Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity    April 2000 Volume XXIII Number 1


The Princess & Picard

by William Orem

Once there were two princesses—twins, as it happens—who lived side by side in nearby provinces. They resembled each other so closely that in public people sometimes mistook one for the other, though with a more careful inspection the differences could be seen. In time one twin became queen. With her ascension came land and power, and as a result her subjects started looking down on the lesser-seeming sibling, regarding her as a kind of pretender. Her similarities to the queen seemed vaguely threatening, while her differences came to look more like corruption, a kind of falling-away from true regal nature.

Julie Auger, an assistant professor of linguistics and French and Italian at Indiana University Bloomington, studies the lesser of these princesses. She is a language known as Picard, spoken—though less and less—by the residents of Picardy in northwestern France. The queen, of course, is French itself: the official mother tongue that now dominates the country and is taken by many to be its “true” language. Picard has been relegated by some to second-class status, regarded as something like a backward or sloppy version of French. Yet in fact, Auger notes, Picard is not a form of French at all. It is a “sister language,” an independent tongue descended side-by-side from a common parent, Latin.

The relationship between power and cultural “rightness” is written all over this scenario; yet although she speaks both French and Picard, Auger’s affection for the lesser-known language is not primarily political. Rather, her interest stems from the fact that the very similarities between Picard and French make for an excellent case study in linguistics. Auger’s fascination with this vanishing princess stems from her passion for understanding language itself.

Even before she became interested in language, Auger was no stranger to what linguists call “variation”: she is originally from Quebec, where a form of French, Quebecois, is spoken. “You can see how variation comes about in words like poudrerie and tuque,” she says. These words appear only in the French spoken in Canada, which makes sense once you know what they mean. A tuque is what you put on your head on those Canadian winter days when the air has white poudrerie coming down and blowing around.

“As a sociolinguist I want to find out how people really speak, what terms they really use,” Auger explains, “when they’re not on their best behavior.” Just as a Quebecois speaker needs to be coaxed to set aside her best French in the presence of foreigners and in formal contexts, so do the remaining speakers of Picard need to be coaxed sometimes to discuss things in their original tongue. Then there is the problem of Picard being a dying language, whose contribution could be lost within a single generation if it is not recorded now.

“Most of the people I interview are between seventy and 100,” Auger says, without hyperbole. “Very few are under fifty.”

Every month, authors who write in Picard and auditors eager to hear their new texts gather for a few hours. The “Picardisants du Ponthieu et du Vimeu,” founded by the linguist Gaston Vasseur, celebrated their thirtieth anniversary in 1997. To this day, the Picardisants continue to promote use of the Picard language by showing that it can serve as a vehicle for poetry, short stories, autobiographies, political commentary, and novels.

As the first step in her research she travels to France to record spoken Picard and catalogue its structures. She has been there four times on grants from various sources, with the most recent trip being funded by IU. The result of these excursions is an intimidating row of tapes, lined up on a shelf in her office, which she refers to proudly as her “corpus.” Each tape contains recordings of native speakers of Picard in casual, non-forced conversation. “I use Picard words myself to show that I know the language and to try to coax them into a dialogue,” she smiles. “They often correct my mistakes, which is good, because it helps me overcome my shyness.”

From these tapes Auger painstakingly culls examples of particular linguistic events as they occur—an insertion of a word in a new context, for example, or the dropping of a vowel—each of which is a “token” to be used as data to test current theories. The research is vast; at present her corpus contains more than 4,400 such tokens. The task of sifting that much data seems enormous, but as Auger is quick to point out, it’s a blessing for linguists. The opportunity of two independent languages close enough to each other that one can serve as a template for the other is rare. In time, she can juxtapose Picard structures against French ones, highlighting the differences and examining how change has come about in specific instances.

“You could do this with any two languages,” Auger says. “You could compare English and Japanese. But the differences are so great and so across-the-board that it would be difficult to even know where to begin.” And her labor of sifting through data will be partially eased by collaboration with other faculty members, whom she calls “a really nice team,” and with students as well.

Auger journeyed from Quebec to McGill, and finally to Bloomington because of the reputation for excellence held by IU’s program in French linguistics. “There were students here who actually wanted to do French linguistics,” she laughs. Since coming on board she has served on committees for many linguistics graduates. Not all of them are in her specific field of study, though, which Auger sees as a plus. “IU provides a great opportunity for me to teach and advise students on sociolinguistics of languages other than French. I’d love to chair a dissertation on Spanish linguistics, or on Ebonics. What’s more,” she smiles, “when I get a grant, then I can recruit students to study Picard.”

And finally, though sociolinguistics and not politics is her life’s work, she will always pass along some admiration for Picard to her students. “The truth is I love this language,” she admits. “It’s my passion."

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