Denseman on the Rattis

Formerly known as the Widmann Blog


Spoken French

Spoken and written French are so different that they can probably be considered two separate languages.

Nevertheless, most language courses and grammars ignore this issue and try to teach some sort of compromise language in which ‘money’ is argent, ne isn’t dropped, and the passé simple isn’t used.

Street French” is one attempt at solving this, but it focuses too much on slang, and it still spells everything in normal French orthography.

Why hasn’t anybody created a language course and grammar of spoken French in which everything is given in IPA instead?

E.g., here’s the present tense of m???e ‘to eat’:

im??? (?lm???)
im??? (?lm???)

A dialogue could look as follows:

k?m?? tytap?l?
??map?l le??.
ta d f?ik?
n??, ?e pa d f?ik.

If only I was better at French, and if only I thought such a course would sell, I’d write it myself!

4 thoughts on “Spoken French

  • I suppose one could say you’ve answered your own question with the phrase “if only I thought such a course would sell”. But actually I wouldn’t be too confident there hasn’t actually been a language course or grammar in IPA. It seems to have been in surprisingly widespread use in British schools at one time. I believe my father first experienced French through IPA in the 1930s or 40s, at an ordinary British state school.

    In your paradigm of spoken French (the tilde seems to have fallen off the infinitive by the way and the 3rd person plural is only masculine), you’d surely want imɑ̃ʒ rather than ilmɑ̃ʒ. And that random apostrophe in ta d’fʁik, which means an ejective in IPA, is surely testament to the pull of conventional orthography! If you’re only interested in the sounds, why bother to show that an orthographical letter has been omitted?

  • Thanks for the corrections, I’ve changed the article accordingly! My reasoning for d’ was that the word sometimes is , sometimes d, but I accept it was a bit odd-looking.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if such courses existed back then – similar courses were used in Danish schools for teaching English in primary schools. However, I have a feeling they would have contained the pronunciation of written French, rather the actual spoken language (e.g., ʒə nə se pa rather than ʃe pa).

  • Absolutely, but that’s just where we come up against the problem with the idea of a spoken transcription (and indeed the idea of spoken French as a separate language, I’d say) — how colloquial, and whose speech should it transcribe? Should it be [ʒə nə se pa] or [ʒən se pa] or [ʃe pa] or what? Where do regional varieties come in? The more you try to reflect phonetic reality in your writing system the more exclusive you become. These are of course the same stumbling blocks that (IMHO) render all but the most superficial models of spelling reform largely undesirable as well as impractical.

  • I totally agree. I don’t think it’s unreasonable, however, to base a language course on one specific regiolect, such as Parisian French as spoken by educated people around the age of 40.


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