Variation in Southeastern French nasal vowels and optimality theory

Anne Violin, Purdue University


This study examines variation in the pronunciation of nasal vowels in Southeastern French from two different points of view. In the first part, the pronunciation of nasal vowels is studied in detail in respect to the nasalization of the vowels as well as to their oral articulation. These results are compared to another variety of French which is used as a point of reference and called Reference French. Results of the perceptual analysis show that the majority of the vowels analyzed are similar to Reference French when it comes to nasalization, but different from Reference French in terms of the oral quality or articulation. These results are then analyzed through the introduction of social variables such as gender, age, education, and mobility. Though limited by the small number of participants, results show that working age participants as well as those with a higher level of education and mobility produce more forms that are similar to Reference French than the other participants. The perceptual analysis is complemented by acoustic measurements that support the claims made in the perceptual part. After a pattern of variation is established for the pronunciation of nasal vowels, the theoretical part of the analysis is carried out. Using the framework of Optimality Theory, different proposals that can account for variation are examined and compared. A solution encompassing non-ranked constraints, floating constraints, as well as co-phonologies shows that Optimality Theory can not only account for variation, but also predict the frequency of the realization of each variant rather accurately. Throughout the theoretical analysis, limitations of the theory are recognized and addressed as well as compared with the limitations of the previous main-stream theory, Generative Phonology. The comparison proves that Optimality Theory is better equipped to handle variation than Generative Phonology. Finally, the issue of learnability, which was one of the main criticisms against the Generative Phonology account of variation, is examined. A comparison between two proposals dealing with learnability shows that the algorithm proposed to account for the acquisition of Optimality Theory seems to grasp not only acquisition, but variation as well. ^




Major Professor: Becky Brown, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Language, Linguistics

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