Henri (Hirsch) Wittmann was born in Alsace in 1937. After studying with André Martinet at the Sorbonne, he moved to North America and taught successively at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of Alberta in Edmonton, the University of Windsor and McGill University in Montreal before teaching in the French university system of Quebec, the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières and at Rimouski as well as the University of Sherbrooke. He retired from teaching in 1997, after an extensive tour of teaching and conferencing in France. In the following years, he became the first Director of the Presses universitaires de Trois-Rivières and emeritus researcher at the Centre d’Analyse des Littératures Francophones des Amériques (CALIFA) at Carleton University in Ottawa.
As a comparatist, Wittmann contributed to the study of the morphology of a number of languages and language families: Pre-Indo-European, Indo-European (Hittite, Italic, Romance, Germanic, Creole), Afro-Asiatic (Egyptian), African (Mande, Kwa, Bantu), Austronesian (Malagasy, Polynesian), Amerindian (Arawakan, Cariban). His work between 1963 and 2002 includes more than 140 items.
He is a life member since 1962 of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA). In 1965, he cofounded with André Rigault and Douglas Ellis the Linguistics Department at McGill University. In 1981, he was the cofounder, with Normand Beauchemin and Robert Fournier, of the Linguistic Society of Quebec (Association québécoise de linguistique) which he served for 10 years as president, secretary general and organizer of the annual meeting. In 1981 as well, he became the first Editor of the Revue québécoise de linguistique théorique et appliquée, a responsibility he assumed for the following 20 years.
Politically, Wittmann is known for his anarcho-syndicalist sympathies with strong links to the CNTU (Confederation of National Trade Unions), communautary and anti-war movements. In 1974-1978, he was at the center of a union conflict at the University of Quebec which changed the landscape of collective bargaining in the academic world. A specialist of the linguistic heritage of Quebec, he also is a stout defender of Quebec independence.
Contributions to linguistics
In a general way, Wittmann, a student of André Martinet in the fifties, has been the first to apply the latter's principles of chain reactions in phonology to inflectional morphology. In Wittmann's view, the basic structure of the sentence is held together by functional items, with the lexical items filling in the blanks. Position in functional space must maintain functional equidistance and disturbances in functional equidistance set off error correcting chain reactions that are cyclical in nature and subject to drift. Thus, functionally salient lexical items will eventually set off a push chain conveyor belt pressure in functional space, sending functionally close-by affixes down the path of attrition. Such is the origin of agglutinating clitics of non-standard oral French from erstwhile lexical pronouns, setting off the attrition of functionally equivalent fusional means of inflection inherited from Old French and Latin: Loss of suffixal inflection on the verb, compensated by the rise of proclitic means indicating person, number and tense. Conversely, functional items going down the path of attrition leave behind functional gaps, triggering a drag chain effect on surrounding functionally salient lexical items. Such is the origin of the agglutinating prenominal class markers from erstwhile articles, compensated by the rise of postnominal means of expressing definiteness on the noun. With the fulfilment of each cycle of change, a morphologically consistent phonological representation is realized which serves as input to the next cycle of morphological change. The aforementioned processes of inflectional renewal are not without parallels in recent neurolinguistic research, notably in the works by Gabriele Miceli.
(1)a (ego) ede-ba-m
(1)b (ego) in morbo er-a-m
(2)a (jo) manj-oi-e
(2)b (jo) malades est-oi-e
(3)a je mange-ai-s
(3)b j'ét-ai-s malade
(4)a (moué) ch-tà-àprà-manjé / ch-tà-àprà-manjé (moué)
(4)b (moué) ch-tà-màlàd / ch-tà-màlàd (moué)
(5)a mouen Ø-t-ap-manjé
(5)b mouen Ø-te-malad
Though etymologically analyzable as <je_suis-'tait> "I_am-was", the ch-tà- of (4a) and (4b) no longer reveals the presence of any copular verb "to be" to anyone who doesn't master literary written French, including to speakers of non-standard French such as the French in usage in Québec and throughout other colonial establishments of the 17th-18th century. The author-composer Georges Dor, a non-linguist, came independently to the same conclusions. The residual function of ch- is that of agreement with the subject moué, which in Creole varieties of French pursues its path of attrition to zero. The particle tà/te pursues its separate existence as a tense marker in all varieties of colonial French.
In Quebec French and other non-Creole varieties of colonial French, object agreement varies with postnominal la as expressions of definiteness on the noun.
(6)a j-l-oué l-ab(-la) (moué) "(I) AGRs-AGRo-see CLASS-tree-the (Sg.)"
(6)b j-é-oué éz-ab-(la) (moué) "(I) AGRs-AGRo-see CLASS-tree-the (Pl.)"
In Creole varieties of French (except for the Seychellois Creole), postnominal la, derived from an erstwhile adverb "there", survives as the only means of expressing definiteness. The agglutination of the etymological articles le, la, les as class markers on nouns concording with the agreement features on verbs from erstwhile pronouns gives the language an exotic, bantu-like look.
(7)a n-a-u-ona m-ti "(I) AGRs-PRESENT-AGRo CLASS-tree (Sg.)"
(7)b n-a-i-ona mi-ti "(I) AGRs-PRESENT-AGRo CLASS-tree (Pl.)"
Noun class clitics pursue in creole varieties of French the path of attrition to zero or relative opaqueness though transparency survives notably in the distribution of prenomal z-/l-: Creole nouns with z- turn up in Québec French as vowel-initial masculine nouns, with l- as vowel-initial feminine nouns. Article agglutination is incipient in French since the Middle Ages as can be shown conclusively from French "lingua franca" texts in Coptic transliteration.
Wittmann's comparative approach to studying colonial varieties of French from Québec, the Americas and the Indian Ocean reveals that the structural gap with written French is inherent in the variety of oral French reflecting the speech of Paris exported from the cities of Northern France from the early 17th century onwards. The doubling of DP positions as agreement features and varying degrees of restrictions on verb movement are the only noteworthy developmental features that separate non-Creole varieties from Creole varieties of French. With his student Robert Fournier, Wittmann debunked within the same theoretical framework the extravagant African-origin hypotheses of Haitian Creole French by Claire Lefebvre and similar far-fetched theories. In the end, neither the non-creole koine nor the creole varieties of colonial French turn out to be "Creoles" in the sense that Creolists would have it. They are both outcomes of "normal" processes of linguistic change and grammaticalization.
Wittmann also contributed significantly to the study of other languages, notably languages that are claimed to be substratal to different varieties of Creole French (Ewe, Yoruba, Mande, Bantu, Malagasy, Arawakan, Cariban).