French Stress and Broad A’s

Pasta

Photo: Stu Spivack

We Americans perhaps assume that the British pronounce ‘foreign’ words more inaccurately than we do. As evidence, one might cite such foreign loans as ‘Mario,’ ‘pasta,’ and ‘cliché!’ At first glance, it might look as if Americans stress the correct syllable or use the correct ‘ah’ sound.

But that’s not quite right.  In many cases where the British seem to pronounce foreign words the ‘wrong’ way, we delude ourselves in thinking we are any more correct. In the case of the previous paragraph, for instance, most Americans treat the ‘a‘ in ‘Mario’ and ‘pasta’ the same as the broad ‘ah’ in ‘father:’ hence ‘MAH-rio’ and ‘PAH-sta.’ We would probably deem this more ‘correct’ than the British pronunciation, which uses the ‘short a’ in words like ‘cat.’

But in the original Italian, the vowel in these words is typically centralized, neither back (as in the American pronunciation) nor front (as in the British pronunciation). So one could argue that American ‘pasta’ isn’t any more correct than British ‘pasta.’  It’s just a different interpretation.

The same is true of ‘French stress.’ Here in the States, we pat ourselves on the back about our ‘authentic’ pronunciation of French words like ‘cliché,’ ‘gourmet’ and ‘buffet’ with the ‘correct’ stress on the second syllable. We find it odd when we hear Britons put the emphasis at the beginning of these words.

Yet this is ignorant of the fact that French in fact has no lexical stress.  While stress (when it occurs) tends to fall on the last syllable of words, the American pronunciation isn’t technically more ‘correct’ than the British.  Our perception of proper French stress, as was the case with the Italian examples, doesn’t quite gel with reality.

Given, it’s likely Americans pronounce Spanish words closer to their native realizations: the language is a more ubiquitous part of our culture.  (It is indeed amusing to hear an Englishman pronounce ‘cojones’ as if it were a near-rhyme with ‘honest.’) But as our bizarre pronunciation of ‘lingerie’ indicates, we’re just as likely to mangle foreign pronunciations as our friends across the Atlantic.  We’re in no position to judge!

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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28 Responses to French Stress and Broad A’s

  1. Charles Sullivan says:

    And don’t forget ‘Drama’ as a good example.

    • trawicks says:

      Although ‘drama,’ it should be noted, is also in the TRAP set for Canadians (who seem to have a weird mix of the two pronunciation standards).

      • CaitieCat says:

        I cannot think of a single Canadian I know who says drama with the TRAP vowel. It’s much, much closer to FATHER, at least in Southern Ontario.

        • Brandon H says:

          Well that’s southern Ontario, which is very close to the United States border. I have heard many Canadians say drama with the TRAP vowel FWIW.

  2. Peter S. says:

    My impression (possibly incorrect) is that Americans are more likely to pronounce Italian and Spanish words correctly, and Brits are more likely to pronounce French and Indian words correctly. I would assume this is because America is closer to Mexico, and has a large Italian population, while England is closer to France, and has a large population from the subcontinent.

  3. boynamedsue says:

    The British pron of pasta and Mario is definitely closer to the Italian sound. Pasta with the English “cat” vowel is recognisable to italians as the same word, and if pronounced with the same vowel at the end instead of a schwa, is within the range of Italian dialectal variation. The same is not true of the American father vowel (or at least I’ve never heard it).

  4. boynamedsue says:

    And cojones IS a near rhyme of honest, the American near rhyme with “Mahoney” (coh-oʊ-nes) is much further from the original Spanish than the English pron coh-ɒ-nes.

    • trawicks says:

      That’s a good point. Spanish /o/ is between [o] and [ɔ]. Given that many contemporary British accents have shifted LOT to or very close to [ɔ], it could be argued that it’s actually closer.

      What seems to happen is that we assign foreign phonemes to underlying English representations, finding these ‘correct’ even if they’ve strayed from the original foreign language. Americans see the Spanish ‘o’ as intrinsically linked to English GOAT, and the Italian ‘a’ as intrinsically linked to PALM. We hold on to this notion even if the English vowels hardly hardly match up.

      • boynamedsue says:

        That’s very true, we assign one of our own phonemes to anothether language’s sounds and find it difficult to accept that they aren’t the same in that language. The Italians are even worse than us in that respect, standard Italian speakers are often quite offended when native speakers pronounce the cat vowel closer to Italian “a” than Italian “e”. I’ve even been corrected for my “error” on occasions 🙂

      • Brandon H says:

        “Given that many contemporary British accents have shifted LOT to or very close to [ɔ]…”

        Which British accents are you referring to? I can’t think of any accents outside of Scottish accents that realize LOT as [ɔ].

        • trawicks says:

          I believe there has been a striking upward shift of LOT in Southern British English. Sarah Hawkins’ study ‘Formant frequencies of RP monophthongs in four age groups of speakers’ illustrated the difference between RP fifty years ago and RP now. Hawkins’ 20-25 year-old speakers show clear indications of a shift: LOT is significantly higher than DRESS, and approximately on the same axis as NURSE.

    • Paul Ó Duḃṫaiġ says:

      Of course Mahoney is a good example of an Irish name pronounced differently in America then it is in Ireland — though usually spelt as (O’)Mahony here. Another example of course is Reagan/Regan

  5. IVV says:

    But isn’t the broad-a centralized in many American accents?

    • trawicks says:

      It is in many parts of the Northern US. I think the General American short-a is an advanced [ɑ], so yes, it’s somewhat more centralized and/or advanced. That being said, contemporary British TRAP is often laxed or retracted (and fully centralized from the midlands northward), so I think it still works out that American FATHER can’t be said to be closer to Italian ‘a,’ unless you were comparing two specific accents: Cockney and Michigan, say.

    • Brandon H says:

      Yes, it is; in fact central [ä] for LOT/FATHER is considered Gen Am (cf. the Spanish/Italian vowel in map(p)a).

      Some English accents, including RP, have [æ] (or closer qualities) for TRAP words too, which often seems to be ignored. See Joanna Przedlacka’s 2001 paper on Estuary English and look at the EE and RP realizations of TRAP there. Also see Anne Grethe Mathisen’s 1999 study of the accent of Sandwell, West Midlands, which shows [æ] as the dominant realization of TRAP/BATH there.

      • boynamedsue says:

        The Spanish and Italian A’s are different from each other, and both are different from the Gen American [ä].

    • Brandon H says:

      Yes and it’s also [trɛp], [træp], [trap], [träp] and [trɑ̟p] (keeping in mind that “British” refers to England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland).

    • Dw says:

      1. There is no one “British” pronunciation.
      2. Broad transcription using // is different from narrow transcription using []
      3. Some British accents, e.g. most descriptions of Welsh English, have [a] in TRAP. Others, such as traditional RP, do not.

  6. Rhino1515 says:

    Southern Californian here who pronounces ‘pasta’ exactly like the multiple native Italian examples heard here: http://www.forvo.com/search/pasta/
    This is nearly the same pronunciation I’ve heard throughout the US, there being some variance especially among those in the Southern US, where to my ear it often sounds a bit more like a dipthong ‘a’ in Southern US CAT.
    Also, the usual US and Italian pronunciations are quite different to my ear from the British pronunciation I’m familiar with: a nearly US-sounding ‘a’ as in CAT and FAST.

  7. lynneguist says:

    In case you’re interested, I did quite a long post on French imports in AmE & BrE:

    http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2006/08/pronouncing-french-words-and-names.html

  8. French is my mother tongue and it has taken me quite some time to gather how to pronounce French words in English…and be understood!
    Even now that I have acquired a fairly decent command of English, I still stumble on words of French origin because my first reaction is to say them the way I know them: the French way! Apparently it sounds horribly conceited to English ears, not to mention difficult to understand, so I tried to adjust to the order of the day. What is so disturbing to me is the fact that one has to somehow ‘invent’ a stress which does not exist in French (as was mentioned in the above article).
    My verdict: with words of French origin, both sides of the Atlantic are pretty off. However, I’ve heard some serious butchering beyond recognition from American English speakers who seemed pretty confident about their pronunciation!
    This said, I have nothing against the anglicised version of the words: it is only fair, seeing as French people completely alter the English words they borrow and do not think twice about it.

  9. BK says:

    Part of the reason English speakers – especially those who know a little French – put extra stress on the last syllable of French words is overcompensation. In English we say PA-ris, and when we hear it pronounced correctly (no stress) it sounds like pa-REE. So we think that is how French sounds and overcompensate.