Journal of French Language Studies

When perception isn't reality: Accent identification and perceptual dialectology in French 1

a1 French Department, University of Exeter, Queen's Building, The Queen's Drive, EXETER, EX4 4QH e-mail:

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This article examines levelling and diversity in northern urban French pronunciation through the optic of folk (= non-linguists') perceptions of variation. These perceptions are investigated by the identification of authentic voice samples (rather than other instruments widely used in perceptual dialectology such as mental mapping): respondents from the Pays de la Loire region of north-western France heard extracts of scripted speech from Nancy and Rennes, and were asked to identify the speakers' regional background and say whether they were of urban or rural origin. The results of this test show that while some difference between the two speaker location groups was accurately perceived, the informants also formed some inaccurate judgements, partly based on social stereotypes. Overall there is some confirmation of accent levelling, and of general social psychological tendencies such as stereotyping, annexation and time-lag in perceptions of regional–social linguistic variation.

(Received May 2006)
(Revised June 2006)


1 I am grateful to the editors, readers and to Aidan Coveney for their helpful comments on drafts of this article. Naturally, I alone am responsible for any errors that remain. I am also greatly indebted to Nigel Armstrong and Marie-Anne Hintze for their involvement in the design of the Pays de la Loire perceptual study, as well as to the fieldworker, Tracy Agnew, and all of the subjects who kindly participated in the test.