In Pevear and Volokhonsky's translation of the 1871-1872 novel The Demons, the following appears:

Oh, most certainly, et vous fairez un bienfait

(The French is italicised in the text of the translation, and an identical French clause appears in the original Russian text.) With the context of the line, it is clear that Stepan Trofimovich, the speaker, means that Lizaveta Nikolaevna (the woman to whom he speaks) will do a good deed (i.e. fera un bienfait). That Dostoevsky writes fairez and not ferez bothered me: I imagine fairez and ferez have the same pronunciation, but that is hardly a reason for using what I would believe to be an incorrect spelling. A search for "fairez" "ferez" and "fairez"|"fairont"|"faira" generated a few relevant results from Google Books:

  • Histoire de la ville de Marseille (1696): the history reports the response that a group of men obtain from a king, which contains both fairez and ferez
  • Apologie pour Hérodote (1735): again, both fairez and ferez appear in close proximity
  • Letters of the Grand Duke Peter, as given in Memoirs of the Empress Catharine II, contain both fairez and ferez, although the spelling is consistent in individual letters. No date is given for the letter, but the editor notes that the letters contain "grammatical and orthographical blunders". (Indeed, Peter signs off one letter with votre affectione amy.)

But with the exception of Peter's letters, these examples date to at least a century before Dostoevsky. With this in mind, two questions:

  1. Was fairez ever an acceptable spelling in Dostoevsky's milieu? (I remember seeing a correct spelling for one of the future tense conjugations of faire in Robespierre, but I would not be surprised to hear that French orthographic standards taught in Russia were not up-to-date. I also imagine that were fairez a misspelling, the mistake would have been caught prior to publication.)

  2. Is there any particular reason for the inconsistent spelling (within the same chunk of text) in the first two documents?


As the examples you turned up show, fairez was not too uncommon in an earlier era of French; see this Ngram chart. (Unfortunately, the latter half is misleading because when you check those examples, they're books from much earlier than the late 20th century, despite Google's metadata.)

Your first two books don't actually contain both different spellings, just fairez. In the first one, the ferez you seem to see are in fact serez with what was then the cursive s (check the other examples of s in that text). I assume the second example results from poor OCR; serez is the only possible reading in those cases (notice that they parallel fut, which is also a form of être).

At the time these were written, fairez was comfortable in the company of words like seray, recepveur, voicy, and this charmingly spelled phrase I turned up: « une beste de vostre troupeau » .

Some of these older spellings are mere inconsistencies of practice, typical of any written language before spelling reforms and standardization. However, others are consistent but represent an earlier pronunciation. (The s in vostre is a good example.)

The appearance of ai in fairez, as @jlliagre suggests, would not be in any way unexpected; after all, the word is formed on the stem of faire. In fact, modern spelling is inconsistent because some of the vowels that are now reduced are written e but others are still written ai in faire and other verbs. The crystallization of irregularities for posterity is the hallmark of language reformer and purists alike.

We certainly need to know when the spelling was reformed, and why (how long before had the pronunciation shifted?), to analyze Dostoevsky's example. It requires more research than I have the time or inclination for right now, though I do notice a spike in fairez in the late 19th century in that Ngram chart. However, among the examples I did look at, even some of those 19th-century ones were misdated for, or quoted from, books in the 16th and 17th centuries... Hence, your guess that Dostoevsky's Russian milieu was working with outdated data may be reasonable. As you probably know, the 19th century was a time when Russia was just beginning to open up to Western European influence, and an influx of classic literature (e.g. Chekhov has characters quoting Hamlet in The Seagull) might well have resulted in older forms being mistaken for current in their secondary literary home at the time. Perhaps Dostoevsky was even aware that it was archaic and used it for effect.

My apologies for not being able to do more than speculate on that last point at the moment! If I have time to research more later then I'll update this answer — or if anyone else cares to share what they know I'll gladly incorporate it.

  • Thanks for pointing out the issue with the cursive S: guess I wasn't careful enough about it because I was relying on the OCR search to find word matches. – Maroon May 6 '17 at 18:25

According to the Bible of French conjugation, it's a mistake.

It's a common usage according to the google.fr strict search with "vous fairez".

As a native speaker, I can explain that by the ambiguity of the verbs of the "third group", a lot of people make a lot of mistakes every time...

  • 1
    Agreed, it's just a mistake likely induced by the forms where " ai " is pronounced " e " (/ə/) like nous faisons, vous faisiez, faisant. – jlliagre May 6 '17 at 9:37

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