The evolution of verbal interpolations

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Philip Castle, "Quelles sont les expressions les plus utilisées dans la langue française courante?", Quora 6/20/2024:

On va commencer par voilà. O-bli-ga-toi-re ! Il faut parsemer votre discours de "voilà", sans trop vous préoccuper de leur place ni de leur utilité dans la phrase, bien au contraire. Exemple : "Je me suis dit que voilà ce serait bien de voilà faire des efforts pour voilà améliorer mon français". Il faut aussi garder à l'esprit que ce mot merveilleux peut tout remplacer, y compris une fin de phrase. Exemple entendu ce matin sur France Inter : "En fait, le SMIC à 1600 €, je suis patron alors voilà". Vous avez compris le principe, il n'est pas nécessaire de terminer votre phrase, votre interlocuteur la finira lui même en remplaçant le voilà par ce qu'il veut.

We'll start with "voilà". O-bli-ga-to-ry! You need to sprinkle your speech with (instances of) "voilà", without worrying much about their place or their use in the phrase, in fact the opposite. Example: "Je me suis dit que voilà ce serait bien de voilà faire des efforts pour voilà améliorer mon français". You also need to keep in mind that this marvelous word can replace anything, including the end of a phrase. An example heard this morning on France Inter: "En fait, le SMIC à 1600 €, je suis patron alors voilà". You've understood the principle, it's not necessary to end your phrase, your interlocutors will finish it for themselves, replacing the "voilà" with whatever they like.

Voilà is etymologically "look there", long since generalized to a wider range of uses, so that "voilà X" can be translated into English as something like

(here|there|this|that|these|those is|are X)

and plain "voilà" as something like "that's it" or "there you have it".

The entry in Wiktionnaire notes that

Ce mot est de plus en plus employé de manière holophrastique à l’oral aujourd’hui et prend une fonction cognitive de regroupement.

In spontaneous speech today, this word is increasingly used holophrastically and takes on a cognitive function of grouping.

…with a link to G. Col et al., "Eléments de cartographie des emplois de voilà en vue d'une analyse instructionnelle", Revue de Sémantique et de Pragmatique 2015:

Voilà est une unité dont l’usage se répand rapidement en français oral aujourd’hui. […] Voilà se caractérise par deux comportements essentiels ([VOILÀ + pause] et [VOILÀ + entités/procès]) et deux groupes de valeurs /statuts associés : valeur de balisage + statut d’interjection ; valeur prédicative + statut de pivot. 

Voilà is an element whose usage is expanding rapidly in today's oral French. […] Voilà is characterized by two essential structures ([VOILÀ + pause] and [VOILÀ + entities/processes]) and two groups of associated values/functions: boundary marking + interjection; predication + pivot.

(Commenters will probably be able to suggest a better translation for the last sentence…)

Similar English words and phrases (look, look here) can also be used as filler words or discourse markers or interpolations or punctors or whatever term you prefer for such things. And it's common across languages for words and phrases to gradually lose their original syntactic function and semantic interpretation, evolving in the way described for voilà in the Quora post. We described such an evolution for like in "Divine ambiguity" (1/4/2004) and ‘Like’ youth and sex” (6/28/2011), quoting some analogous sprinklings of like from Muffy Siegel's 2002 paper "Like: The Discourse Particle and Semantics": 

She isn't, like, really crazy or anything, but her and her, like, five buddies did, like, paint their hair a really fake-looking, like, purple color.

They're, like, representatives of their whole, like, clan, but they don't take it, like, really seriously, especially, like, during planting season.

It's also normal for many words and phrases to undergo analogous changes in a given language at the same time, although the endpoints are typically different in both discourse-structural and social dimensions. For some observations on the social dimension, see e.g. Charlyn Laserna et al., "Um . . . Who Like Says You Know: Filler Word Use as a Function of Age, Gender, and Personality", 2014. And for some examples of varied function, see e.g. Kerry Mullan,  "Et pis bon, ben alors voila quoi! Teaching those pesky discourse markers." International Journal of Pedagogies and Learning 2106:

Discourse markers have been described as “nervous tics, fillers, or signs of hesitation”, and are frequently dismissed as features of lazy or inarticulate speech. Yet in fact they have a number of crucial functions in spoken interaction, such as buying time, managing turn taking, linking utterances, introducing a new topic and indicating the degree of speaker involvement. Discourse markers are said to be used more in conversational speech than in any other form of communication. For this reason, it is essential that we teach our language students how to recognise, understand and use these markers in spoken interaction.  […]

The ubiquity of discourse markers in spoken discourse cannot be overestimated. French is no exception. As seen in this title of this paper (borrowed from Auchlin, 1981), French speakers can create a meaningful utterance with nothing more than a string of discourse markers. And yet, while often dismissed as semantically empty, discourse markers are essential to language and culture, and so to intercultural competence. As Wierzbicka says (1991, p. 341):

There are few aspects of any language which reflect the culture of a given speech community better than its particles. Particles are very often highly idiosyncratic: “untranslatable” in the sense that no exact equivalent can be found in other languages. They are ubiquitous, and their frequency in ordinary speech is particularly high. Their meaning is crucial to the interaction mediated by speech; they express the speaker’s attitude towards the addressee or towards the situation spoken about, his assumptions, his intentions, his emotions. If learners of a language failed to master the meaning of its particles, their communicative competence would be drastically impaired.

For the phrase in the title of Auchlin 1981, Mullan suggests the approximate translation:

Mais heu, pis bon, ben alors voilà quoi!

But er, then, well there you have it!

The interpolations most often featured here have been UM and UH:

"Young men talk like old women", 11/6/2005
"Fillers: Autism, gender, age", 7/30/2014
"More on UM and UH", 8/3/2014
"UM UH 3", 8/4/2014
"Male and female word usage", 8/7/2014
"UM / UH geography", 8/13/2014
"Educational UM / UH", 8/13/2014
"UM / UH: Lifecycle effects vs. language change", 8/15/2014
"Filled pauses in Glasgow", 8/17/2014
"ER and ERM in the spoken BNC", 8/18/2014
"Um and uh in Dutch", 9/16/2014
"UM / UH in German", 9/28/2014
"Um, there's timing information in Switchboard?", 10/5/2014
"Trending in the Media: Um, not exactly…", 10/7/2014
"UH / UM in Norwegian", 10/8/2014
"On thee-yuh fillers uh and um", 11/11/2014
"Labiality and feminity", 12/16/2014
"UM/UH accommodation", 11/24/2015
"UM/UH update", 12/13/2015

Some UM /UH comparisons across (varieties of) languages can be found in "Variation and change in the use of hesitation markers in Germanic languages", 2016.

See also "I mean, you know" (8/19/2007) and "You know, I mean" (8/14/2016).

Even in English, there are many un- or under-studied "interpolations" — and the situation in other languages and cultures is even more open.




  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 6, 2024 @ 11:44 am

    The New Testament features repetitive use of ἰδού, traditionally Englished as "behold," which is morphosyntactically an imperative verb but is sometimes called in the literature a "demonstrative particle" or something like that, so routinized had its filler-type use become. Now, I don't know if any French translations of the New Testament use "voila" for ἰδού, but if not maybe they should.

  2. Mark Liberman said,

    July 6, 2024 @ 12:12 pm

    @J.W. Brewster:

    Strong's Concordance 2400 quotes Thayer's Greek Lexicon with a list of citations divided by function and form.

    For the example in Matthew 1:20

    ταῦτα δὲ αὐτοῦ ἐνθυμηθέντος ἰδοὺ ἄγγελος Κυρίου κατ’ ὄναρ ἐφάνη αὐτῷ λέγων Ἰωσὴφ υἱὸς Δαυείδ, μὴ φοβηθῇς παραλαβεῖν Μαρίαν τὴν γυναῖκά σου, τὸ γὰρ ἐν αὐτῇ γεννηθὲν ἐκ Πνεύματός ἐστιν Ἁγίου·

    …the three French versions quoted by all use voici rather than voilà:

    I don't know whether any of the many other citations and translations use voilà.

    The same entry also points us to the related form Strong's 2396 (ἴδε) — and the French translations for its use in e.g. Matthew 25:20 also use voici.

  3. Coby said,

    July 6, 2024 @ 6:40 pm

    The distinction between voici and voilà is observed mainly in literary French (which of course is the language of Gospel translations). In colloquial French voilà predominates, not to mention it's contracted form v'la. The surname of Jean Valjean comes from v'la Jean.
    In Old Testament translations, 'behold' and equivalent imperatives meaning 'look!' (following the Septuagint's ἰδού) are used to render the Hebrew הִנֵּה (hinneh), which actually means 'here [is]'.

  4. David Marjanović said,

    July 7, 2024 @ 2:33 pm

    Voilà is used a lot to express "that's what I mean", "that's the word I was looking for".

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