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Theses Year : 2008

A semantic study of the French pronoun ON in a textual and contextual perspective

Étude sémantique du pronom ON dans une perspective textuelle et contextuelle.



The present thesis is a semantic study of the polysemous French pronoun ON. In order to describe the complex semantics of ON, the thesis examines some linguistic theories on semantic interpretation in order to develop a theoretical framework that might explain how the interpretation of ON comes about. In order to evaluate the theoretical reflections the thesis then analyses the use of ON in a material of contemporary French texts.

The thesis is inspired by the theoretical framework of textual semantics - Sémantique des textes - inspired by the works of François Rastier. Textual semantics is a multi-level model for the interpretation of language. It poses semes, or semantic traits as the basic descriptive unit. In this sense, it is similar to French structuralist semantics. However, the semantic traits serve primarily as a tool for the analysis of higher-order linguistic levels. Firstly, the recurrence of semantic traits constitutes isotopies, i.e. semantic chains constituted by the repetition of traits. Secondly, the semantic chains are studied in a larger context: the text and the genre, since these levels impose constraints on the lower levels. As opposed to structuralism, textual semantics do not see the semantic traits as binary, minimal traits. Rather, the semantic traits can be seen as semantic features that are realised or cancelled in context. According to this line of reasoning, the use of the personal value of ON, for instance, is linked to the cancellation of the seme /indefinite/ while the use of ON for female referents, entailing the agreement in gender for verbs and adjectives, realises the seme /feminine/.

It is the text, however, that is the basis for analyses in textual semantics, as the label indicates. The text is a considered as the fundamental linguistic unit, with its own constraints and meaning structures that influence lower level units. In this sense, textual semantics is close to neighbouring disciplines such as philology and hermeneutics, because it requires a critical interpretation of the text in order to identify linguistic meaning.

Finally, the notion of context was expanded to include norm systems influencing pronominal use. Following Rastier, the thesis distinguishes the language system, the genre and individual style as different norm systems that might influence the use of ON.

On the basis of this theoretical framework, the thesis examines the use of ON in different texts and on different contextual levels. My aim was to find out if there were any regularities in the contexts that co-occur with specific interpretations of ON.

The empirical analyses presented in the thesis are divided into two major parts, focussing on the genre of the research article and poetry, respectively.

The first part examines the contribution of ON to important textual functions in the genre of the research article and particularly the textual representation of the author. In French, ON is frequently used in academic prose to refer to the author herself, as the use of the first person singular is often discouraged. But it is of course also used in the indefinite sense. ON is therefore, consciously or unconsciously, used as a tool to manage the different constraints of the genre: respect and deference to others, argumenting by authority, promoting one's own research. As a consequence, we see a complex play and interaction between the different values of ON in this genre. These values often correspond to what we can call author-functions or more precisely textual representations of argumentation, description etc. Secondly, the thesis analyses the influence of the linearity of the text and its potential influence on the use of ON. In research articles, there is often a close link between surface and content: specific thematic content is distributed in a pre-fixed manner: “Introduction” section in the beginning, then “Discussion and methods” and finally the conclusion at the end. In many disciplines, this sequence is explicitly fixed in journal guidelines. It is quite obvious that this schema influences textual, rhetorical functions. However, as my analysis shows, lower level linguistic units, such as ON, are also influenced the linearity of the text. The frequency of ON, as well as its values, change and evolve across the text. This is clearly an example of the decisive influence of the text on micro-level units such as pronouns. In this sense, the study of ON brings up features that can be generalised to the study of other grammatical units.

The second part of the empirical analyses focuses on poetry, and more precisely on what could be called testimonial poetry. The thesis presents a study of a work of poetry, “L'excès- l'usine”, by the French author Leslie Kaplan. The text describes the experience of factory work, emphasizing the interior experience of this kind of work and the alienation it brings with it. This text is characterized by a very frequent and very idiosyncratic use of ON. ON is consistently used to refer to a woman, which can be seen by the consistent agreement of adjectives and participles. This creates an important textual effect, because it poses the feminine as a default perspective in the textual universe, in contrast to everyday French, where the general or universal ON has agreement for the masculine gender. In this sense, the text questions our assumptions about how language represents identity. What this text shows then, is how a tiny pronoun, used in a special way, can challenge the way we think about subjectivity.

Furthermore, the text represents a genre where the use of ON has been little explored, even though this pronoun has been used in quite remarkable ways in French testimonials, and notably testimonials from concentration camps. ON seems particularly suited to this genre, because it represents the border between the I, the subject, and the exterior.
Cette thèse propose une méthodologie pour l'analyse des éléments grammaticaux polysémiques, notamment le pronom ON, à partir d'une réflexion sur le cadre théorique de la Sémantique de Textes. À travers des analyses de deux genres déterminés - l'article scientifique et la poésie - la thèse montre l'interaction et l'influence réciproque de ON et le contexte, aussi bien au niveau de la phrase qu'au celui du texte.
La première partie de la thèse traite de la sémantique de ON et de sa classification grammaticale. Elle montre les limitations des descriptions grammaticales basées sur des critères peu précis, et la confusion entre emplois indéfinis et emplois pour des personnes déterminées qui s'exprime par l'oxymoron « pronom personnel indéfini ». Par conséquent, la thèse se propose d'affiner la description sémantique de ON, notamment par une élaboration de la notion de contexte et son influence sur l'interprétation de ce pronom. La variation dans les emplois de ON ne peut pas se réduire à un seul noyau de sens (core meaning) et l'on propose un modèle sémique approprié à l'analyse de ON selon l'hypothèse que les différents emplois correspondent à la réalisation ou l'annulation des différents sèmes en contexte.
La seconde partie de la thèse présente deux études de l'emploi de ON dans des genres déterminés ; l'article scientifique et la poésie. La première étude examine l'emploi de ON dans un corpus d'articles scientifiques (le corpus KIAP, voir www.kiap.uib.no) et montre l'influence de paramètres contextuels aussi bien au niveau micro (verbes, temps verbaux, adverbes) qu'au niveau macro (disposition linéaire du texte). La seconde étude analyse l'emploi de ON dans L'excès - l'usine de Leslie Kaplan (1994) à partir de la notion de zones anthropiques (Rastier 1996) qui décrit les relations entre dimensions sémantiques et expériences humaines. Dans cette perspective, ON fonctionne comme un médiateur entre les différentes zones, notamment entre le sujet et le monde qui l'entoure. La flexibilité discursive de ON, allant de l'indéfini jusqu'au déterminé, constitue un facteur remarquable dans la représentation textuelle de l'aliénation du sujet dans ce texte.
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Dates and versions

tel-00335306 , version 1 (29-10-2008)


  • HAL Id : tel-00335306 , version 1


Anje Müller Gjesdal. Étude sémantique du pronom ON dans une perspective textuelle et contextuelle.. Linguistique. Université de Bergen, 2008. Français. ⟨NNT : ⟩. ⟨tel-00335306⟩
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