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Review of  Social and Stylistic Variation in Spoken French. A Comparative Approach.

Reviewer: Zsuzsanna Fagyal
Book Title: Social and Stylistic Variation in Spoken French. A Comparative Approach.
Book Author: Nigel Armstrong
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): French
Issue Number: 13.873

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Armstrong, Nigel (2001) Social and Stylistic Variations in
Spoken French: A Comparative Approach. John Benjamins
Publishing Company, hardback ISBN 1-58811-063-X, x+278pp,
$89.00, IMPACT: Studies in Language and Society 8
Announced in

Zsuzsanna Fagyal, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois
at Urbana-Champaign

This book is a survey of variable grammatical features in one
of the most widespread, and probably least analyzed, varieties
of French, customarily labeled as 'standard' French of Northern
Metropolitan France. It deals with variation in phonology
(chapters 2 and 3), syntax (chapters 4 and 5), and the lexicon
(chapter 6).

The theoretical framework is variationist sociolinguistics,
and the audience design paradigm as defined by Bell (1984).
The objective is to examine whether these methodologies
elaborated for English "can be applied successfully to
French" (p. 3). The variety of French under scrutiny is
defined by the term 'oil' French as a set of "relatively
'leveled' and/or 'standardized' non-southern" (p. 2) urban
speech styles ranging from colloquial to elevated sub-
varieties, and assumed to be widely distributed North of the
Massif Central. The working hypothesis is that in a language
variety, such as 'oil French', which has "undergone rather
radical leveling" (p. 10), the degree of stylistic variation
will systematically exceed that along the social dimensions,
i.e. one will be more likely to encounter hyperstylistic
variation (Bell 1984) in French than in English.

Chapter two introduces theoretical issues of 'interspeaker'
(social) and 'intraspeaker' (stylistic) variation in
phonology. Marker and indicator variables, when applied to
French, seem to reveal patterns of variation quite different
from that in British English. In 'oil French', phonological
features seem to show patterns of association between social
class and style similar to those shown by marker variables
(ex. (ng) deletion in Norwich): in all social classes,
standard variants are associated with formal styles, non-
standard variants with informal styles. Indicator variables,
on the other hand, that are less directly represented in
spelling and are likely to carry more information on
geographical origin (ex. the 'putt/put' shibboleth in the
UK), seem less pervasive. Armstrong tentatively concludes
that "phonological variation that is both arbitrary and
regional has limited salience in northern French" (p. 29).
Seven variable features of Northern Metropolitan French are
subsequently introduced: deletion of schwa between
consonants, deletion of word-final liquids in clusters,
merger of the high-mid vowels, neutralization between nasals,
phrase-final schwa epenthesis or 'schwa-tagging', merger of
front and back /a/, and fronting of /o/. In the final
sections, broad evaluative data is offered on listeners'
reaction to two regional varieties of 'oil French'. Forty
listeners in Rennes and Nancy, two medium-size towns situated
at roughly equal distance West and East of Paris, were asked
to evaluate regional accent and social class in one-minute
speech samples recorded with eight speakers in each town. The
listeners answered binary forced-choice questions, and were
asked for further comments on the speech samples they heard.
Although, as Armstrong points out, the experiment was not
controlled for phonological features, discourse topic,
vocabulary, and syntax (pp. 34-35), it indicates that
listeners could identify the speakers' social class, but were
largely unable to define their geographical origin. Thus 'oil
French' might be socially diagnostic, while lacking
distinctive regional components as a result of extensive

In chapter three, behavioral data on deletion of liquids and
word-final schwa are examined in 11-12 and 16-19 year-old
students' conversations (informal) and interviews (formal)
from Dieuze (Meurte-et-Moselle) and Paris. In both corpora,
stylistic variation systematically overrides the influence of
social variables. Although female speakers in both age groups
style shift somewhat less than male speakers of the same age
(p. 67), there is overwhelmingly more deletion in informal
than in formal contexts across all age and gender groups.
Backing the initial hypothesis, this pattern is qualified as
hyperstylistic. Subsequent parts explore the relationship
between rate of elision and speaking rate (referred to as
'articulation rate'). Methodological problems associated with
the quantification of rate over long stretches of
unrestricted speech are reviewed, and speaking rate is
quantified as the number of sounds ('segments') over total
speech time. This measure is then 'adjusted' by taking the
number of canonical (including non elided) syllables.
Examined this way in two Dieuze speakers' interview and
conversation styles, speaking rate shows no correlation with
the degree of elision of /r/ and /l/ (pp. 95-96). Further
findings point to the effect of the linguistic context:
elision rates of liquids are higher before pause than before
vowels (p. 99).

Chapter four examines 'ne' deletion, a chief example of
morpho-syntactic variation in French. As was the case in
phonology, findings based on the Dieuze sample indicate that
the use of the negative particle is strongly correlated with
hyperstylistic variation, lending support to the audience
design paradigm, which analyzes this in terms of "referee
design" (p. 237). Extended discussion is devoted to the role
of pragmatic factors, such as the relationship between
speaker and addressee, topic and tone, which Armstrong argues
can be orthogonal to variable 'ne' elision. In interview
situations, for instance, deletion is clearly favored after
subject pronouns, as opposed to full subject NPs, which might
be due to the fact that in interviews speakers communicate
decontextualised information to their addressee(s) with whom
they cannot assume a shared knowledge base, and hence prefer
to use full forms.

Liaison is addressed in chapter five by reporting
illustrative data from Tours, Dieuze, and radio speech on
France Inter. In the first part, 'liaison' with and without
'enchainement' is defined. The review of sociolinguistic
findings on liaison in 'oil French' stretches from the early
seventies to the late nineties, and includes Montreal French.
Based on the data from Tours, where liaison is a prestige
variable proper to older middle-class male speakers, a
consistent age-grading pattern is expected in the Dieuze
data. Instead of "systematic variation along the usual
sociolinguistic dimensions" (p. 193), however, the latter
reveals much speaker-specific idiosyncratic variation. The
radio speech corpus, comparing data from the early sixties
and the late nineties, concentrates on morpho-syntactic
aspects, and finds an overall decrease of 62% in liaison in
different contexts. In the concluding parts Armstrong argues
that liaison is probably better viewed as "insertion of a
consonant in careful style, rather than deletion phenomenon
in informal speech" (p. 202). The emergence of liaison, a
highly stereotypical feature in French, is interpreted in
terms of symbolic social capital, reminiscent of Bourdieu.

The last chapter deals with lexical variation, and addresses
the issue whether variable lexis in French can be analyzed
within the Labovian framework. Methodological issues, such as
the problem of associative meaning between lexical doublets
('voiture' vs. 'bagnole'), as well as differences in
cognitive prominence and lexical frequency are discussed. The
Dieuze data "reveals sex- and age-related patterns which are
sharper than almost all of those seen in phonology" (p. 231),
which is interpreted in terms of the greater cognitive
salience of full lexical items. As opposed to variable
phonology "that may be signaling more interpersonal aspects
of identity (age, sex, social class)" (idem), lexis seems to
mediate more of the pragmatic components of style, tied to
topic, tone and speaker attitude. Thus, Armstrong argues, it
might be better approached within discourse-level
sociolinguistics rather than the variationist paradigm,
although future analyses of lexical variation in larger
corpora can prove it otherwise.

This book's principal contribution to the field of
variationist sociolinguistics is undoubtedly theoretical. One
of the book's greatest merits is its thorough and
meticulously precise analysis of methodological details that
variationists encounter in their investigations of linguistic
phenomena in French. One example is chapter six, a complete
overview of theoretical issues, advantages, shortcomings and
possible future developments of the analysis of variable
lexis within the Labovian paradigm. Another example is the
presentation of the listening experiment in chapter two. As
pointed out above, this experiment does not allow linguistic
generalizations because the samples were only controlled for
social variables (social class, gender, and geographical
origin). This is, however, not only pointed out but discussed
at length in the book, hinting at the possibility that noise
in the data, "apparently anomalous result(s)" (p. 38), might
have been prevented by "a sampling method based on linguistic
as well as social criteria " (idem). Subsequent references
are consequently hedged: "French variable pronunciation *may
be* [my emphasis] distinctive in largely lacking a regional
component" (p. 63).

The chiefly diachronic term 'oil French', substituted to
'standard French', is certainly defensible, since, as
Armstrong points out, alternatives ('hexagonal',
'metropolitan' or 'standard') are either too vague or have
strong prescriptive connotations. However, diachronic
implications of 'oil French' also create unwanted
interferences. For instance, it might be difficult to
acknowledge, that French recorded in Rennes, the capital of
Bretagne, and that of 'Gallo' (a Romance dialect heavily
influenced by the Celtic substrate), is a typical example of
'oil' varieties.

Armstrong rightly points out the striking lack of empirical
data available on 'oil' varieties, especially on so-called
'standard French'. Therefore, one might take issue with
statements such as "[the] relative neglect of phonological
variation in French, at least in the quantitative Labovian
framework, may perhaps reflect an intuitive awareness of the
lesser sociolinguistic importance of variable phonology in
French" (p. 25), and that "it is probably in the lexicon that
style-shifting in French is indicated most obviously" (p.
25). In the absence of a large body of empirical data, it
seems too early to weigh the contribution of different areas
of French variable grammar. The same is true for the view
that in 'oil French' phonology "rather little change appears
to be in progress" (p. 25). Tendencies such as fronting and
raising in the vowel system (Lennig 1978, Malderez 1995), and
devoicing of high vowels (Fonagy 1989, Fagyal and Moisset
1999) in the Parisian variety, as well as intuitive judgments
pointing to 'the changing face' of standard French
pronunciation (Fonagy 1989) clearly argue against such a
claim. The fact that on-going sound change often remains
below most native speakers' linguistic awareness, reinforced
by the strong prescriptivist tradition surrounding language
variation in France, might equally well account for the

Among the book's important contributions is, no doubt, the
thorough discussion of pragmatic factors influencing 'ne'
deletion, which has not received much attention in the
sociolinguistic literature. Studies in pragmatics, however,
support Armstrong's analysis by ascribing variable 'ne'
deletion to 'dialogal' vs. 'monologal' speaker attitudes
(Morel and Danon-Boileau 1997:120). The view of liaison as a
lexical insertion process is also consonant with similar
views in phonology (Post 2000), and backed by the most recent
findings on liaison and style-shifting in Parisian French
(Moisset 2000).

In the innovative study of /r/-/l/ deletion, it might be
worth reexamining the data in terms of "articulatory" rather
than "speaking" rate (see Grosjean and Deschamps 1975,
Fougeron and Jun 1998 for the distinction). That is, if speed
of articulation has an effect on variable /r/-/le/ deletion,
this effect might be better captured when no silent pause
time is included in the calculation of rate.

Currently the only study offering an overarching account of
variable grammar in Metropolitan French, this book is a
'must-read' contribution to variationist sociolinguistics. It
will be much appreciated by the specialized public.

Bell, A. (1984). "Language style as audience design."
Language in Society 13(2), 145-204.

Fagyal, Zs. and Moisset, C. (1999). Sound change and
articulatory release: where and why are high vowels devoiced
in Parisian French?" Proceedings of the 14th International
Conference of Phonetic Sciences, San Francisco, 309-312.

Fonagy, I. (1989). Le francais change de visage? Revue Romane
24(2), 225-254.

Fougeron, C. and Jun, S-A (1998). "Rate effects on French
intonation: prosodic organization and phonetic realization."
Journal of Phonetics 26, 45-69.

Grosjean, F. and Deschamps, A. (1975). "Analyse contrastive
des variables temporelles de l'anglais et du francais:
vitesse de parole et variables composantes, phenomenes
d'hesitation." Phonetica 31, 144-184.

Lennig, M. (1978). Acoustic measurement of linguistic change:
the modern Paris vowel system. Ph.D. Dissertation, University
of Pennsylvania.

Malderez, I. (1995). "Contribution a la synchronie dynamique
du francais contemporain : le cas des voyelles orales
arrondies." These de doctorat. Universite de Paris 7.

Moisset, Christine (2000). Variable Liaison in Parisian
French. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.

Morel, M-A and Danon-Boileau, L. (1997). "La grammaire de
l'intonation." Paris: Ophrys.

Post, B. (2000). "Pitch Accents, Liaison and the Phonological
Phrase in French." Probus, 12(1), 127-164.

I received my Ph.D. in Linguistics at the University of Paris
III, Sorbonne Nouvelle, and worked in the Linguistics Lab of
the University of Pennsylvania prior to my current Assistant
Professor position at the French Department of the University
of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. My interests are in
phonetics, phonology, and variationist sociolinguistics of