Accenting French

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The teacher at my advanced conversation course at the Alliance Française on Madison Avenue and 60th Street in New York was a French-Canadian. I detected no Canadian accent in either his English or his French.

Pierre – yes, that was his name – actually told me, when I asked him why his French accent seemed so non-Canadian, that he’d spent a few years in Paris, which had softened his native way of speaking. (I didn’t ask about his lack of a Canadian accent in English, which isn’t as marked to an American as French-Canadian pronunciation is to a Frenchman or even to an American learning French.)

The Quebecois accent is very strong, with a lot of local words (and even Americanisms) thrown in outside of whatever normal French pronunciation or vocabulary or even usage consist of. I’ve had a hard time following it sometimes. In fact TV5 Monde, the French-language channel, broadcasts most of the French-Canadian series with French subtitles.

I didn’t grow up hearing the French-Canadian accent, so I need to pay attention to its sounds to familiarize myself with the way certain French-Canadians speak French. You get used to different accents in a language when you live in it all your life.

My French friends who speak English have a hard time understanding Texan accents, for example, and most certainly can’t differentiate regional accents in American English or English-English as I can, or as any other native English speaker might be able to. Just as I can only begin to notice regional differences (and regional words) in French. Most French can’t tell the difference between someone speaking with a British accent or a relatively neutral American one. It’s just the indeterminate buzz of English, which to one of my non-English speaking French friends sounds like mush in any case.

Most languages sound like mush of some sort until you begin to become acquainted with hearing them. It was the same for me in French when I first began to learn it and I would overhear people on the street or the metro having totally incomprehensible conversations (now that I can make out what they say, I realize that most overheard conversations are generally incomprehensible anyway).

I have friends in France who come from the southwest and southeast and at first it was hard for me to understand some of what they were saying, until I became accustomed to how they pronounced words. It doesn’t take much for a word you think you know to become one that you don’t. Sometimes when my French friends refer to something in English I have to ask them to repeat it to get the sense. They occasionally think I’m correcting them, but I’m not – I repeat what they say to make sure I’ve heard the words I think they’ve said and that I’ve heard.

It can be even more difficult when the language isn’t your own. Not too long ago I was staying with my friend Raoul in Toulouse, where I met his uncle, who has a very strong Toulouse accent, much stronger than Raoul’s (perhaps Raoul’s long residence in Paris softened his accent a bit). His uncle speaks quite rapidly, too. Just when I thought I had become comfortable with Raoul’s slight Toulouse drawl, his uncle Maurice’s way of speaking reminded me I will never really immediately comprehend what’s uttered around me in French until I hear again and again many more people go on in many different local accents.

And they can be different in different families. My accent is not the same as that of my sisters or even my brothers. My sisters used to mock my way of pronouncing coffee – they insisted it should be “caw-fee” rather than my “cah-fee” – but perhaps my being schooled in Manhattan rather than in Queens made a difference in how I speak. Or perhaps I wanted to set myself apart from where I was living, where I came from or even whom I knew.

There’s no received pronunciation in America, as in Britain. I’ve read that in France the accent sometimes called Metropolitan French is the norm – that of in and around Paris. I’ve also heard that people from Lyon have what’s considered to be the best French accent. But I don’t know. In any event, you really can’t regulate how people sound, since language has its own life, though we ascribe various qualities to how it’s pronounced, or to the people who pronounce it. In the U.S., the accent of the nation’s biggest city, New York, isn’t the preferred accent. America is so big that no one single accent rules, though television has created an accent that is considered, perhaps, to be normal. It’s more neutral, a cross between Midwestern and Northeastern.

I’m neither a linguist nor a specialist in regional accents in my own or other languages. But like many people I hear differences in how people talk, and try to place where they’re from. This is a way of comprehending something about a person, sometimes even something that person wants to suppress. We’re all from somewhere, though not all of us want that somewhere to be known.

Pierre, my Alliance Française professor, sounded like he was from anywhere in English or French, at least to my relatively untutored ears. He grew up bilingual, and at ease in two languages and could change his pronunciation without too much effort. It was his choice, and apparently he worked to make himself sound the way he wanted to sound. He mentioned how odd he sounded to Parisians, and probably wanted to fit in, or he’d decided he preferred their accent to his.

My accent has been my choice too, at least in English, where it’s not recognizably a New York one but more geographically undetermined American. Regionalisms creep in, however, and you can never entirely erase your roots, even as you think how you sound makes you not who you were. I sometimes say “waiting on line,” rather than “waiting in line,” which betrays an East Coast upbringing.

In French, however, my accent might not be geographically specific, other than being decidedly that of a non-native speaker. I could never sound like a native speaker, and don’t expect to. What I do want is to be understood when I speak. Even if I don’t always want to show where it is I’ve come from. Still, I’m getting there, whether it’s making myself understood or accepting who I am and even who I was.

One thought on “Accenting French

  1. You know, southern French accents can be surprising, specially from Toulouse to Provence, but they are not as hard to understand as the northern, near from Belgium, one . Southern accent interferes a lot on nasalized vowels, “an”, “on”, but northern accent changes short vowels : the “a” is said like an “o” for instance . They also change some consonants sounds!
    And in Alsace they speak with a sort of German accent not easy to undestand for a foreigner .
    About Quebec it’s a bit complex . Basically they still use an accent from center-west France, regions called Berry and Vendée, but in the strong way from the XVIIIth century . When I was a kid I sometimes heard grandmothers from these regions speaking with the kind of accents they have in Quebec .
    They also refuse to use the dozens English words that became the norm in modern French, and they created French words that I sometimes can’t understand at first without thinking a little . But the thing is they sometimes translate literally US formulas while in France we use completely different words . I remember my first night in Montreal chatting with a guy who told me he was doing “tables tournantes” . I thought he was doing spiritism . This gave birth to the funniest dialogue for a while until he said it was for “systèmes de sons” . They translated “turning tables” and “sound systems” when in France we said “une platine” and “une chaîne stereo” .
    Beside these little points I could easily understand my Quebec friends from Montreal or Quebec city . The hard task began in the countryside, where I did the mistake of stopping by a farm to ask about my way . There was a very warmful old man who gave me a 2 minutes explanation . I swear you I didn’t understand ONE word, not even a little article . I was stunned ( but I showed nothing of this kind of course ), I said thank you goodbye and I didn’t even try to make him repeat .. But he was a beautiful and friendly old chap from the countryside .

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