Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles

Corpus et variation en phonologie du français : méthodes et analyses
(Corpus and Variation in the Phonology of French: Methods and Analyses)
Élisabeth Delais-Roussarie & Jacques Durand (Eds.)
2003, Toulouse : Presses Universitaires du Mirail
ISBN 2-85816-704-4
ISSN 1264-0441 372 pages, 28 €

Pierre Busuttil
Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour

This is a very useful manual for anyone interested in the scientific study of phonological variation and sociolinguistics field studies. Written in French, the book has three main parts and ten chapters. It opens on a long theoretical introduction (chapter 1) on linguistic variation by Jacques Durand, Bernard Laks and Chantal Lyche, which focuses on the inevitability of variation in languages and examines various approaches to the phenomenon, from the structural approach to Optimality Theory (OT). The organisation of this first chapter is as follows:

1.Theoretical linguistics and variation
2. Survey
2.1 Classical dialectology
2.2 Sociolinguistics
2.3 A few conclusions on survey methods
3. Interpretation and analysis of data
3.1 Classical dialectology and the philological tradition
3.2 Structuralism
3.3 Generative grammar
3.4 Sociolinguistics and quantitative method
3.5 Optimality Theory
4. Conclusion
5. Appendix

The different approaches are discussed, with particular attention to field work and the different ways to address the problems of group variation vs individual variation (external variation vs internal variation). Special tribute is paid to the ground-breaking initial work of such as Weinreich, Labov and Herzog. An important part of the chapter is devoted to the work of James and Lesley Milroy in Belfast, in which they study the close relationship between the use of a vernacular and the social structure of the group using it. This is to illustrate their recourse to urban ethnology techniques to emphasize the interaction between sociological and linguistic factors—dense (close-knit) networks in which all members know each other, as opposed to loose networks, in which members only have one to one relationships (Milroy, J. & Milroy L. 1978. “Belfast: Change and Variation in an urban vernacular,” in P. Trudgill, ed., Sociolinguistic Patterns in British English. London: Edward Arnold).

The authors then concentrate on generative grammar. They point out that SPE (Chomsky, N. and Halle, M., The Sound Pattern of English. Harper & Row. New York: 1968) is not preoccupied with variation other than dialectal—or geographical. Variation within one variety of language is only taken into account by SPE from a purely practical point of view. They point out, however, that Optimality Theory, contrary to SPE, has become an indispensable model in phonology: “all notions of derivations or operations are replaced by a set of constraints which are part of the universal grammar and make possible the definition of representations” [p. 56]. In OT, variation which evolves into linguistic change can be accounted for as the result of a conflict between different constraints. The authors put forward the idea that OT is a robust theoretical model which can adequately account for variation, whether intra– or inter–dialectal. This first chapter ends with a very useful thirteen-page list of reference works on the subject of variation.

The second part of the book—chapters 2 to 6—focuses on more practical matters.

Chapter 2 by Elisabeth Delais-Roussarie is entirely devoted to the setting up of an oral corpus and the different essential operations of recording, transcribing, tagging (morphological and syntactical) and annotating. Chapter 3, also by Elisabeth Delais-Roussarie, features a description of several freely available software packages to perform the operations described in the previous section:

- Soundscriber and Voicewalker: two transribers without internal editors,
- Soundwriter (wrongly called Soundwalker on p.1331) : a transcriber with an internal editor,
- CHILDES (CHIld Langage Data Exchange System): a system to build up exchangeable and reusable mulitilanguage databases. It consists of three modules: CHAT (Codes for the Human Analysis of Transcripts)—a set of principles and conventions aimed at facilitating transcription and analysis; CLAN (Computerized Language ANalysis)—an editor that can automatically analyse data saved in the CHAT format; and a database that contains fully tagged and transcribed corpora of children’s speech in thirty languages.

Chapter 4, by Elisabeth Delais-Roussarie, Abderrahim Meqqori and Jean-Michel Tarrier is entirely devoted to PRAAT, a software package written by Paul Boersma and David Weenink of the Institute of Phonetic Sciences at the University of Amsterdam. According to its authors, PRAAT is “a computer program with which phoneticians can analyse, synthesize, and manipulate speech, and create high-quality pictures for their articles and thesis” ( This chapter cannot, of course, rival the PRAAT extensive tutorial available on the University of Amsterdam’s website. It is nonetheless much more than a simple “how to get started” user manual, and the reader will find there very useful details on the different essential tasks involved in setting up, transcribing, tagging and annotating a corpus [pp. 165-66].

Chapter 5, by Jean-Michel Tarrier, is entirely devoted to sound recording and engineering. Tarrier concentrates first on the different types of hardware available on the market—both analog and digital (tape-decks, minidisc recorders, flash memory recorders, cd-rom recorders and microphones) and their advantages and drawbacks. He then gives a series of guidelines on how to chose the appropriate location to perform successful recordings—both inside and outside and on the adequate positioning of the mocrophone(s).

Chapter 6, dedicated to the PFC project (La phonologie du français contemporain / The Phonology of Contemporary French by Jacques Durand and Chantal Lyche) is very useful, not only because of its linguistic content, but also because it is a direct implementation of the principles exposed in the previous parts on the collection of linguistic data (interviews and recording). It is also a very valuable practical illustration of the work that can be performed with PRAAT. More information on the PFC and specific PRAAT functions (e.g. Transpraat) is available from the project’s website “Bulletins PFC2,” and also from La Phonologie du Français Contemporain (PFC): présentation et premiers résultats3.

The last part—chapters 7 to 10—is devoted to “Description and theorisation,” with four studies centred on the phonology of contemporary French:

- "A Brief Survey of French in Alberta (Canada)" by Douglas C. Walker,,
- "The Variability of French Schwa : a Syllabic Approach," by Georgi Jetchev,
- "Vowel Length in Lower Normandy French," by Jean-Pierre Montreuil,
- "The Law of Position and the French of Grenoble," by Chantal Lyche.

On the whole, the book really is what the editors claim it to be in their preface: it advocates, not congealed classical standardized descriptions of idealized states of any given language at any given time (here French), but, on the contrary, dynamic corpus-based approaches to linguistic problems, which take into account the different parameters of variation. Raw corpus-based studies are useless, the authors claim, if they do not lead to modelization phases: the four studies in the last section are apt exemplifications of that particular point.

A very good and enriching read indeed.



1 : Back
2 : back
3 : back



All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.