Gender Assignment & Word-final Pronunciation in French - Two Semantic Systems
Margaret à Beckett
Previous phonological, morphological and semantic analyses of gender in French cannot fully account for gender assignment and changes in word-final pronunciation for French nouns or for loan words entering the French lexicon. The writer's own experiences, and the extensive research of Tucker et al. (1977) into the ability of native French speakers to predict gender assignment accurately, suggested the potential for underlying rule-based phenomena. Until now, the intuitive recognition of the significance of word-final phonology that suggested some formal link with gender assignment has provided only limited predictability.
This study argues that French gender assignment and word-final pronunciation can be explained more adequately with reference to semantic principles similar to those of the morpho-syntactically complex classifier systems found in languages of Africa, Asia, Australia and South America. Like some of those languages, French involves not one but two separate, independent nominal classification systems. The primary classification system relates to gender through agreement and is semantically determined in terms of a limited range of oppositional features linked to masculine or feminine. An equally important secondary nominal classification system, also semantically determined, reflects a different set of oppositional features encoded on the noun through word-final surface phonetic constraints. Features pertaining to gender concern binary oppositions in form, mode of existence, and quantity. Features pertaining to word-final pronunciation concern binary oppositions in dimension, time and space. Many of the features in the French system occur as organising principles in other languages (eg. animate:inanimate, etc.). For living entities, attributes concern nature and the various ways that organic matter is perceived.
In some cases, alternative gender assignments may reflect multiple salient features, eg. aigle (M/F) 'eagle' associated with contrasting classifications (diurnal/masculine, free/feminine). For male:female pairs of a kind (humans, animals), multiple features may also be expressed in alternative word-final pronunciations, through retention or reduction of the final consonant, or through different suffixes. These surface phonetic constraints constitute a third system – a phonological template – whereby the reduced/shorter forms co-occur with masculine gender, and non-reduced more complex forms with feminine gender. These principles are found in the early development of Old French and are maintained in agreements in Modern French. This phonological template can account for strongly-held views regarding associations between gender assignment and word-final pronunciation.
This account is motivated by the different treatments concerning historical changes, loan words, synonyms, and alternative classifications found for some nouns – except those few whose masculine gender has become 'fossilised', reflecting older sociocultural norms, or whose reclassification to masculine appears to have been imposed. It provides an explanation for gender assignment and word-final pronunciation that challenges earlier accounts, and has implications for the many languages where nominal classifications heretofore remain unexplained. This explanation calls into question the dichotomy generally drawn between Noun Class languages on the one hand and Classifier languages on the other since the French systems reflect characteristics of both.
ISBN 9783895869679. LINCOM Studies in French Lingustics 09. 836pp. 2010.