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French Phonological System Notes

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French Phonological System Revision

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Olivia Alter

HT4 Dr Temple

How accurate is it to describe French as having a stable phonological system?
A phonological system is one which provides a language with an inventory of its particular phonemes (these being the speech sounds which are used to distinguish one word from another, such as /p/ and /b/ in 'pet' and 'bet' respectively). Every language has a system to organise these distinctive phonic units, and over the years studies have collected data in order to come up with a set of universals - statements about the structure of these systems, and the tendencies of most languages. For example, the minimal vocalic system consists of /i/ /a/ and /u/, since languages are likely to use vowels that are most perceptually different from each other to make it easier for listeners to observe the distinction. Nevertheless, using the phrase 'vocalic system', as opposed to a consonant system, suggests that languages are polysystemic1; that is, there are different systems for the various conditionings of phonemes. So it must be questioned whether French can be described as having just one phonological system. And seeing as 'polysystemic' could imply an inherent instability, since a balance would then be required between the varying systems in a language, the question must also be asked whether a phonological system can indeed be stable, and what is meant by 'stability'. 'Stability', in a synchronic description, would seem to have the sense of a language being in a fixed state, like when a system is presented in a table. Doing this, however, means that features are often missed out. For example, the quadrangle applied to vowels does not include long vowels or diphthongs, which are considered distinctive units in some languages. Nor does a table depict oppositions and the frequency with which these occur. The problem with employing the term 'stability' is that we know languages are constantly evolving, and it would be especially strange to depict French as stable, a language whose linguistic history has been traced back to Latin and shows such advancement from this. Thus the structuralist and functionalist approaches to phonological systems are inconvenient too, because they insist on portraying systems as stable2, and using rules like normalisation do not account for variability within languages, whether this is synchronic regional variations or diachronic evolutional changes. 1 2

Lass, R. (1984) Ayres-Bennett, W. & J. Carruthers, with R. A. M. Temple (2001)

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