n French Studies in Southern Africa - L’attitude de Voltaire vis-à-vis de « par contre » et d’autres expressions plébéiennes : ambition sociale et prescriptivisme grammatical se croisent

Volume 2018 Number 48
  • ISSN : 0259-0247


The quintessential eighteenth-century philosopher and the most engaged intellectual of the era due to his ardent desire to crush “l’infâme”, Voltaire was also paradoxically a fierce despot in his own way: his intolerance for so-called grammatical mistakes was as noteworthy as his refusal to accept the natural evolution of language. He goes beyond what one could consider reasonable by advocating a prescriptivist version of French, of which the best writers would be the only authors. For Voltaire, the French spoken by the intellectual elite was naturally superior to that of the people but also to the French of the uncultivated members of the bourgeoisie. This article explores the origins of the “par contre” myth and, more generally, Voltaire’s prescriptivism in order to reveal his tyrannical vision of language. Voltaire’s attitude towards this expression and others, which he defines as being too bourgeois, is also contradictory: a bourgeois himself, he rejects his brethrens’ French. His prescriptivism is not merely a product of his time, but is also rooted in his own social insecurities, in his desire to prove himself more worthy and even more powerful than others, at least in regards to language, and, unfortunately, at the hypocritical expense of the greater good.

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