Date: Wed, 4 Sep 1996 13:56:11 CDT


Subject: Re: American accent

The French have a reputation, only partly deserved, of cringing whenever

an American accent is within earshot. A lot of this stuff is pragmatic,

though. Americans can often be spotted in the distance, long before they

open their mouths, by their styles, the way they walk and act (I know

that all of this is hopelessly subjective, so please don't ask me to

explain this last remark). So the situation is already set up for a

particular reaction to American speech habits, which have become

stigmatized by association with other things rather than with the

particular way French phonology is contorted, which of course varies

widely depending on the individual and his/her background in French.

My French is good enough that I never got anything but compliments for

nine years that I spent in France. So I am a good counter-example to

the generalization, but in a way that underlines the strength of

perceptions: I was rarely ever pegged by the French as having an

"American accent"; they always thought I was from England or Belgium

or someplace else--and occasionally, they even thought I was French--

because Americans have a reputation over there for not being able to

speak French very well. One other note of interest, Americans over there

are often said to have a nasalized accent. This seems strange coming from

a people whose language includes contrastive nasals, but, in fact, that

may be part of the explanation of this perception. Americans can flame

away with nasality overlaying all their vowels without even being aware

of it, whereas the French, for whom it phonemically contrastive, are

thereby more perceptually sensitive to it. But then Americans say the

same thing about the French sometimes because of all the nasal vowels

they hear punctuating French speech at regular intervals. So the

perception works both ways, but not necessarily for the same reasons.

Just a theory.

Mike Picone

University of Alabama