Best Film of 2010: Sausage?

8 Jan

Earlier this week with one of my middle school English classes, I asked the students to reflect on the year 2010. They apparently remembered very little in the way of world events, aside from a volcano somewhere (Ireland?) and Rhianna’s concert in Marseille, so I decided to steer them towards a more accessible subject. “What films do you remember from 2010?” I asked them.

One of the quieter girls raised her hand quite excitedly.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Saucisse !” she answered, smiling.

Saucisse is French for “sausage.” At first I thought this might have been some French kids’ movie that I’d never heard of (or simply a mean joke on the English assistant), but the rest of the students in the class were just as clueless as I was. “Saucisse?!” several of them asked incredulously, while the rest just burst out with laughter.

But the girl was confident in her answer. “Mais oui !” She repeated the title, this time more slowly and with a distinct pause between the two syllables: [so sis].

The class had a collective a-ha moment (and more laughter) as we realised she was talking about Saw VI (using the French pronunciation of six, [sis]).

Apparently the similarity between the film title and the French word for “sausage” hasn’t gone unnoticed by the general public. A quick Google search reveals a number of French fanmade posters for Saw VI exploiting the pun, e.g.:

I'm pretty sure there's some meat-grinding in the film anyway

Of course, the English pronunciation of “saw” involves a lower / more open vowel than the French [o], namely [ɔ]. French actually has the same vowel (or at least a phonetically similar one). Compare the following two French words:

sot [so] – “silly” (masculine)
sotte [sɔt] – “silly” (feminine)

The question, then, is: why do the French approximate the English [ɔ] vowel (as in “saw”) with a more closed [o] (as in “so”), when the French [ɔ] is phonetically more similar?

One of my linguistic idols, John Wells, addressed this question last year on his blog, referencing a conference paper by Nicolas Ballier. He refers specifically to the French habit of rendering “law” as [lo] (sounds more like “low”). The explanation:

The French vowels o and ɔ, too, are in complementary or near-complementary distribution, with the higher o again being preferred in open syllables and the lower ɔ in closed syllables. Although English law would sound much better with French ɔ than with French o, … nevertheless the syllable structure inhibits its use.

In other words, the French [ɔ] almost always occurs in syllables that end with a consonant (closed syllables), whereas the [o] vowel almost always occurs at the end of a syllable (open syllables). This was the contrast we saw with sot and sotte above, and the same pattern can be seen abundantly elsewhere in the French language:

beau [bo] – “beautiful”
bonne [bɔn] – “good” (f.)
peau [po] – “skin”
port [pɔʀ] – “port”
gros [gʀo] – “fat” (m.)
grosse [gʀɔs] – “fat” (f.)
faux [fo] – “false”
folle [fɔl] – “crazy” (f.)

As a result of this systematic pattern, the French will prefer [o] in English open syllables that are supposed to have [ɔ], like “saw,” “law,” “gnaw,” etc.

This seems to suggest that [o] and [ɔ] have become allophones of the same phoneme in French, although this was not always the case. Traditionally, there have been minimal pairs such as paume [pom] and pomme [pɔm], but presumably many French speakers now use the latter pronunciation for both words. I’ll have to do some surveying to confirm this, because my intuitions are muddled — personally, I still make the distinction.

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