4.7 Phonological Derivations in Canadian English and Canadian French

Phonological derivations might seem quite abstract and mathematical, but they represent processes that happen automatically in everyone’s mental grammar. This unit looks at a couple of the most common phonological processes in English that can be represented with derivations.

Check Yourself

Video Script

In the last unit we looked at some phonological derivations that are very common in the mental grammar of several varieties of English. I want to look now at some processes that are characteristic of particularly Canadian varieties of English and French.

Take a look at these pairs of words and say them to yourself.

I’m a native speaker of Canadian English; I grew up in Ontario and have lived more than forty years in this province, so my variety of English is probably fairly typical of the English spoken by white, middle-class, middle-aged Ontarians. I’m going to say these words for you and you listen carefully.

eyes ice
fried fright
rider writer
fly flight
rouse house
loud lout
gouge couch
bowed bout

The first four pairs of words have the diphthong /ɑɪ/, and last four pairs have the diphthong /ɑʊ/. But did you notice anything different between the words on the left and the words on the right? In my variety of English, the right-hand words have a higher vowel in the diphthong than the left-hand ones. This is regular, predictable, and in lots of places in the USA, is instantly recognizable as Canadian. If you’re talking to someone in the US and all of a sudden they interrupt you and ask, “Are you Canadian?” it’s probably because you just said the word house or about. This process is so strongly associated with a Canadian accent that it’s called “Canadian Raising”, even though it occurs in several US varieties of English too.

By looking at this list of words, can you figure out what environment predicts where the raised diphthongs will occur? Here’s a hint — it has to do with what follows the diphthong. The low back [ɑ] vowel gets raised to mid-back [ʌ] before a voiceless consonant. So using our notation of phonological derivations, we can say that the mental grammar of the average speaker of Canadian English includes this rule.

A low back vowel becomes [-low], that is, it gets raised to a mid-vowel, in the environment where it’s before another vowel — this is what makes sure our rule doesn’t apply to all vowels, just to diphthongs, and where the diphthong is followed by a voiceless consonant.

In Canadian English it also seems to be the case that the low back vowel becomes the low front vowel in diphthongs elsewhere, but this doesn’t get a cute name like Canadian Raising.

We’ve talked a lot about Canadian English, but not much yet about Canadian French, which differs in some systematic ways from the variety of French spoken in France. Here’s some data from Canadian French. Here are some pairs of French words that vary between tense and lax vowels: tout / touche, petit / petite, and truquer / truc. You already know these first two pairs of vowels: [u ʊ] high back rounded tense and lax, [i ɪ] high front unrounded tense and lax. This last pair [y ʏ] are high, front, rounded vowels, in tense and lax versions.

Now this isn’t quite enough data for us to be able to see the whole pattern, so I’m going to give you more words to look at. All the words in the left-hand column have tense vowels, and the right-hand words have lax vowels. Look at this pair of words, lunettes (glasses) and lune (moon). If we just look at the surrounding consonants, it looks like both the tense and lax vowels can appear in the same environment — they both have an [l] before them and an [n] afterwards. Let’s look more closely at the syllable structure of these two words. One word has two syllables and the other has just one. We know that the vowels go in the nucleus of each syllable, the first consonants of each word go in the onset of the first syllable, and the final consonant goes in the coda. But what about this [n] in the middle of lunettes? Remembering that onsets are greedy, it must be that [n] is in the onset of the second syllable in lunettes, even though it’s in the coda of lune. Now we can see that it’s the syllable structure of these words that predicts the environment for the tense and lax vowels.

These high vowels [u i y] are tense when they’re in a syllable with nothing in the coda, but they become lax [ʊ ɪ ʏ] when there’s a consonant in the coda. The other way of describing these two environments is as open and closed syllables: An open syllable is one without a coda, and a closed syllable is one that has a coda.

So this process, which is one of the ones that characterizes Canadian French as distinct from European French, lives in the mental grammar of Canadian French speakers as something like this rule: high tense vowels become [-tense] (that is, they become lax), in a predictable environment. How can we describe this environment? We know it has something to do with the syllable structure so we use this Greek sigma σ to indicate the syllable boundary. The position where this happens is in the nucleus, before the syllable boundary, and for a closed syllable there must be a consonant before the end of the syllable, that is, in coda position.

So we’ve looked at a handful of examples of phonological derivations that represent allophonic variation in our everyday speech. And we’ve seen that these processes can lead to variation across dialects: two varieties that have similar phoneme inventories might still sound different to each other because of different processes of allophonic variation!


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Essentials of Linguistics by Catherine Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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