Dans le poème "Chanson" de la première partie de "Les Chansons de Bilitis", Pierre Louÿs écrit:

Beau fleuve qui l'as vue passer, dis-moi, est-elle près d'ici?

Ici, la narratrice, Bilitis, tutoie le fleuve. Le elle est la maîtrise de Bilitis. Pourquoi dit-on du fleuve qui l'as vue passer, non qui l'a vue passer? Si l'on s'adresse à quelqu'un et il y a une proposition relative pour cet objet, utilise-on une conjugaison de la deuxième personne au lieu d'une conjugaison de la troisième personne? (En anglais, on utilise une conjugaison de la troisième personne. Par exemple, on dit Blessed are You … who has sanctified us, non Blessed are You … who have sanctified us.)

  • As usual: I'm not a native speaker, so feel free to make any corrections to grammar / usage mistakes.
    – Maroon
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 3:15
  • 2
    This is a great but common question with previous answers, such as this one and this one. Granted these aren't exact matches, so to bridge the gap: Yes, there's an implicit toi there — i.e. "Beau fleuve" is in the same grammatical case (vocative) as "Toi" — and "Toi qui [verbe]" will have the verb conjugated for tu. Also, in English you can say "You who've caused so much trouble, will you please leave?" I wonder if the "blessed" and "sanctified" of your example might not signal an older tendency.
    – Luke Sawczak
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 3:42
  • @LukeSawczak: Good point; I'm not quite sure about the English now. (I can think of some cases where a conjugation in conformation with you is used — for instance you who kill prophets, which, contrary to what I previously thought, apparently takes on singular and not plural you.)
    – Maroon
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 4:04
  • 2
    More precisely, it takes on you instead of he, since you is conjugated with "have" no matter the number: "You have caused, you have killed, you have sanctified." In older English, we'd be able to distinguish plurality: "Thou who hast sanctified" and not "Thou who have sanctified". Back to the original question, this were an English forum I'd do more research into "Thou who has sanctified". Is it as normal as or even preferred over "Thou who hast"? Both are attested in Google results but require much sifting. Hmm...
    – Luke Sawczak
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 4:44
  • @LukeSawczak Not really dupes, why not turn it into an answer?
    – None
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 5:40

2 Answers 2


Here the verb uses the tu form because beau fleuve is in the second person.

One might be sceptical of that observation, because we know that inanimate objects are generally in the third person, since they can neither speak nor be spoken to. But then you have poetry. :)

The second person is associated with the vocative case, which is the form of a noun you use when you're addressing it. Latin had an explicit vocative case, meaning the noun changed form depending on whether it was being referred to (nominative) or addressed (vocative).

Although French stopped marking the vocative case visibly in noun endings, it can still give hints, such as using the particle Ô as in Ô Canada (or Alice in Wonderland's delightful "O mouse!").

However, whether or not that helpful particle is attached, we should assume that every noun is cased, even when the case is invisible. For the same reason, we assume every noun has a person, gender, and number even when these features are invisible, and are instead marked by null morphemes.

So if there is an invisible morpheme for vocative case, how do we know that our beau fleuve has it? The rest of the sentence provides a couple of clues (note that unlike a / as, these ones are audible):

  1. The narratrice omits the article before beau fleuve.1 As a cautionary note, though, we should be careful about reading as much into the absence of articles in poetry as we would in prose.

  2. She issues an imperative to the river. An imperative can only be issued in the second person.2

Because of these two things, we can be sure she's addressing the river, which means it's in vocative case, which means it's in second person.

Once we've established that, we can refer to this question and this one to establish that toi and not qui determines the conjugation for avoir.

1 – While the absence of an article is usually sufficient to show vocative case, it's not necessary, since one can say things like "Salut, les enfants !"
2 – Even though French grammarians also call the cohortative an "imperative" for whatever reason.

Incidentally, the idea of invisible morphemes are not without controversy. Here are a couple of other questions they raise:

  1. You'd expect English to be heavily cased, being a Germanic language. But it only marks nominative/accusative case and only on four personal pronouns: I / me ; he / him ; she / her ; we / us. However, the existence of these pairs begs the question: does English track case invisibly on all nouns, or does it casually bring in the linguistic feature of case just for eight words? Neither theory is very appealling.

  2. Are all French nouns in the vocative case marked for formality? Imagine I address someone: "Bonjour, Alex." If my next utterance is "Comment allez-vous ?", does the +formal feature appear only then, or is it just agreement with an invisible +formal feature present on Alex ? If that seems far-fetched, consider that if I use an adjective, it might well be +feminine, and we know it's not because the adjective is inherently feminine but because it responds to the person.

Hence, not only do we have to suppose that beau fleuve is invisibly vocative... we have to suppose that it's invisibly toi, as you noted, rather than vous !

  • Thanks: I was mostly concerned with the issue covered in the semi-dupe, but it was nice to see the grammar parsed out; I hadn't quite thought of it that way.
    – Maroon
    Commented May 31, 2017 at 3:57
  • Gotcha. Well, hopefully it's a nice reference for whoever wants it :)
    – Luke Sawczak
    Commented May 31, 2017 at 4:27

Très bonne question ! Beaucoup de Français commettent des fautes dans ce genre de phrase. La narratrice s'adresse donc au fleuve.

Lorsque l'on a un doute, il suffit de mettre le sujet au pluriel :

– Beaux fleuves qui l'avez vue passer, dites-moi, est-elle près d'ici ?

Cela sonne très bien à l'oreille ! Au singulier comme au pluriel, donc, on utilisera la deuxième personne.

(En revanche, « Beaux fleuves qui l'ont vue passer, dites-moi, est-elle… » serait catastrophique.)

Euh ! J’ai écrit un article à ce sujet… Je vous en donne le lien : http://unmondesansfautes.blogspot.fr/2016/03/mes-verbes-au-festival-de-fautesville_22.html

  • C'est vrai, essayer une conjugaison qui se prononce différement révèle souvent la fiabilité de l'instinct.
    – Luke Sawczak
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 16:26

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