagery, but on the opposite, it has to do with social pride within the cultural borders themselves, a sense of pyramidal distinction that has to be continued and passed on from old generations to new generations. This could be criticised indeed, but it is merely one of the many examples of how any society tries to maintain its social violence thanks to the illusion of worthiness.

J.-S. Desnanot

[1] literally ‘‘compound past’’, structural equivalent for English present perfect, but with a meaning encompassing present perfect and part of simple past

[2] verb ‘‘to be’’ used as a helping verb

[3] verb ‘‘to have’’ used as helping verb, equivalent for English ‘have’ in ‘I have done this’

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