aʒɛnda, aʒɛ̃da, or aʒɑ̃da?

On getting phonetically and phonologically old

Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

Twenty years ago, Harrington et al. (2000) published a paper entitled “Does the Queen speak the Queen’s English?”. They analyzed the acoustic evolution of vowels from recordings of Queen Elizabeth II’s annual Christmas message between the 1950s and 1980s. They found that some of the Queen’s vowels in their most recent recordings were influenced by an accent “typically associated with speakers who are younger and lower in the social hierarchy”. It is as if the Queen was getting phonetically younger.

I’m feeling phonetically and phonologically rather old these days. Phonetically, the affrication of plosives before high vowels (la phonétique [foneik], c’est dur [yʁ]), which used to be highly stigmatized when I was growing up, has become more widespread (although AFAIK it’s still regarded as non standard). Phonologically, compared to standard French, my native Southern variety had an additional phoneme: when I was a child, people around me had a different phoneme in hein [ɛ̃] and un [œ̃]. So, nowdays, my students and I have different phonological inventories…

But the phenomenon that really makes me feel phonologically old occurs when students don’t pick the same phoneme as I would in a word (which is rare though). About 7 or 8 years ago, I noticed that a few students used /ɑ̃/ (rather than the usual /ɛ̃/) in the word ag__en__da. Since then I’ve conducted the same informal survey every year and found out 3 years ago that the preferred pronunciation was /ɑ̃/. This year, in a group of 15 3rd year students, only one of them had the historical variant, /ɛ̃/.

The most frequent1 phonological interpretation of the <en> digraph is /ɑ̃/; /ɛ̃/ and /ɛn/ being the other two - less frequent - possibilities. So is this a case of regularization in younger speakers? As it turns out, all of those surveyed still had /ɛ̃/ in Benjamin or appendice (so the answer is no). Could it be that <gen> is processed as a whole unit, in which case, given that gens, agent, gentil, genre (etc.) all have /ɑ̃/, the /ɑ̃/ in agenda would be a regularized phonological reading of <gen>?

I don’t have a clear answer to this. All I can suggest is that the process was probably facilitated by the fact that 1) nasal vowels are intrinsically hard to distinguish from one another, and 2) the second syllable in a three-syllable word is generally the least salient position in French.

As far as I can tell, this phenomenon is pretty much isolated in the lexicon. Some people have suggested to me that there might be a regional component to it.

Now, to be fair, phonology has just a very small impact on my feeling linguistically old; lexical-semantic differences with the younger generations clearly have greater repercussions!


Harrington, J., Palethorpe, S. & Watson, C. Does the Queen speak the Queen’s English?. Nature 408, 927–928 (2000). https://doi.org/10.1038/35050160

  1. That’s my intuition as a native speaker. ↩︎

Emmanuel Ferragne
Emmanuel Ferragne
Professor of Phonetics