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Variation and change in the pronunciation of Parisian French - a multifaceted approach

The Carlsberg Foundation's 'Semper Ardens' Fellowships within the Humanities and Social Sciences


The Parisian variety of French has long been considered the phonetic standard for French in France, but seems now involved in rapid changes. This raises the question of its continued linguistic prestige. We will investigate how Parisian French pronunciation has changed over the last 25 years, and how present-day speech in the French capital is evaluated by other speakers in France. The project explores and discusses sound change mechanisms based on the data collected: How do we distinguish variation between younger and older speakers from real language change? By which methods can we attest how the changes progress in the speakers' linguistic and cognitive systems? What can we learn about the national phonetic norm when we let other Frenchmen react to speech from the supposed norm center?


The proposed study of the current Parisian sound changes and their acceptance in the French population is important in many respects: • National linguistic standards used in school and media (like in France or Denmark) are often conservative. When they change, it has societal consequences, not only for teaching at a national level and to foreign learners, but also for models used in modern speech technology such as speech synthesis and recognition. • Our knowledge about the specific recent changes in Parisian French, and indeed of French speakers' evaluation of it, is very limited. • The present theories and methods used in studies of sound change need continuous testing, development, and refinement. The proposed project is an ideal case for contributing to this scientific field.


• In order to find out what has really happened in Parisian French pronunciation over the last decades, I will compare data that I gathered in Paris in 1989-1993 with data gathered in 2011-2015. The data sets are socially comparable and both contain more than one generation of speakers and two speech styles. • To investigate how far the changes have proceeded in the vocabulary of the speakers, I will do a lexical analysis on the data. • To see to what extent the capacity of distinguishing traditionally different sounds has deteriorated, I will analyse data from cognitive tests with three generations of Parisian speakers. • Finally, I will analyse results gathered in seven French cities from tests where the participants (a total of 285) convey their attitudes to French from Paris.


This project will keep us updated on developments in an important national variety of one of Europe's major languages, namely Parisian French, and provide insight in the future phonetic reference norm for French in France. Changes in the national norm for French must be reflected in the standard used in the teaching of French as a foreign language in Denmark, and thus the project has implications for teaching material and manuals at all levels of French teaching in the Danish educational system. The general knowledge about the way in which sound changes come about and when they can be considered completed can also be exploited in practice in modern speech technology that uses accepted standard phonetic norms in models for speech synthesis and speech recognition.