This article explores the character of sixteenth century vernacular grammatical writing, focussing on grammars of French. It is a regrettable anomaly in the historiography of linguistics that the widely recognized characteristics of Humanist thought are rarely allowed to influence the basic terms in which the period’s grammatical activity is described, with ‘descriptivism’ and ‘prescriptivism’ remaining the principal categories by which grammars are taxonomized. I argue, however, that it is only by seeing the programme of sixteenth century grammar as fundamentally incoherent that an interpretation in terms of these received categories can be maintained. Reconnecting our conception of the nature of humanist grammatical writing with the ideas about grammar and language from which it derived motivates a new interpretation of its essential orientation as ‘artefactualist’, an ideology that stressed the status of languages as the conscious products of learned grammatical activity. In its mission to transform the raw material of natural language into a rational instrument of intellectual communication, the full import of the artefactualist conception of grammar is obscured by its description as descriptive, prescriptive or some combination of the two. Seeing artefactualism as the centre of gravity for grammatical activity has the advantage of rendering Renaissance French grammatical texts ideologically intelligible by allowing them to appear unified, and not just hybrids of two quite opposed tendencies. This is, surely, a salutary result, which should function to restore our respect for the fundamental coherence of sixteenth century grammar.
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