Linguistics at U of T



We looked at variation in complementizer marking in the English (L1) and French (L2) of Montreal Anglophones. The focus was on determining whether speakers use the same grammar in their two languages, and how each may influence the other. See:

On était comme, 'We think like may be a COMP too.'

Hélène Blondeau, University of Florida

Naomi Nagy, University of Toronto

Jim Wood, Yale University

(References | Keywords)

The present study investigates the linguistic factors that contribute to the variable presence of overt complementizers (COMP), a variable that has been identified in the linguistic repertoire of young Anglophone Montrealers (AM) in both French and English, as exemplified in (1-3):

(1) I think he thought Ø  it was really cool that I spoke French and that I was bilingual. (Liz)

(2) Because I felt like uh: OK, I understand that the French people have to protect themselves. (Louisa)

(3) Je pense Ø c'est plus' anglophone   je pense que les compagnies sont: donnent un sens de anglophone. (Greg)

I think Ø it's more Anglophone. I think that the companies give a sense of being Anglophone.

All sentences illustrating the variable presence of the COMP have been extracted from a corpus of data collected among Anglo-Montrealers aged 18 to 35 who were interviewed in both French (N ? 500) and English (N ? 1000) (Sankoff et al. 1997). We also extracted all examples of English be like (N ?90) and French être comme (N ?18) used to introduce reported speech, for reasons explained below.  

Our analysis traces how like could be reanalysed as a COMP since it appears in the same surface position as the (deletable) COMP, and then makes predictions for the evolution of comme in French. In current spoken English it is common to have subordinate clauses introduced without an overt COMP, as in (1). The absence of COMP , although possible, is less common in French (see (3)). A preliminary study showed that AM respect this difference: they exhibit 73% COMP deletion in English but only 23% in French. This paper further investigates the linguistic constraints affecting the variation : choice of main clause subject, choice of lexical verb, frequency of collocation of these two, and phonological context.

In addition, in the English data, we see an effect of material which intervenes between the subject and the matrix verb: there is more COMP deletion when there are intervening words. Specifically, we observe cases where the absence of that co-occurs with the presence of like , especially following the verb to be , as in (2). We examine this intersection of subordinate clause marking and the innovative use of be like as a verb of quotation in order to better understand the process of grammaticalization of like as a COMP ( cf. Buchstaller 2001, Meehan 1991, Tagliamonte & D'Arcy 2007).

We also examine how this hypothesis applies to the use of comme as a COMP in the French data. This is an innovation of the Anglo-Montrealers: there are no published reports of this usage of comme in L1 French (although Vincent & Sankoff (1992) report its increasing use as marker of exemplification and Meyerhoff & Niedzielski (1998) report similar developments in other languages). Although its usage is far less frequent in French, our analysis supports the existence of several of the same stages of development of the usage of comme as a COMP in both the French and English of these Anglophone Montrealers.


Buchstaller, I. 2001. An Alternative view of like: Its grammaticalisation in American English and beyond. Edinburgh Working Papers in Applied Linguistics 11.1:21-41.

Meehan, T. 1991. It's like, “What's happening in the evolution of ‘like'?”: A theory of grammaticalization. Kansas Working Papers in Linguistics 16:37-51.

Meyerhoff, M. & N. Niedzielski. 1998. The syntax and semantics of olsem in Bislama. In M. Pearson (ed.) Recent Papers in Austronesian Linguistics. UCLA Occasional Papers in Linguistics 20:235-243

Sankoff, G., P. Thibault, N. Nagy, H. Blondeau, M. Fonollosa, & L. Gagnon. 1997. Variation and the use of discourse markers in a language contact situation. Language Variation and Change 9:191-218.

Tagliamonte, S & A. D'Arcy. 2007. Frequency and variation in the community grammar: Tracking a new change through the generations. Language Variation and Change   19: 199-217.

Vincent, D. & D. Sankoff. 1992. Punctors: A Pragmatic variable. Language Variation and Change 4:137-62.

KEYWORDS : SLA, vernacular, Montreal, subordinate clause, COMP, VOQ, like, syntactic variation


Other research, using the same corpus, includes:

  • Nagy, N., H. Blondeau, & J. Auger. 2003. Second language acquisition and "real" French: An investigation of subject doubling in the French of Montreal Anglophones. Language Variation and Change 15.1:73-103.
  • Nagy, N. & H. Blondeau. 1999. Double subject marking in L2 Montreal French. Penn Working Papers in Linguistics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania. 93-108.
  • H. Blondeau & N. Nagy. 1999. Double marquage du sujet dans le français parlé par de jeunes Anglo-Montréalais. In Actes de L'association canadienne de linguistique. Ottawa: Cahiers Linguistiques d'Ottawa. 59-70.
  • Sankoff, G., P. Thibault, N. Nagy, H. Blondeau, M. Fonollosa, & L. Gagnon. 1997. Variation and the use of discourse markers in a language contact situation. Language Variation and Change 9.2:191-218.
  • Nagy, N., C. Moisset, & G. Sankoff. 1996. On the acquisition of variable phonology in L2. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics: Papers from NWAVE 24 3.1:111-126. (PDF)
  • Nagy, N. 2004. Gender neutralization in Montreal L2 French. (with H. Blondeau). Sociolinguistics Symposium 15. Newcastle, England.

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  Updated July 3, 2019
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