Taylor, Jill, 1995:

Sound Evidence: Speech Communities and Social Accents in Aix-en-Provence

Berne: Peter Lang. Pp. 336.
Paperback: ISBN 3-906756-08-4, 36.00


reviewed by

Stephen F. Noreiko

Department of French, The University of Hull, HU6 7RX
E-mail: s.f.noreiko@french.hull.ac.uk
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First published in Web Journal of Modern Language Linguistics in association with the publishers (to be announced). © 1996 Stephen F. Noreiko.

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This study claims a dual importance: as an account of the Aix accent and social variations within it, and for its methodology, which, by applying the technique of Cluster Analysis borrowed from computational statistics, defines speech groups on linguistic criteria, without a-prioristic labelling.

The author offers some justification for her choice of Aix in terms of the character of the town and its recent demographic history, but the main reasons are the availability of laboratory facilities and of course her own familiarity with it. This enabled her to pick her panel of informants on a friends of friends basis, and, while using an outline questionnaire, to elicit spontaneous speech. There are obviously advantages and drawbacks to this: the sample is small, and over and over in her discussion Taylor is forced to admit that more controlled elicitation would be needed to confirm her conjectures. And then again, the sample may not be representative: for example, Taylor admits that there are no members of the clergy. Since part of the discussion of differences between lawyers and doctors turns on the nature of their relationship with clients, the case of the clergy might have been instructive.

French linguists study regional variation; the British study social accents: a truism, but valid enough, as Taylor points out. What she does here is both. Establishing the typical features of the regional accent (partial nasalisation and use of consonantal appendage, quality of mid-front and mid-back vowels, and of course schwa), Taylor then examines the social characteristics of the groupings within this revealed by Cluster Analysis. She also cross-checks her results against perception tests carried out with a panel of students (promising more on this in a further publication).

It is easy for a reviewer to say that none of the results are particularly surprising, but though the reader is at times frustrated by the limits of the one-woman study, it all makes sense. Taylor uncovers for example that males tend to see themselves as Mediterranean (and prove it in their accents), women as Aixoise, and both sexes as Provençal. Her account of the fascinating dance of the back-mid vowels, moved by awareness of local variants and their status, and perceptions and mis-conceptions of the Standard French system would on its own justify reading the book.

But above all, she establishes that there is a clear consciousness of a regional identity, and measures the extent to which various groups appear to be seeking to conform to it. Approaching the national standard signals education and progress, but it could also be read as disloyalty and thus trigger lack of trust: the regional standard is a delicate and evolving compromise.

There are criticisms. Never knowing myself in which language homage has two Ms, I can sympathise with the way Taylor hedges her bets on pages 9 and 23. But her style is often clumsy, particularly when she discusses generalities, and I was worried by apparently unjustified discrepancies in transcription of schwa (I accept a barred O on page 98, but why the shift from inverted E on page 66?).

The typography of the book is clumsy: word spacing varies erratically, with widowed colons beginning lines and "Mutee" in the table of contents; line spacing varies with the presence or absence of ascenders and descenders. This does not make for comfortable reading.

I would also question the way in which Taylor refers so glibly to schwa in Provençal. I'm not sure there is such a thing. The Provençal name of the town she studies might appear in French transcription to have two schwas, but in Ais-de-Provença they are two different sounds, and the middle syllable of e.g., libramen shows a third. It also worried me that she regularly referred to Provençal in the past tense.

For all that however, Sound Evidence is a valuable and interesting book. I would like to think that now Taylor has shown the way, we may look forward to further studies of this nature.


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