Why has Paris French mostly lost the distinction between /e/ and /ɛ/? As in, the difference between 'Je le ferai' and 'Je le ferais', 'poignée' and 'poignet', or more simply between the é sound and the è sound. According to Wikipédia (https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fran%C3%A7ais_de_France#Phonologie), these words are pronounced identically in nearly all of France. But in Canada, where I live, there's a noticeable difference between the two. What process caused them to merge in France?

This is a crosspost of the thread in the French Language StackExchange, so tell me if I've mis-tagged this or made any mistakes.

  • As I understand the Wiki article, Paris French mostly still retains this distinction (Il existe d'autres fusions phonémiques en France qui ne prédominent pas encore à Paris). – TKR Aug 14 '14 at 1:57
  • 3
    As for why this merger happens, that's often an unanswerable question in regard to sound change; we know what changes tend to happen but we can't predict when or under what circumstances they will happen. Probably the most that can be said is that vowels similar in quality are prone to merging, and that this is more likely to happen in more linguistically innovative regions (such as France, with its high population of immigrant second-language learners) than in more conservative regions (such as Francophone Canada). – TKR Aug 14 '14 at 2:01
  • Though it is certainly true that a final vowel position is one in which distinctions are easy to lose. By the time one has gotten to the end of the word, the inflection is pointless in most cases, and is liable to be slopped over. This is what happened to Vulgar Latin at around 0 AD, resulting in the loss of Latin final long vowels, the case system, the neuter gender, and a whole lot of other stuff. – jlawler Aug 14 '14 at 2:23
  • 3
    the contrast between /e/ and /ɛ/ is probably a universally weak one, the two vowels being quite close to each other both articulatorily and perceptionally. high german does have the distinction in theory (e.g. Beeren vs. Bären), but in practice the distinction is hardly ever made consistently by native speakers. likewise, in south korea, the distinction between ㅐ and ㅔ seems to be on the way out. – flow Aug 14 '14 at 21:05
  • TKR: the conservatism idea sounds very plausible to me, I like that. jlawler: That link is cool, thanks for sharing! To me (French is my second language), it's very confusing when I listen to French people because there is no difference between the future and conditional tenses in many cases, which can make comprehension difficult. flow: I understand what you mean. I had a friend who tried to teach me Korean and he just said that they're basically the same sound unless you're an old person :) – pantoute Aug 15 '14 at 0:54

As a Parisian speaker of French, I may overhear the problem since I intuitively sort out the quality of sound according to the spelling and the context, but I don’t feel that so many confusions occur at the end of words.
In French, since the final syllable bears the stress, it is least able to lose distinctions. So, the phenomenon jlawler points for Vulgar Latin should not happen in French. Indeed, the /e/-/ε/ distinction is largely lost in the middle syllables of words or phrases, when I feel it is still clearly made at the end. Clearly, some people may make confusions, especially in less frequently used words (e.g. the distinction between , fabric or wallpaper strip, and lai, lay [as opposed to clerical], two very infrequent words, is sometimes heard the wrong way round). But I have never been aware of a confusion on poignée/poignet.
The other example you bring in is, not by chance, a future as opposed to a conditional. Well, for the future tense, the link sent by jlawler is very interesting: the French future and conditional are crafted just as explained for Spanish, but, unlike the conditional, the future (at least in France, and for many decades) is being replaced by a new analytic form; in oral (France) French, one wouldn’t say “je ferai” but “je vais faire” in at least 90% of the cases. If you absolutely have to say it, you will pronounce “ferai” just like “ferais”, at least in Paris, hence the current misspelling (always the conditional form misused to note a future). But context normally tells you when it’s a future, and in general it isn’t. Now, since the future tense has dropped out of the oral language, I guess many children first discover it at school, at least for some forms, and at about the same time they learn that the digraph -ai- is pronounced /ε/: this is one of the few consistent rules of French spelling, and the future (and perfect) 1st singular forms are exceptions. (The Wikipedia article says that j'ai, quai, gai should be pronounced with a closed /e/, which sounds awkward to me.) Curiously, the future and still more the perfect are two tenses that are practically out of use.
By the way, I don’t know why we are taught to pronounce a closed /e/ in these forms (chantai, chanterai): I think very possible that at some point it was decided by grammarians in order to help distinguish the forms in oral speech, one or two centuries ago when they still were in use.
But conversely, if you take perfectly usual forms as present perfect of the 1st group and imperfect, j’ai chanté vs je chantais, the distinction always is very clear to the ear. So I don’t think that the distinction is being lost.
We must also note that this /e/-/ε/ opposition has no counterpart, in final open syllables, for the other medium vowel sounds, closed and open o, and /ø/-/œ/: in final positions you can only have the closed /o/ and /ø/ (with the only exception of the donne-le occurrence of final “e muet” in a stressed position, pronounced /œ/, or metalinguistic occurrences when you have to name a word like le, je, ce). So, being asymmetrical, it may be especially weak. The same may occur with the long e/ä opposition in Standard German (/e:/-/ε:/), which has no equivalent for long medium vowels (there are no long open o or ö), and maybe therefore is not consistently maintained.
A last question: has “France a higher population of immigrant second-language learners than Francophone Canada”, as TKR says? I am not sure how much these new dialects take part in this evolution, which I think has begun many decades ago.

  • Thanks for that, @DPeyeré. It cleared up something that's puzzled me since I took a few French lessons in prep for a working visit to Paris. I heard the teacher pronounce "étais" as /ete/ and, remembering my school teacher endlessly drilling us with /etɛ/ - first vowel closed, second open - I asked her to clarify. My teacher confirmed that /etɛ. was correct, then immediately [and I'm sure unconsciously] reverted to /ete/. – David Garner Apr 28 '15 at 15:09

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.