Sunday, 7 June 2009

French/English interference

At the Chambéry conference Nicolas Ballier of Paris Treize put forward an interesting hypothesis to explain two common errors French people make in pronouncing English. They tend to mispronounce rain as ʁɛn on the one hand and law as lo (or anglicized into ləʊ) on the other.
Ballier says it’s all to do with syllable structure expectations.
For many French speakers their vowels e and ɛ are in complementary or nearly complementary distribution, with the higher one, e, being used in open syllables and the lower one, ɛ, being used in closed syllables. Since rain is a monosyllable closed by its final consonant n, they tend to say it with their ɛ (which we perceive as our short e, the vowel of DRESS), rather than with their e (which we would tend to perceive as our of FACE).
In the case of law, on the other hand, we have an open syllable. The French vowels o and ɔ, too, are in complementary or near-complementary distribution, with the higher o again being preferred in open syllables and the lower ɔ in closed syllables. Although English law would sound much better with French ɔ than with French o, particularly if phonetically modified towards English-style ɔː, nevertheless the syllable structure inhibits its use.
If this is correct, we would also expect a tendency to use a DRESS-type vowel instead of FACE in make, place, same, plate, fail, etc., and conversely a GOAT-type vowel instead of a mid-open vowel in saw, draw, jaw etc. The letter r in the spelling acts to counteract this trend in words such as more, four, score etc., in which either a phonetic r of some kind or a virtual one in the mind causes these syllables to be felt as closed.
We would also predict a tendency to use a LOT-type vowel in words where English has the GOAT vowel in a closed syllable, as in ghost, rope, coat, home.
Obvious, when you think about it. But for some reason I’d never thought about it before.
To the extent that some French speakers preserve the distinction between les le and lait , paume pom and pomme pɔm, this ought not to happen. But I suspect that not very many do preserve these and similar minimal pairs.

2 comments:

  1. If I recall correctly, /ɛ/ in the final syllable is preserved only in words in -ais, -ait, and somewhat artificially at that; in other than word-final syllables, there is no opposition at all. I don't know the current /ɔ/ story, though.

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