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Review of  Phonological Variation in French

Reviewer: Lionel Mathieu
Book Title: Phonological Variation in French
Book Author: Randall Gess Chantal Lyche Trudel Meisenburg
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Phonology
Subject Language(s): French
Book Announcement: 24.2496

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'Phonological Variation in French' is ''the first book-length, English-language presentation of results stemming from the international ‘Phonology of Contemporary French’ project (Phonologie du Français Contemporain, henceforth PFC)'' (1). Started in 2000, it has the objective of ''build[ing] a reference corpus for French spoken throughout the world'' (10). Rich in spoken language data elicited through the use of a wordlist, a fabricated newspaper-like short text, and formal and informal conversations, the PFC project aims to provide a synchronic snapshot of the phonology of French through original studies spanning three continents: Africa (Part I), Europe (Part II) and North America (Part III). Highlights of each section are presented below.

First, the introductory chapter (Randall Gess, Chantal Lyche and Trudel Meisenburg) remarkably sketches out key phonological characteristics of French (e.g. phonemic inventories, schwa, liaison, prosody) that serve as the organizational pattern for all subsequent chapters/studies. The authors also draw readers' attention to the fact that the study of language variation implies the recognition of a reference point, in this case, a ''français de référence'' (Morin, 2000; FR) from which variation can be observed. Like most researchers of French, the authors adopt the general view that this FR is largely based on the speech variety of middle-to-upper class Parisians, which is often used as the model of standard pronunciation in second language (L2) pedagogical materials.

Part I surveys African varieties of French. Chapter 2 presents ''A phonological study of French spoken by multilingual speakers from Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic'' (Guri Bordal). In Bangui, Central African French (CAF) coexists with Sango; the latter serves as a lingua franca between speakers of various first languages (L1), whereas CAF is commonly acquired as an L2. This study therefore describes a situation where the phonological system of French is moderately colored by the phonological system of an African language, as can be seen in the harmonization of mid vowels, the fluctuating realization of the rhotic as an alveolar trill, the palatalization of /t, d/ before high vowels, and the pervasive reduction of complex syllables via consonant deletion and vowel epenthesis. With regards to schwa, given its systematic realization in word-initial syllables and monosyllabic words, the author questions its underlying existence in these contexts, but accepts its presence in word-internal syllables, where it frequently alternates with zero. The realization of liaison consonants is, however, more regular and, compared to FR, very few instances of variable liaisons are observed.

In Chapter 3 (''French in Senegal after three centuries: A phonological study of Wolof speakers' French'', Béatrice Akissi Boutin, Randall Gess and Gabriel Marie Guèye), the French of Senegalese Wolophone speakers is examined. Here, French enjoys a historically rooted presence, but has been relegated to written communication over the years, while Wolof has become the main vehicular language. Surprisingly, the vowel system of French-speaking Wolophones (FW) closely resembles that of FR. Nevertheless, the realization of the vowels [e-ɛ] is conditioned by Wolof's advanced tongue root harmony instead of following the 'Loi de Position' (i.e. open vowels in closed syllables, and vice-versa; henceforth LdP) regularly respected in FR. The realization of [ø-œ], on the other hand, is seldom contrasted, and the vowels [o-ɔ] are subject to orthographic and/or harmonic influences. Regarding consonants, the authors note the presence of /c, ɟ, ʔ/ (absent in FR), as well as the lack of stop release in word-final positions. With respect to phonotactics, FW are relatively unaffected by Wolof's strict CVC structure, even though some simplifications can be observed (by way of vowel epenthesis, consonant deletion and assimilation). The behavior of schwa is dependent upon lexical and positional specifications, but in many instances, it does not correspond with an underlyingly variable vowel, as is the case in FR. Liaison, however, does not differ much from FR, other than for the realization of word-initial /ʔ/, a reflex of an obligatory onset requirement from Wolof, consequently blocking liaison. Finally, in terms of accentuation, Wolof influences are readily noticeable in the instantiation of stress at the lexical level (while at the phrasal level in FR) by means of a peak in intensity (rather than vocalic duration, as in FR).

Chapter 4 (''The phonological characteristics of French in Bamako, Mali: A sociolinguistic study'', Chantal Lyche and Ingse Skattum) presents another case of L2 French spoken in a highly multilingual context. In this study, the French phonological system of 13 speakers of five different L1s is surveyed. Despite the complexity of treatment, a number of general characteristics emerge: a) the problematic realization of contrastive [ø-œ]; b) the variable realization of the rhotic as an apical trill or tap, and its intermittent omission in codas depending on the speaker's L1; c) the restricted realization of schwa in word-final and internal positions; and, d) the scarcity of variable liaison environments. Altogether, these features are emblematic of numerous African varieties of French.

Part II considers European varieties of French. Chapter 5 offers ''An overview of the phonological and phonetic properties of Southern French: Data from two Marseille surveys'' (Annelise Coquillon and Gabor Turcsan, ['français de Marseille': FM]). In terms of its consonantal inventory, the authors note the progressive disappearance of /ɲ/ for the sequence /nj/, the periodic simplification of consonant clusters in frequent expressions, and the presence of assimilation processes for certain coronals. Differences from FR figure most prominently in FM's vowel inventory and distribution. FM does not phonemically contrast the mid vowel series, but does allophonically realize them, mostly following LdP. While disappearing in many varieties of French, the nasal duo /œ̃-ɛ̃/ is still well maintained in FM, albeit at low levels of lexical manifestation. Also illustrious of FM is the accompanying realization of a homorganic nasal consonant following a vocalic nucleus (which may itself be partially nasalized; Durand 1988, 2009), although great variability in production was attested. Concerning the behavior of schwa, the following deletion hierarchy (Coquillon & Durand, 2010) is confirmed: final > internal > initial schwas; though word-final orthographic <e> strongly licenses schwa realization, as well as monosyllabic words. Regarding the production of liaison, factors such as register, age and word-length have been found to have an effect. Finally, FM's prosody is characterized by a broader pitch span for older speakers, while younger speakers tend to neutralize this feature, therefore approximating FR norms.

In Chapter 6 (''The variation of pronunciation in Belgian French: From segmental phonology to prosody'', Philippe Hambye and Anne Catherine Simon), three surveys varying along geographic, social and economic dimensions serve as the premise to uncover characteristics of Belgian French. At the segmental level, height differentiation in mid vowels is generally observed (though some degree of neutralization is found in the speech of western, and younger Belgians), vowel lengthening assumes a phonological status, unstressed vowels tend to open, mostly for central and eastern older speakers, who also favor vowel hiatus (though glide resolution, as in FR, is also employed), and word-final consonants are devoiced, mostly in the speech of older, non-western speakers. The behavior of schwa and liaison consonants does not significantly diverge from FR. At the prosodic level, the clear identification of Belgian-specific traits is still deserving of comprehensive inspection. All in all, precise phonological markers of Belgian French are fine-grained, yet eroding in younger generations of speakers.

Chapter 7 (''A study of young Parisian speech: Some trends in pronunciation'', Anita Berit Hansen) focuses on the speech of nine young native Parisians. The author notes a slightly varying phonemic organization from FR; in particular, a phonetic tendency to merge mid-vowels in unstressed syllables (for /e/-/ɛ/ and /ø/-/œ/ more so than for /o/-/ɔ/), a latent /a-ɑ/ distinction (that marginally emerges under normative pressures), a speaker-dependent /œ̃-ɛ̃/ opposition, and a fluctuating realization of /ɲ/ as [ɲ], [nj] or [n]. On the subject of schwa, other than in CC_C contexts, it is also relatively well maintained in word-initial VC_C contexts, and routinely dropped in analogous word-medial contexts, while ''schwa-tagging'' (Armstrong & Unsworth, 1999) in pre-pausal contexts is also attested, especially in the speech of more educated speakers. The realization of optional liaisons (traditionally tied to levels of formality) is minute, even in the context of a formal conversation. The author surmises that these ''dynamic tendencies [...] could well be those of tomorrow's 'français de référence''' (169).

In Chapter 8 (''A phonological study of a Swiss French variety: Data from the canton of Neuchâtel'', Isabelle Racine and Helene N. Andreassen), phonological attributes of Swiss French are presented. Variation from FR is most apparent in the vowel system, where an acoustic analysis of vowel contrasts reveals a contrastive length distinction in both open and closed syllables, an /e/-/ɛ/ and /o/-/ɔ/ opposition in word-final open syllables (while /a-ɑ/ only contrasts in word-final closed syllables), and an age-sensitive /œ̃-ɛ̃/ opposition. Regarding the latter two contrasts, further analysis indicates a cantonal difference; the /a-ɑ/ distinction is made quantitatively in Neuchâtel, but qualitatively in Nyon, and the /œ̃-ɛ̃/ distinction only exists in Neuchâtel (mostly for older speakers). The study of schwa in word-initial syllables shows that its retention in C#C_C and ##C_C environments is contingent upon word frequency, whereas its alternation in V#C_C contexts is subject to ''token frequency, the frequency of variants, extra-grammatical constraints and segmental constraints'' (197), as well as the age of speakers. This latter characteristic also seems to affect the behavior of variable liaison, which is manifested in very few verbal forms, but the paucity of data forbids any firm conclusions. Altogether, these studies illustrate language variation at various socio-demographic and regional levels.

Part III focuses on North American varieties of French. Chapter 9 presents ''An overview of the phonetics and phonology of Acadian French spoken in northeastern New Brunswick (Canada)'' (Wladyslaw Cichocki). Its phonological properties do not extensively differ from FR, other than the presence of /œ̃, h, ʧ, ʤ, ŋ/ (the latter three via English), /ɛ/-/ɛ:/ and /a-ɑ/ contrasts, and the unclear phonemic status of glides. However, phonetic departures abound. Noteworthy ones include the laxing and devoicing of high vowels, the lowering of /ɛ/ before a rhotic consonant (i.e. /R/), vowel diphthongization, vowel fusion, varying <oi> pronunciations, assibilation of /t, d/, velarization of /ɲ/, shifting realizations of /R/ (also metathesizing with schwa), and consonant cluster simplifications. These characteristics are all featured in Québec (Laurentian) French as well. More specific to Acadian French is the neutralization of /ɔ̃-ã/, the rise of mid-back vowels (i.e. 'ouisme') and mid-vowels before /R/, the affrication of /t, d/, and the glottalization of /t/. Schwa and liaison are, by comparison, pretty standard, though the authors note meager instances of optional liaisons.

In Chapter 10 (''Laurentian French (Quebec): Extra vowels, missing schwas and surprising liaison consonants'', Marie-Hélène Côté), Laurentian French is in the spotlight. Its vowel inventory comprises 23 contrastive segments (compared to 15 in FR), among which there are high lax and long vowel sets (e.g. /i(:), ɪ(:), y(:), ʏ(:), u(:), ʊ(:)/), four nasal vowels (/ẽ, œ̃, ɔ̃, ɒ̃/) four rising diphthongs (/ɥi, wẽ, wa, wɒ/), and three unusual low vowels (/ɜ, a, ɒ/). Their allophonic realizations are highly variable and dependent on syllable shape (and its intralexical position) and the immediate consonantal environment where lengthening, devoicing, neutralization and diphthongization processes are observed (the latter being socially marked). Its consonant inventory is akin to that of FR, but again, surface forms vary, most notably in: the production of /R/, straddling a dorsal/apical place of articulation; the assibilation and prevocalic tapping of dental stops; the retention of word-final [t]; and the gemination of intervocalic /l/ and its deletion in clitics. Surprisingly, schwa is phonemically absent and phonetically ''misplaced'' in non-final syllables, where they are omitted in expected contexts, but realized in incongruous ones, and altogether ''avoided'' when considering the whole PFC corpus. Regarding categorical liaison, the author particularly notes the unusual participation of [l] and the absence of liaison with 'ils', as well as the atypical pattern of [t] and [z] liaison in variable contexts.

Chapter 11 (''''Cajun'' French in a non-Acadian community: A phonological study of the French of Ville Platte, Louisiana'', Thomas A. Klingler and Chantal Lyche) describes ''Cajun'' French, which the authors refer to as ''Louisiana French'' (LF) for reasons of ethnic neutrality. Today, LF is primarily spoken by elderly, LF-illiterate individuals, which necessitated some adjustments to the PFC protocol. Hence, this phonological description rests on analyzed data of only four native LF speakers. Vocalic properties include high vowel laxing, adherence to the LdP for mid-vowels, more posterior realizations of /ɑ/ (compared to FR), and extensive nasalization. Consonantal and prosodic properties, on the other hand, directly reflect the influence of English through the presence of /ʧ, ʤ/ (and to a lesser degree /ŋ/) and their overall attenuated articulation, the aspiration of voiceless stops, and the presence of lexical stress. Other North American features, such as stop affrication, dental assibilation and schwa metathesis, are also reported, as well as FR-like aspects, such as word-final cluster simplification, standard schwa patterns, and the continued use of categorical liaison (especially as a plural marker). Variable liaison is completely absent.

Chapter 12 discusses ''Laurentian French phonology in a majority setting outside Québec: Observations from the PFC Hearst Ontario study'' (Jeff Tennant). Surprisingly, its ''low intensity contact with English'' (335) enables Hearst French to preserve the majority of Laurentian French's segmental, allophonic, and prosodic characteristics described above. This French variety therefore remains extraordinarily immune to English influences.

Concluding our westward journey through Canada, Chapter 13 reports on ''Albertan French phonology: French in an anglophone context'' (Douglas C. Walker). Albertan French (AF) also possesses Laurentian characteristics, both in terms of phonemic inventories and allophonic realizations. Schwa, however, assumes a distinct phonological status and phonetic quality. Its behavior in polysyllabic and monosyllabic words is largely consistent with that of FR, although task demands may yield slightly varying manifestations; the reading passage favored its retention while the spontaneous conversation exhibited more deletions. Task demands also factored in the behavior of liaison, which only concerned the consonants /t, n, z/. In the reading task, the number of liaisons with both mono- and poly-syllabic words is comparably low. However, it is even lower in the conversation task, where it is quasi-absent for polysyllables, but fairly present for /n/ in monosyllables. The author also reiterates the absence of liaison with 'ils'. Overall, the parameters underlying schwa and liaison segments in AF are wearing away with increased informality. Lastly, the impact of English is readily apparent in a number of (un)assimilated loanwords, as well as in instances of calquing and code-switching, which indicate the coexistence of two interacting phonological systems in the minds of AF bilingual speakers.


This volume is geared towards a readership interested in contemporary aspects of language variation who is also adequately versed in phonological terminology.

What is immediately appealing when reading the introductory chapter is the promise of a highly organized and reader-friendly volume. Chapter 1 indeed excels at illustrating the content and format of all subsequent chapters by discussing the hallmarks of French phonology. This discussion is, first of all, honest in that it recognizes the difficulty of identifying a ''français de référence'' (Morin, 2000; FR), a term that ''remains far from being either straightforward or unambiguous'' (Laks, 2002: 2). Second, the discussion revolving around specific phonological characteristics of French is very accessible to readers with a general understanding of phonology. Each phonological feature is presented with utmost clarity and is illustrated with relevant language examples. The authors are to be commended for their objectivity and efforts to stray away from theoretical biases in their description of the phonological system of FR (a consideration also guiding their data collection methodology for the PFC project). Attentive readers will therefore appreciate an introductory chapter that is highly informative, yet mindful of the pitfalls of the descriptive/prescriptive dichotomy.

By adopting a similar structure for all chapters, the authors have succeeded in presenting scores of data in a readily comprehensible way. Each major section features French as spoken in a monolingual (Europe), bilingual (North America) and multilingual (Africa) context; individually, each survey offers an unprecedented look into the phonological system of selected varieties of French. These socio-phonological descriptions are thorough and technical, yet little theoretical machinery is invoked to make sense of them. Studies in Parts I and III are of particular interest given French's status as a second language (in Africa) and its contact with a plurality of first languages (in Africa, and North America [with English]). Researchers interested in L2 acquisition and contact linguistics will therefore benefit from the original data sets. One may, however, regret the fact that none of the African varieties of French presented in this volume include Maghreb, an important French-speaking region of Africa. Pertinent insights could have been drawn from the study of such vibrant speech varieties with contrasting sociolinguistic profiles. Another slight point of disappointment might come from the homogeneity of Chapter 10 and 12's descriptions: the former appears more exhaustive than the latter, but Chapter 12 nevertheless presents an exceptional situation of language contact. Finally, Part II may be of most interest to dialectologists, who may find prosperous avenues for further research (as expressed by numerous authors).

In sum, this volume will surely become the reference book par excellence for any socio-phonologist of contemporary French.


Armstrong, Nigel, and Sharon Unsworth. 1999. Sociolinguistic variation in southern French schwa. Linguistics 37 (1): 127-156.

Coquillon, Annelise, and Jacques Durand. 2010. Le français méridional: Eléments de synthèse. In Les variétés du français parlé dans l'espace francophone: ressources pour l'enseignement, eds. Sylvain Detey, Jacques Durand, Bernard Laks and Chantal Lyche, 185-197. Paris: Ophrys.

Durand, Jacques. 1988. Phénomènes de nasalité en français du midi: phonologie de dépendance et sous-spécification. Nouvelles Phonologies, Recherches Linguistiques de Vincennes 17:29-54.

Durand, Jacques. 2009. Essai de panorama critique des accents du Midi. In Le français d'un continent à l'autre: Mélanges offerts à Yves Charles Morin, eds. Luc Baronian and France Martineau, 123-170. Collection Les Voies du français. Québec: Presses de l'Université Laval.

Laks, Bernard. 2002. Description de l'oral et variation: La phonologie et la norme. L'information grammaticale 94:5-11.

Morin, Yves-Charles. 2000. Le français de référence et les normes de prononciation. Cahiers de l'Institut de Linguistique de Louvain 26:91-135.
Lionel Mathieu holds a Masters degree in linguistics from the University of Arizona, where he is currently working on his PhD dissertation. His research interests focus on the phonology-orthography interface, loanword adaptations from a theoretical and experimental perspective, psycholinguistics and second language acquisition.