Galant grammarians: Donneau de Visé’s Mercure galant

Doyle Calhoun
Yale University (Department of French)

What was the Mercure galant and why should it interest historians of linguistics?

Founded in 1672 by Jean Donneau de Visé (1638–1710) — journalist and royal historiographer under Louis XIV — the bestselling monthly periodical and literary gazette Le Mercure galant has for some time been considered a privileged primary source for scholars of seventeenth-century France and, in particular, for specialists of the rise of print culture.[1] Though the publication is frequently evoked today in terms of the editorial and publication strategies of modern journalism, Donneau de Visé’s Mercure galant presents nonetheless a certain singularity, given its heterogeneity, periodicity, and innovativeness. To borrow Christophe Schuwey’s apt characterization, the Mercure galant was less a journal and more a ‘receuil interactif’ of social entertainment: a veritable salon de papier.[2] French historian Denis-François Camusat (1697–1732) characterized the periodical and its variegated contents in the following terms:

Cet ouvrage fut dès sa naissance un ramas de toutes sortes de choses. Nouvelles, Promotions aux dignités de l’État, Nominations aux Bénéfices, Mariages, Baptêmes & Morts, Spectacles, Histoires galantes, Médailles, Réceptions aux Académies, Sermons, Plaidoiés, Arrêts, Petites Pièces de Poésie, Énigmes, Chansons, Dissertations, quelquefois savantes et quelquefois enjouées.[3]

Like the dictionnaires universels and the more overtly scholarly Journal des savants, the Mercure galant in many ways anticipated the constitutive elements of the encyclopedic scale of Enlightenment projects, given the diversity of its subject matter, its universalist ambitions, and collaborative production model.[4]

In contrast to works such a Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie or the dictionnaires universels, whose linguistic and lexicographic materials have benefited from several detailed studies by historians of linguistics, the Mercure galant has yet to be examined from the standpoint of the history of linguistic ideas.[5] However, several grammars and universal language schemes, such as Antoine de Vienne-Plancy l’Ouverture du secret de l’écriture et de la langue universelles, were published in the Mercure galant or in its supplement, l’Extraordinaire. The publication additionally provides anecdotal and contextual evidence relative to the circulation and reception of technical lexicographic or grammaticological works, given that more well-known grammars and linguistic treatises such as Gilles Ménage’s Observations sur la langue française and Buffier’s Grammaire françoise sur un plan nouveau were widely publicized and discussed in the Mercure galant. Below, I provide an overview of some of the linguistic material contained within issues of the Mercure galant in order to suggest how and why the periodical may be of interest to scholars of the history of linguistics and especially of the circulation of linguistic ideas in France during the mid-seventeenth century and early eighteenth centuries. The Mercure galant offers a window onto early modern attitudes about language and suggests that debates around linguistic questions garnered a wide reading public of non-specialists.

Figure 2

Engraving from the Mercure galant (January, 1678)

A brief overview of linguistic thought in France during the ‘Grand siècle’

The history of theories of grammar in France during the first half of the seventeenth century has been described in detail by scholars such as Jean-Claude Chevalier, Wendy-Ayres Bennett and Pierre Swiggers.[6] A watershed moment was, of course, the publication of the Remarques sur la langue françoise by Vaugelas in 1647, which led to the emergence and elaboration of the genre of ‘remarques et observations sur la langue française’. In the years that followed, numerous authors — such as Dominique Bouhours, Gilles Ménage and Nicolas Andry de Boisregard — published works in the tradition of the Vaugelas. As Wendy Ayres-Bennett and Magali Seijido have argued, the development of this metalinguistic genre and widespread preoccupation with l’art de bien parler emerged out of a specific sociohistorical context: the rise of a centralized government, the prestige of court life, and concerns over social mobility encouraged a new interest in linguistic ‘perfectabilité’ as a means of integrating the self into ‘la bonne société’ while a generalized turn away from ‘pédantisme’ favored the short, pithy format of the Remarques.[7]

In addition to the emergence of the ‘remarques et observations’ genre, seventeenth-century grammarians developed and applied with increasing precision the notion of method (méthode) to analyses of French and other (namely classical) languages. As Pierre Swiggers among others has demonstrated, the Port-Royal grammarians in particular inaugurated a theoretically innovative approach to linguistic analysis with their ‘nouvelles méthodes’ of Latin (1644) and Greek (1655) and, later, with the Grammaire générale et raisonnée (1660); these works took into account the semantic roles of grammatical categories and attempted to elucidate the underlying principles structuring a grammar, conceived as an abstract (potentially universal) system of rules and transformations. In this sense, they moved beyond the normative and prescriptive dimension of the remarqueurs and the ‘mere’ observation of specific linguistic phenomena, and towards more systematic and robust grammatical reflections and methodological descriptions.[8]

It’s not until the early eighteenth century that French grammarians departed from the traditional deconstruction of the sentence into parts of speech (les parties du discours). In this respect, Père Buffier’s Grammaire françoise sur un plan nouveau (1709) is noteworthy. Swiggers points out that Buffier developed an approach to morphosyntactic description that can be considered ‘functionalist’ in a certain sense, but which in fact combined syntactic and semantic levels of analysis. Buffier identified specific ‘functions’ — such as sujet du discours or thematic subject, predicate, and modificatifs (a category that includes verbal and nominal complements). Buffier’s contribution was significant insofar as he began to explain the complex relationships underlying phrasal structure.[9] This is the context in which we must situate our understanding of the linguistic content of the Mercure galant.

Grammar and lexicography in the Mercure galant

A digital edition of the Mercure galant and its supplement l’Extraordinaire presents some 500 articles related to cultural life in France during the reign of Louis XIV and that date from the founding of the newspaper in 1672 until 1710.[10]. Below, I briefly outline the place of grammar in the Mercure galant, examine Antoine de Vienne-Plancy’s universal language scheme and proposed orthography (which were first published in serial format in the Mercure galant), before analyzing some of the editorial and discursive strategies adopted for publicizing and promoting linguistic works, namely Ménage’s Observations and Buffier’s Grammaire.

Strictly speaking, the grammatical and lexicographic material printed in the Mercure galant is not of a highly technical nature. This is hardly surprising, especially if we consider that the bestselling periodical was aimed at a worldly, ‘galant’ and ‘féminin’ reading public — that is, literate though not necessarily highly educated — and concerned itself with the kinds of literature deemed not sufficiently scholarly for the Journal des savants[11]. Most occurrences of the term ‘grammaire’, for instance, merely correspond to a reference to the genre and not to ‘grammaire’ in a theoretical sense — that of the Port-Royal grammarians, for instance — and usually figure in an announcement for a forthcoming or recently published pedagogical grammar.

Nevertheless, a cursory scan reveals several texts of interest to historians of linguistic thought in France during this period, especially when viewed through a sociographic lens. One such example is Les Avantages de la langue française — a short, anonymous treatise published as a ‘lettre galante’ in the Mercure in 1694. In the tradition of texts such as Joachim Du Bellay’s Defense et illustration de la langue, the Avantages praises the ‘beauté’, ‘élégance’, ‘force’, ‘clarté’ and ‘délicatesse’ of the French language. The Avantages contributes to a burgeoning metalinguistic discourse that insisted on the preeminence of the French language — examples of which multiplied towards the end of the seventeenth century.[12] The author dissertates at length on the ‘avantages’ of French, mobilizing arguments that are historical, etymological, phonetic, sociolinguistic, stylistic, political, and literary. For instance, the author provides a brief historical sketch, arguing that (1) the ‘classical’ origins of most lexical items and (2) the processes of lexicalization for integrating loanwords are evidence of the perfection and structural elegance of the lexicon:

Son extraction est illustre. Elle est dérivée de plusieurs mots Grecs & Latins, & mesme Hebreux, & par les changemens qu’elle y a faits pour son usage, ce ne sont plus des emprunts & des dettes dont elle soit chargée, ce sont des acquests & des fonds incorporez dans son domaine.

He likewise examines the composition of syllables in order to insist upon the superiority of French. Rehearsing impressionistic characterizations of the phonotactics of Romance versus Germanic languages, the author suggests that, whereas the syllabic structure of French is known for its ‘douceur vocalique’, the languages of the North (presumably northern Germanic languages such as German, Dutch, and Flemish) are unduly harsh and ‘consonantiques’:

Dans la composition de ses syllabes, elle n’est point hérissée de trois ou quatre consones, comme le sont les Langues du Nort, qu’on ne sçauroit prononcer qu’avec des efforts de gosier, & des tons rudes & mugissans ; elle n’en a que ce qu’il faut pour des liaisons fines & des jointures naturelles. Elle est tissué de plusieurs voyelles, comme une nuance de couleurs douces, & la varieté de leur harmonie plaist toujours à l’oreille.

The author’s polemic concludes teleologically, arguing that the French language has reached its current state of ‘maturité’ and ‘perfection’ under the reign (and in the speech) of Louis le Grand:

L’Epoque de la pureté & de la beauté de la Langue Françoise […] se rencontre sous le regne de Louis le Grand […]. Ce grand Roy parle luy-mesme si bien & si juste, que son exemple suffiroit seul pour justifier que la Langue Françoise est aujourd’huy parvenuë au point de sa maturité, & au periode de sa gloire.

Such linguistic ‘propaganda’ makes all the more sense when consider that Jean Donneau de Visé was not merely an ‘entrepreneur des lettres’ but also an official ‘maquilleur’ of the monarchy.

Antoine de Vienne-Plancy: a forgotten figure in the history of linguistics?

The second half of the seventeenth century saw numerous proposals for universal languages and writing systems — first in England, with John Wilkins’ Essay towards a Real Character, then throughout Europe. A noteworthy but overlooked work in the history of universal language schemes is Antoine de Vienne-Plancy’s l’Ouverture du Secret de l’Ecriture, & de la Langue Universelle, a text of some 200 pages which was published serially in the l’Extraordinaire of the Mercure galant between 1681 and 1686.[13] The author, a French aristocrat who contributed numerous ‘lettre-énigmes’ to the Mercure galant and its supplement, would go on to publish a Dictionnaire universel.

Vienne-Plancy’s l’Ouverture du Secret de l’Ecriture, & de la Langue Universelle has not yet been examined from the perspective of the history of linguistic ideas, and Louis Couturat makes no mention of Vienne-Plancy in his comprehensive study of the history of universal languages.[14] While Vienne-Plancy’s contribution to the history of universal language schemes has gone unremarked, it seems he participated in some of the major conversations regarding ‘le bon usage’ and orthographic reform during the time period and even enjoyed some degree of notoriety during his lifetime.[15] Recently, specialists of sinology during the seventeenth century have recuperated Vienne-Plancy. Indeed, at various points in his l’Ouverture du Secret de l’Ecriture, & de la Langue Universelle he evokes Chinese characters as a possible, but ultimately impractical model for a universal writing system:

D’abord les Caracteres de la Chine se présenterent à mon esprit, comme les veritables Caracteres de l’Ecriture universelle, & je m’étonnay qu’ils n’eussent pas comme par toute la Terre pour le commerce des Nations, puis qu’ils signifient immédiatement les pensées ; mais je jugeay bientost que la peine qu’il y avoit à les former & à les reconnoistre, estoit sans-doute la cause que leur usage s’estoit borné au Païs de ceux qui les avoient inventez […]. [T]ous les Caracteres sont si embarassez, qu’ils semblent autant de Labyrinthes.

Vienne-Plancy’s universal language was progressively published over the course of several years. Already in the April 1681 issue of the Extraordinaire, the author prepared the eventual publication and began to prime his readership by sketching some of the basic characteristics of a hypothetical ‘écriture universelle’ and the language to which it would give shape. For Vienne-Plancy, a successful universal language should be logographic (‘elle a autant de Caracteres différens, qu’il y a de mots en cette langue’ and ‘chaque Caractere de cette Ecriture signifie un mot entier’); intuitive (‘tous ces Caracteres ne sont neantmoins difficiles ny à figurer, ny a reconnoistre, ny à retenir’); and phonetically elegant (‘douce à prononcer’). The first section of a grammatical sketch appeared a few months later and comprised an overview of the orthography and phonetic inventory.

In Vienne-Plancy’s precocupation with ‘la simplicité de la prononciation des lettres’ and his desire to ‘renfermer’ the grammar of his language within ‘des bornes très-étroites’, we might read not only a search for theoretical elegance and precision but also a concern for issues tethered to a sense of ‘l’actualité’ — that is, concerns emerging from the author’s sociocultural context, in the wake of orthographic reforms of French:

L’abus de prononcer d’une façon, & d’écrire d’une autre, est si grand, qu’on juge bien qu’il doit estre extrémement retranché de cette grammaire ; & Messieurs de l’Académie ne manqueront pas de reformer nostre ortographe qui nous fait écrire faim, parfum, affection, dixiéme, raison, sentiment, fer, assigner, fol, Paon, & c. tandis que nostre Langue nou fait prononcer fain, parfun, affecsion, diziéme, raizon, santimant, fair, assiner, fou, Pan, &c.

In this sense, Vienne-Plancy’s universal language perhaps was less the result of a utopian fantasy of neutralizing linguistic diversity and more a response to burgeoning anxieties about the ‘abus’ produced by sociolinguistic variation and diachronic change within the author’s own native language.

Released serially as abrégés over the course of several months, Vienne-Plancy’s Écriture universelle ultimately proposed a ‘complete’ language, developing an original orthography, mapping sound-symbol correspondences, and defining basic syntactic principles. The latter were not highly innovative from a structural standpoint — they retained the Latinate case system and traditional parts of speech, and in this way were modeled for the most part on the conventional divisions of Greek and Latin grammars. Despite its use of technical metalanguage, Vienne-Plancy’s Écriture does not appear to have been received or read as an overly theoretical or pedantic work, but rather one of divertissement social that resonated with widespread interest in French-language debates concerning orthography, pronunciation, and usage. Moreover, the epitexts surrounding the publication of Vienne-Plancy’s work (annonces, avertissements, etc.), and conditioning its reception, portray a work whose installments were awaited ‘avec grande impatience’: a linguistic text designed to be ‘aussi curieux qu’utile’.

Figure 1

Excerpt of Vienne-Plancy’s ‘Écriture universelle’ from the Extraordinaire du Mercure galant (August, 1685)

Promoting the works of Ménage and Buffier

In addition, the Mercure galant provides a window onto the rhetorical and publication strategies adopted to promote linguistic works such as grammars and dictionaries. The fact that the Mercure galant (as opposed to the Journal des savants) took up the promotion of such works reflects a desire on the part of the authors and their publishers to reach a wide reading public (the ‘mondain’ and ‘féminin’ pubic of the Mercure) and reveals the ways in which ostensibly technical linguistic works could be presented and sold as ouvrages d’actualité or livresa de galantarie. By way of conclusion, I will briefly examine the promotion of two texts: Gille Ménage’s Observations sur la langue françoise (1675–76) and Claude Buffier’s Grammaire françoise sur un plan nouveau (1709).

Nestled within a ‘Discours sur les Livres nouveaux de Galanterie’, the Mercure galant announced the imminent publication of Ménage’s Observations sur la langue françoise by the printer Claude Berbin. The announcement is rhetorically framed as a ‘lettre-galante’, addressed to a fictitious female addressee, to whom the author promises to provide additional information as soon as he has a physical copy of Ménage’s book in hand. Already, the decision to list Ménage’s text under the category of ‘livre de galanterie’ reveals a promotional strategy in its own right — strategically framing the work as one of social interest and indirectly positing linguistic competence as a key to sociability and upward mobility. The author of the letter insists that already, even before its publication, Ménage’s volume is creating buzz around Paris (‘il fait le plus grand bruit’). He goes on to launch a comparison between Ménage’s Observations and the better known Remarques by Vaugelas:

Quoy qu’on ne doive pas toûjours estimer un Ouvrage par son succés, on peut néant-moins juger du mérite de celuy-ci par le plus grand bruit qu’il fait, puis que c’est avec justice qu’il plaist ; & dans quelque temps, au lieu de dire parler Vaugelas, pour loüer ceux qui parleront bien, on ne dise parler Ménage.

The author (likely Visé himself) coins a new locution (‘parler Ménage’), modeled on an existing expression (‘parler Vaugelas’) that had been circulating since the publication of Vaugelas’ Remarques, thus capitalizing on the popularity of Vaugelas’ text in order to sell a new work by Ménage. This turn of phrase originally was given widespread appeal by Molière in Les Femmes savantes by the alexandrines, ‘Et voilà qu’on la chasse avec un grand fracas / À cause qu’elle manque à parler Vaugelas’ (II.vii, v. 605–6). The author goes on to make an argument that Vienne-Plancy’s universal language scheme would echo several years later, suggesting that the Observations would be of ‘une grande utilité’ to all French speakers and eventually contribute to the development of a homogeneous linguistic community: ‘à l’avenir tout le monde s’entendra, & parlera d’une mesme manière’. Again, what becomes increasingly legible is a latent anxiety provoked by the tension between sociolinguistic variation and the rise of a standard, codified French. By means of these rhetorical strategies, which ultimately harbor ideological arguments about language use, the authors manage to transform Ménage’s text into a work that is both relevant and desirable and that aligns with the values and concerns of readers of the Mecure galant.

Similar strategies are evident in the promotion of the Père Buffier’s Grammaire françoise sur un plan nouveau (1709). An article in the May 1709 issue announces the forthcoming publication and suggests that ‘le public attend avec impatience qui doit estre obligeante pour l’Auteur, un Livre que l’on acheve d’imprimer’. The article details the contents of the grammar, reproducing and expanding on the list of topics that eventually would figure on the title page of published text:

Outre la Grammaire pratique, ce Volume contient divers Traités particuliers : sur la nature de la Grammaire en general & chacune de ses parties : sur le vrai caractere de l’usage : sur la beauté réelle ou arbitraire des langues : sur la meilleure maniere de les aprendre : sur l’idée qu’on doit avoir du stile & de ses qualitez : sur la diférence des ortographes usitées en France & leur divers fondemens […]

Such an enumeration fulfills multiple functions, managing to suggest the erudition of the author and the comprehensive nature of his work; it also allows for the Mercure galant to appeal to as wide a public as possible, claiming that Buffier’s text will meet the needs not merely of those interested in linguistic particularities, but also of those interested in more general stylistic, aesthetic, philosophical and typological questions. The author of the article does not miss the opportunity to note that Buffier’s work includes a grammatical sketch of the French language written in Latin, and thus ‘en faveur des Etrangers’. The following month, in June, another article announces that Buffier’s Grammaire is available at certain vendors: the complete title is cited this time, and the article provides a list of booksellers where it can be purchased. As was the case with the promotion of Ménage’s Observations the promotional strategies adopted for Buffier’s text reflect a two-pronged approach aimed at first by piquing the curiosity of readers, then providing practical details to encourage and facilitate sales. In each case, the linguistic work is framed as a ‘livre de galanterie’ with widespread relevance and prepared to respond to the expectations of an increasingly diverse reading public.

Acknowledgments: A version of this blogpost was presented as a conference paper in French at the annual meeting of the Henry Sweet Society (Edinburgh, 2019). I am grateful to Christophe Schuwey (Yale University) for serving as a generous interlocutor in the early phases of this project and for reviewing an earlier version of the paper.


[1] Christophe Schuwey, Jean Donneau de Visé, « fripier du Parnasse », Pratiques et stratégies d’un entrepreneur des lettres au XVIIe siècle, Ph.D. Thesis, Université de Fribourg and Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2016; François Moreau, Le Mercure galant de Dufresny (1710–1714), ou le journalisme à la mode (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1982), pp. 7–8.

[2] Christophe Schuwey, ‘Le Mercure galant : un recueil interactif’, Cahiers du dix-septième 16.1 (2015), pp. 48 and 60.

[3] Denis-François Camusat, Histoire critique des journaux, t. II (Amsterdam: J.-F. Bernard, 1734), p. 99. In lieu of a table of contents, the Mecure galant typically featured a long letter addressed to a fictional female addressee which elaborated on the contents and organization of each issue.

[4] See Barbara Selmeci Castioni & Adrien Paschoud, ‘Le Mercure galant (1672-1710) : un jalon significatif sur la voie de l’encyclopédisme des Lumières‪’, Recherches sur Diderot et sur l’Encyclopédie 51.1 (2016): 143–167.  On the collaborative production model of the Mercure, see Christophe Schuwey, ‘Le Mercure galant, ou l’écriture collaborative du règne de Louis XIV’, Le Verger 13 (2018): 1–12.

[5] Wendy Ayres-Bennett briefly mentions that the Mercure included some articles written by women in her article ‘Le rôle des femmes dans l’élaboration des idées linguistiques au XVIIe siècle en France’, Histoire Épistémologie Langage 16.2 (1994): 35–53.

[6] Jean-Claude Chevalier, Histoire de la syntaxe : Naissance de la notion de complement dans la grammaire française (1530–1750) (Genève : Droz, 1968) ; Wendy Ayres-Bennett, Sociolinguitic variation in seventeenth-century France : Methodology and case studies (Cambridge : Cambridge UP, 2004).

[7] Wendy Ayres-Bennett and Magali Seijido, Remarques et observations sur la langue française : histoire et evolution d’un genre (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2011) ; ‘Les Compilations raisonnées des Remarques et Observations sur la langue française’, French Studies 65.3 (2011): pp. 347–356.

[8] Pierre Swiggers, Histoire de la pensée linguistique (Paris:  Puf, 1997), pp. 182–194.

[9] Pierre Swiggers, ‘À propos de la place de la syntaxe dans la grammaire : de Buffier à Girard’, Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire 84.3 (2006), p. 874; ‘Grammaire et théorie du langage chez Buffier’, Dix-huitième siècle 15 (1983): 285–293.

[10] Ed. Anne Piéjus,

[11] On the readership of the Mercure galant, see Geoff Turnovsky, ‘Les lecteurs du Mercure galant. Trois aperçus’, Dix-septième siècle 270.1 (2016): 65–80.

[12] Ferdinand Brunot and Charles Bruneau, Histoire de la langue française des origines à 1900 (Paris: A. Colin, 1917), p. 138.

[13] Extraordinaire t. 16, octobre 1681, pp. 276–330 ; t. 14, avril 1681, pp. 333–348 ; t. 19, juillet 1682, pp. 273–330 ; t. 31, juillet 1685, pp. 1119–122, 124–182 ; t. 32, octobre 1685, pp. 110–146.

[14] Louis Couturat, Histoire de la langue universelle (Paris: Hachette, 1903) and Les nouvelles langues internationales : suite à l’histoire de la langue universelle (Paris: Hachette, 1907).

[15] His ‘lettres-énigmes’ and ‘lettres codées’ were discussed and imitated in Extraordinaire: e.g., t. 13, janvier 1681, pp. 296–307.

How to cite this post

Calhoun, Doyle. 2020. Galant grammarians: Donneau de Visé’s Mercure galant. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

Posted in 17th century, 18th century, Article, Grammars
2 comments on “Galant grammarians: Donneau de Visé’s Mercure galant
  1. […] Galant grammarians: Donneau de Visé’s Mercure galant Doyle Calhoun (Yale) […]

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