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What these two French words can teach us about social change

When a society changes, its language is likely to change along with it. To take an extreme example, past colonisers often forced the inhabitants of colonised lands to speak their language. If they hadn’t, the Americas would not be speaking European languages today. On a smaller scale, language can change simply to reflect social trends: Multicultural London English reflects the perceived prestige of Jamaican-influenced English among (largely) young people, but it is spoken by people of all ethnicities.

This is society influencing language, but it can also work the other way: linguistic findings can also tell you about society. At the highest level, if North American indigenous languages are becoming endangered, that might be because the cultures that once spoke those languages widely have been overtaken by an English-speaking culture.

Similarly, if an accent feature that was once regional spreads somewhere else, it could be evidence of a culture spreading.

That’s what I found in my research on the regional French of Normandy. I focused on a particular accent feature and found something quite revealing about shifts in French culture – and the types of people setting the agenda.

I analysed recordings of interviews with people from communities at both ends of Normandy: the rural village of La Bonneville, in the west of the region, and urban Darnétal, a suburb of Rouen, in the east. My aim – as for many initial sociolinguistic studies – was to describe interesting aspects of the accent and to see whether there was a correlation between accent differences and social differences.

La Bonneville. Photo by author

For this part of the research, I approached the question through the sociophonetics of the final vowels in café (meaning “café” or “coffee”) and secret (“secret”), when they appeared at the end of words. In the rest of this article, they’ll be referred to as café and secret, meaning not just “those two words”, but “these vowels, in any word where they appear at the end”.

In standard French, these two vowels are “supposed” to be pronounced differently. For a close English equivalent, listen to the difference between the last sound in “hay” (which is like French café) and the e in “red” (which is like the vowel at the end of French secret). But I found that many people, particularly young people, in these parts of Normandy pronounced them the same: at the end of words, both vowels are like café. Older people, especially in Darnétal, may still pronounce them differently.

Darnétal: an urban commune on the edge of the countryside. Photo by author

You might think that a regional accent would get a lot of its features from another language spoken in the same area. But the merger (that’s the technical term) of café and secret doesn’t necessarily come from Norman – the language historically spoken in the region. Norman itself has several regional varieties and most (though not all) do pronounce café and secret differently. I propose that the merger might instead come from Paris – and that’s why it tells us something interesting about French society.

The capital city is the centre of French life and culture – including high culture, in which speaking the standard form of the language is very important. It is where the Académie Française sits and is dominant in French life generally.

So, for centuries, middle-class Parisian French has been taken as a model of the “best way” to speak French – and that would include pronouncing café and secret differently. But no matter what their reputation, all big cities have linguistic variation. Working-class and young people tend not to speak in a way that others might regard as “cultivated”. Indeed, the Multicultural London English—Multicultural Paris French project recently showed that Parisian French varies socially in some of the same ways as London English.

But, for many French people, the suggestion that Paris could be a source of non-standard language might be a shock. These people can be reassured, though. Parisian speech is still as prestigious as ever. It’s just that the way of speaking that is labelled “prestigious” in Paris is changing – so, when younger people now pick up a prestige way of speaking from there, they are picking up something different to what the older people picked up a few generations ago. This is why we can propose that both older and younger people in Normandy get their accent from Paris, even though they may have different accents.

The changing face of prestige

This implies that we need to think about what “prestigious” means here. Prestigious language in sociolinguistics means “whatever a given speaker regards as a model to follow”. So that might actually mean “anything other than the language of the Académie”. In fact, for a young person, that’s quite likely. They are more likely to ascribe prestige to the language of communities like themselves whom they might wish to emulate – in other words, Parisian young people. And some evidence suggests that those Parisian young people are merging café and secret.

This is the kind of thing that sociolinguists normally do: we use society to find out about language. But we can also turn findings like this on their head and use language to find out about society.

So here’s why research into a particular feature of one French accent might be important and interesting even if you don’t speak French – and why social facts about any linguistic feature might matter beyond the place where people speak with that feature. In this case, the café/secret example gives us a glimpse of the changing nature of what French people consider to be “prestigious”. It tells us what they want to emulate. Where once they might have sought to sound like they come from high culture, they now might prefer to emulate a linguistic culture that is more dynamic.

What started as an investigation of a few French vowels, surely a niche interest, ends up contributing evidence about something that might be important to more people: the relationship of capital cities and their hinterland. If people’s language is affected by the society they live in, then we can use language to learn about society – and that’s something that should interest us all.

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