Vowel mergers in standard (Parisian) French

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages and Linguistics (EHL)' started by Nino83, Mar 21, 2014.

  1. Nino83 Senior Member

    Italian
    Hi guys.
    I read that there's no distinction between [ɛ̃] and [œ̃] (today [æ̃]), [ə] and [ø] and between [ɛ] and [ɛ:]. Some references say that these mergers are completed in Parisian French and among younger native speaker, without delimiting this phenomenon.

    I read on this forum that people from Normandy can't distinguish [ɛ̃] from [œ̃].

    I would ask you:
    1) how much are these mergers widespread (geographically)?
    2) are new French grammar books taking this phenomenon into account, reducing the French nasal vowels from 4 to 3 and not nasal French vowels from 11 to 10 (because [ɑ] and [ɛ:] are not, generally, taken into consideration in new grammar books)?
     
    Last edited: Mar 21, 2014
  2. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    What you say is correct, reportedly typical, widespread but I doubt it's totally universal in Parisian French: [ɛ̃] and [œ̃] (today [æ̃]). So l'un/lin, brun/brin would rhyme. I personally have a young Parisian friend who doesn't have the merger and she was born and raised there. Outside Paris this merger is much less widespread, however [ɛ̃] pronounced as [æ̃] definitely is. I don't think I ever hear [ɛ̃]. In areas of the Lorraine you encounter [ɑ̃̃] and [ɔ̃] merging in favor of [ɑ̃̃] so tromper sounds like tremper. It is considered ignorant by many but regardless of stigma it's there.
    On another thread a Parisian just wrote me today that [ɛ] and [ɛ:] have merged there in mettre/maître, fait/faîtes(fête). I was surprised as that is certainly not the case here, or in some other areas.
    I have never thought about [ə] and [ø] merging before and I'm pondering it... I have heard Parisians say mer-deuh! and je sais pas quoi dir-euh perhaps that is what's meant. But at the same time they also extend the euh to words that don't even end in -e. Alor-euh, Bon-jour-euh.

    Anyway I can assure you these mergers are not universal, not in the east or the west. They are rather widespread in Paris but I don't believe universal there either. However, these are very active linguistic processes in motion though, so they may well have spread into Normandy (it's in the same North central area), and some speakers in other regions may have picked up some of these mergers too.
     
  3. myšlenka Senior Member

    Norwegian
    Hi,
    I don't know much about this topic but from what I was told about [ə] and [ø] in French, the difference is not based on the phonetic realization but on phonological properties. The schwa /ə/ can be realized as [ø] (or perhaps as [œ]) so in that respect it is similar to <eu> in peur [pœr] and chanteuse [ʃɑ͂tøz]. The difference is that words that are transcribed with /ə/, means that this vowel can fall away in certain environments (this applies more to Northern French than to Southern French) while the vowel(s) represented by <eu> never falls away.
     
  4. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    Hi. But if we look at some minimal pairs like de/deux, que/queue, ce/ceux, the [ø] is more fronted with very rounded lips and articulated with much more force than [ə] which, as you said, is weak and is usually dropped between consonants or at the end of the word.

    The only merger I can think of is when some people who speak a certain way, probably from Paris, say things like /mɛr-dø/, /fɛ-rø/, /a-rɛ-tø/. I don't know perhaps they might say /a-par-tø-mɑ̃̃/ too. It sounds affected to me. I can imagine in my head the type of person who talks like this.
     
  5. Nino83 Senior Member

    Italian
    Wiktionnaire says that je dis /ʒə.di/ is (in Parisian French) pronounced as [ʒø.di] (as if it were written /jeudi/) ou [ʒdi] (eliminating the e caduc).

    So, merquiades, do you think that it's unlikely that these features, especially the merger between [ɛ̃] and [œ̃] and [ɛ] and [ɛ:], will be included in grammar books of Standard French?
     
  6. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    I suppose I can imagine [ʒø.di] being said by some people. I have the image of a guy sitting on a sidewalk café in Paris with his girlfriend, smoking a cigarette. He gets up angrily and says /mɛ-ʒø-di-mɛr-dø-kwa]:D Open /ɛ/ whenever possible is also a characteristic of Paris, many other areas tend to close "e".

    It's already in books, they write that the unmerged forms are traditionally the standard but the merged forms are gaining acceptance. They forget to mention this is coming from Paris. I guess it's the power of this city and the people who live there. Manuals don't usually talk about mergers/ splits that are happening elsewhere or areas resisting merger even if they are huge.
     
  7. Nino83 Senior Member

    Italian
    Yes. The fact is that the metropolitan area of Paris has as inhabitants as Quebec plus French Belgium :)

    But in journalism and media are these mergers usual?
     
    Last edited: Mar 25, 2014
  8. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    Nothing has shocked me and stood out really, but I'll make a point to listen more closely today. They have been talking a lot about "lundi de Pâques" and I'm quite sure they don't say "lain-di" on TV. The "eu" for "e" though is present in some television anchors, as I said even when there is no final -e. Bonjoureuh!
     
  9. Nino83 Senior Member

    Italian
    Thank you!
    Many generations of Italians run the risk of dying of thrist in Paris because of mispronunciation of the sentence un peu d'eau, s'il vous plaît. :)
    And what about [ɛ] and [ɛ:]? Do you hear it more often on TV or is it a "regional" phenomenon (as [ɛ̃] and [œ̃])?
     
  10. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    I thought everyone maintained it until a few days ago when someone said the difference was lost in Paris. I just cannot pronounce maître as mettre,fête as faites, forêt as forer. It renders circumflex accents irrelevant.
     
  11. Hulalessar Senior Member

    Andalucía
    English - England
    French orthography lost it relation to the way words are pronounced long ago. The circumflex must however be preserved because without it the grape harvest will fail.
     
  12. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    The difference between forêt and forer is quality ([ɛ] vs. [e]), not quantity.
     
  13. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    I understood in this case it was not only quality but quantity too. When the /s/ was eliminated before another consonant it opened the vowel and lengthened it too to compensate the loss. Maistre > maître, forest > forêt.

    I'm not disputing that nowadays this vowel lengthening is being lost, even completely acceptable. Compare politicians nowadays with those twenty years ago. When I listened to Mitterrand videos I heard some very very long vowels.
     
  14. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    Compensatory lengthening of a preceding vowel when a consonant is elided is indeed a regularly occurring phenomenon in many languages (e.g. the muting of gh in light caused the lengthening of i) but it cannot be assumed to have happened with absolute certainty or the lengthening may later have been reversed, e.g. when the final [t] became mute and the [ɛ] became word-final. At any rate, I haven’t seen a dictionary that marks the [ɛ] in forêt as long. And, since quantity differences in French are only phonetic and not phonemic they tend to be less stable than in languages with phonemic vowel length.
     
  15. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    After a night of paying attention to tv shows from Paris I have come to the conclusion that most of the media does still make the difference between [æ̃] and [œ̃].
     
  16. Nino83 Senior Member

    Italian
    Thank you merquiades for the information
    So, it's better to practise pronouncing all the four nasal vowels.
     
  17. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    Well technically speaking you should if want to sound the most correct. But even if you don't distinguish between all the nasal vowels it will still probably be okay! :)
     
  18. Nino83 Senior Member

    Italian
    I distinguish between them so I'll keep doing it :)
     
  19. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    I have been doing my unofficial research on nasal vowels depending on how people pronounce numbers. So far I have never heard anyone in Lorraine or Champagne pronounce "un, aucun" with another vowel than [œ̃], that goes for even the youngest people, with varying levels of education. As I suspected you have to look far and wide to find someone say /sɛ̃k/ or /sɛ̃kɑ͂t/. [æ̃] seems to have generalized.

    Now, I spent last week in Paris, France. The merger between [œ̃] and [æ̃] occurs with some people but not in others. I couldn't seem to figure out a trend. It doesn't seem to be affected by age, profession or area. A guide at a history museum clearly pronounced [æ̃] every single time she used the indefinite article. The young man at the hotel reception actually said /døsɑ̃sɛ̃kɔ̃teæ̃:/, with not only [œ̃] and [æ̃] seeming to merge but also [ɑ͂] and [ɔ̃]. But many other people did distinguish.
     
    Last edited: Apr 26, 2014
  20. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    one of the more persistent mistakes I make in French is to merge the a- and o-nasels. I recently made the mistake again and the person I spoke to understood my "temps" as "thon". When we discussed it he (a native Belgian French speaker) insisted the difference mainly as one of pitch: low/falling pitch for the a- and high/rising pitch for the o-nasal. Does that resonate with you? It doesn't with me.
     
  21. Youngfun

    Youngfun Senior Member

    Pekino, Ĉinujo
    Chinese/Italian - bilingual
    How I pronounce French nasal vowels, because that's how I was taught at school:

    an [an]
    en [an]
    in [ɛn]
    on [ɔn]
    un [ɛn]

    Can someone please list the correct pronunciation of all the nasal vowels? :D
     
  22. Hulalessar Senior Member

    Andalucía
    English - England
    When I started French some 50 years ago we learned by the then innovative audio-visual method. We never got to see how what we were saying was actually written until the end of the week. In the meantime everything was written on the blackboard using the IPA. So far as we were concerned there were only four nasal vowels: /ɑ̃/, /ɛ̃/, /ɔ̃/ and /œ̃/. These four vowels could be found in the phrase "un bon vin blanc". If one pronounced the vowel in "blanc" as the vowel in "bon" what one was saying was "un bon vin blond". My French dictionary (published 1968) confirms that "blanc" and "blond" have distinct vowels. The online version of the Academy's dictionary also indicates distinct pronunciations.

    When I had been learning French for three years I spent a month in Valence. I could not help noticing that some of the nasal vowel sounds I heard did not seem to match what I thought they were supposed to be. Indeed, I recall a discussion about how the word "blanc" should be pronounced. When we spent a week on the Presqu'île de Giens I could not help feeling that the locals used no nasal vowels at all.

    Clearly there are (were always) regional differences and changes may have taken place over the last 50 years with sounds merging and shifting. What interests me is whether the position has been reached where the pronunciation of standard French can be said to have moved on since the 1960s so that dictionaries ought to be updated.
     
  23. Nino83 Senior Member

    Italian
    Yes. So am I. When listening to a Frenchman who says Hollande it sounds to me like [olɔ̃d]. It seems that the French [ɒ̃] (open back rounded vowel) is becoming similar to [ɔ̃].

    There is this counterclockwise movement ([ɒ̃] --> [ɔ̃], [ɔ̃] --> [õ], [ɛ̃] --> [æ̃]) in Parisian French.


     
    Last edited: Apr 26, 2014
  24. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    That they are distinct is not the question. The question is only how they are distinct. The classical definition a-nasal = [ɑ̃] and o-nazal = [ɔ̃] obviously doesn't work any more, except in Quebecois French.
     
  25. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    I don't think anything needs to be updated. It is the standard, and standards are meant to be ideals. Plus, some people still speak that way.

    I see it as the vowel in "thon" is pronounced with much more force and with tightly rounded lips. "Temps" is more lax and relaxed. There are native French people who confuse the two vowels. Town folk in Eastern France say "Je me suis trempé" for "Je me suis trompé" (the same who say bouche for bouge) and everyone laughs about that. It seems like some Parisians are doing the opposite and moving "tremper" closer to "tromper". In different other areas, like in the south/Rhône valley, it seems to me that /ɑ̃/ is being fronted to /ã/. There is so much variety with this vowel.
     
  26. Hulalessar Senior Member

    Andalucía
    English - England
    I am not sure it is the case that "blanc" and "blond" are distinguished in all speakers. I think the two can merge so that both are pronounced with [ɔ̃], to the despair of some purists who regret that the distinction is no longer made. This was what the discussion in Valence 50 years ago was about. What I want to know is how many of the members of the Académie Française distinguish between "blanc" and "blond" because the dictionary they publish says that the vowel in "blanc" is [ɑ̃] and in "blond" [ɔ̃].

    It may be noted that there are similar developments in English. For example, for my mother (speaking with a non-rhotic accent) "paw" and "poor" were not homophones, but for me they are.
     
  27. Nino83 Senior Member

    Italian
    In contemporary French /ɑ̃/ = [ɒ̃] (with lip rounding) and /ɔ̃/ = [õ], so all depends on the opening.
    http://fr.wiktionary.org/wiki/Annexe:prononciation/fran%C3%A7ais#Changements_historiques





     
  28. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    This link considers the new pronunciation of a segment of Parisians to have become the de-facto norm. It isn't.
     
  29. Nino83 Senior Member

    Italian
    Thank you, merquiades.
    So it's another Paris vs. France thing.
     
  30. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    In the region I am living in it certainly is. Either you pronounce the nasals dialectal in which case je pense sounds like je pince in standard French or you pronounce it the standard way and then the reference is exactly what Nino wrote, i.e. you differentiate the a- and o-nasals the modern Parisian way.

    It might be different in areas with less strong dialects where the difference between standard vs. dialectal is not so clear cut and there might be grey areas.
     
    Last edited: Apr 26, 2014
  31. Nino83 Senior Member

    Italian
    In fact I found this classification on this site http://www.galanet.eu/ressource/fichiers/R688/index.php?LgSrc=1&LgCib=2
    The /ɑ̃/ sounds like [ɒ̃]/[ɔ̃] (with lip rounding) and the /ɔ̃/ like [õ] (more closed than [ɒ̃]/[ɔ̃]).
     
  32. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    The Swiss speakers I have heard on the mooc classes out of Geneva University have a very beautiful French, very close to the traditional sort Hulalessar was describing: Dans, Daim, Dent, Dont, D'un are clearly distinguished. I'm actually quite admirative of them. Such elegance you don't find very often in French universities (well, that goes beyond accent too). Je pense doesn't sound like Je pince, but neither like je ponce.

    He sounds like he has an accent from the North to me.
     
    Last edited: Apr 26, 2014
  33. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    I was speaking of Swiss, not Geneva accent. The Geneva accent is practically dead. Most Genevans speak with an exceptionally neutral French. When you speak with people from Geneva and Lausanne you often can't believe it's the same country and that the two cities are only 50 km apart (Of course, there are also many standard speakers in Lausanne).
     
  34. francisgranada Senior Member

    Slovakia
    Hungarian
    In my mother tongue (Hungarian) there is a clear difference among [ɒ], [a:] and [o] in whatever position, so I do hear "naturally" the difference e. g. between nous allons and Holland . This difference may not be clear e.g. for a native Czech or Slovak (etc.) as the vowel [ɒ] does not exist their languages.

    So my question is
    a) if this is not only an illusion (at least in some cases) as one tends to "feel" the difference, i.e. if it is not a certain kind of subconscious "hypercorrection" (e.g. from my part)
    b) if the opposite it not possible as well, i.e. those who do not hear the difference, tend to think that both [ɒ̃] and [õ] are pronounced the same way, even if there is a real differenece in the Frech pronounciation
    c) if the native French pronounciation (in general, not especially the Parisian or so) is "reliable" enough in the sense that it consequently corresponds to the etymological spelling (a/o), taking in consideration that the vowel [ɒ] "as such" does not exist in French (except in case of the discussed nasals, of course).
     
    Last edited: Apr 27, 2014
  35. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    Yes, nasal vowels are rather reliable
    Comparing nasal to oral
    an is [ɑ̃] but anne/ane is [an]
    en is [ɑ̃] or [æ̃] (at the end of a word) but enne/ène is [ɛn]
    ain is [æ̃] but aine is [ɛn]
    in is [æ̃] but ine/inne is [in]
    on is [ɔ̃] but onne/one is [ɔn]
    un is [œ̃], but une/unne is [yn]

    So nasal vowels correspond pretty well to oral vowels but not always. Nasal/oral "i" and "u" are rather different in quality. Spelling is reliable though.

    Oral [ɑ] (â) exists in some varieties of French but has merged with [a] (a) in others.

    Is this your question?
     
    Last edited: Apr 27, 2014
  36. francisgranada Senior Member

    Slovakia
    Hungarian
    Yes, thank you for the precise answer. My question was about the nasals, mainly about [ɒ̃] [ɔ̃] [õ]. (The distinction between the pronounciation of nasals and orals is clear to me).
     
    Last edited: Apr 27, 2014
  37. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    I'm not sure that [ɒ̃] [ɔ̃] [õ] are correct. Normally we have [ɑ̃] and [ɔ̃]. They are perceived as different by almost everybody as merger is not common. For the Parisians who have shifted [ɑ̃] towards [ɒ̃], they also simultaneously move [ɔ̃] to [õ] so there is always a clear sense of difference. They would not have [ɑ] or [ɒ] as oral vowels only [a]. Offhand I cannot think of many adjectives or nouns ending in -an [occitan/occitane], so it might not be common to switch between nasal and oral "a" to make feminine and plural forms. However, both [ɔ] and [o] exist as oral vowels and are in frequent opposition with each other and with [ɔ̃]: cochon/cochonne, bon/bonne, for example.

    Hearing a distinction between [ɒ] and [ɔ], [ɒ̃] and [ɔ̃] is tough. French doesn't have such close lower back rounded vowels.
     
    Last edited: Apr 27, 2014
  38. Nino83 Senior Member

    Italian
    Nobody says that there is a merger.
    There are different regional pronunciations so an /ɑ̃/ pronounced by a Parisian could be very similar to an /ɔ̃/ pronounced by a Niçard.
    But in Paris the distinction is between [ɒ̃] and [õ] while in Nice it is between [ɑ̃] and [ɔ̃].
    The fact is that when an Italian speaker hears the word Hollande from a Parisian, the /ɑ̃/ sound is similar to an /ɔ̃/.
    We must know that there are different pronunciations and get used to them.
     
  39. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    We must be living in extremely different environments. I cannot recall ever having heard [ɑ̃] from a French, Swiss or Belgian speaker. I've only ever heard it from Canadians.
     
  40. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    We must. I've normally heard only [ɑ̃]. A rounded vowel approaching [ɔ̃] seems an anomaly to me. I have heard it by a few people but when someone says "cinconte" I'm taken aback. The Canadian vowel seems fronted to [ã] or sometimes verging on [ɛ̃].
    français
    La révolution française
    penser
    pendant un temps
    menton
    entrée

    For me almost everyone here pronounces [ɑ̃] for an-em and [ɔ̃] for on. Arnaud in "français" does round his "an" vowel towards [ɔ̃]
     
    Last edited: Apr 27, 2014
  41. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    Sorry, I hear them all rounded, i.e. [ɒ̃] not [ɑ̃] but not [ɔ̃]. That is still something else. Rounding of [ɑ̃] doesn't automatically make it [ɔ̃].
     
  42. Nino83 Senior Member

    Italian
    Calador06 pronounces [fʁɒ̃se] too.
    Plachenian and Prodo pronounce (la revolution française) as [fʁɒ̃sez] too.
    Except johncraven (Canadian) penser (with an [ɑ̃]), fabre (Occitan) menton (with an [ẽ]), I hear only [ɒ̃] for an, en​.


     
  43. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    What you all are hearing as [ɒ̃] I hear as standard [ɑ̃] and what you are hearing as [ɑ̃] in Canadian I hear as [ã]. [ɒ̃] has tensed rounded lips and is higher, [ɑ̃] is wide open back and unrounded. The Canadian one is further to the front closer to a nasalized [a] in "la".
    See if you still hear [ɒ̃] here and here
     
  44. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    No, it's not, [ɔ̃] is higher.
    So is [ɒ̃]. This is the definition of the symbol ɒ which differs from ɑ only by rounding for me the rounding is very clear.
     
  45. Nino83 Senior Member

    Italian
    Hi berndf, maybe merquiades is used to the British English [ɒ], which is higher than normal [ɒ].

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_back_rounded_vowel#Occurrence

    It is between [ɒ] and [ɔ] in traditional RP but nowdays is closer to [ɔ] (while RP traditional /ɔː/ is, de facto, raised to [o:]).
    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/37/RP_English_monophthongs_chart.svg

    I agree with berndf. In those samples the /ɑ̃/ is a rounded vowel ([ɒ]).


    In the second link I hear
    [ɒ̃] while in the first one the vowel is less rounded, [ɑ̃], but in both links I hear [õ] (and not [ɔ̃]).
    Anyway the /ɑ̃/ is more rounded than /a/ (also in the first page).
    I hear clearly an
    [ɒ̃] in vraiment, Constantine (second link, second video).



     
    Last edited: Apr 27, 2014
  46. jmx

    jmx Senior Member

    Barcelona
    Spain / incorrect Spanish
    I heard once a theory about nasal vowels that might be relevant for this thread:

    Because some air must escape through the nose, nasal vowels are in general less perceptible (less loud) than the oral ones. On the other hand, open/low vowels are in general more perceptible (louder) than closed/high ones. For this reason, speakers tend to pronounce nasal vowels lower and lower (more and more open), to compensate unconsciously for low audibility. If all nasal vowels get lower and lower, they get closer and closer to [ã] (a low, central, nasal vowel), and in the process phoneme mergers become inevitable.
     

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