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Wednesday, 6 June, 2001, 17:34 GMT 18:34 UK
Vive la difference
The French Legion on Bastille day
France no longer marches to the same tune
By Hugh Schofield in Paris

A linguistic revolution is under way in France as denizens of the Midi, Alsace and Picardy fling off the conformity of the past and learn to celebrate their vocal diversity.

Regional accents are in.

Whether you speak with the nasal twang of the south, the Germanic gutturals of the east or the rounded vowels of the north, suddenly that's all "parfaitement acceptable".

"In the past, if you came to Paris with a strong southern accent and applied for a job, you changed the way you spoke," says linguistics expert Henriette Walter. "But now no-one blushes about having a different accent. On the contrary - people actively cultivate it."

Thick burr

A sign of the times is that telecommunications companies such as Bouygues and SFR have started recording messages with regional actors; radio and television news is less rigidly mono-accented; and advertisements for countryside products are voiced in the French equivalent of a thick West-country burr.

"The telephone operators have realised that people prefer to be greeted by an accent from their own region," says Fernand Carton, Linguistics Professor at Nancy University, who has worked with the telecoms companies. "So now if you call from Marseille someone with a Marseille accent will reply."

EuroDisney near Paris
The fear of uniformity may explain it

What lies behind the change?

The gradual erosion of France's historical character as a rigidly centralising state.

Compared with Britain, France has extremely few regional accents. That is because of the way over the centuries the government in Paris has strenuously sought to impose a cultural and educational uniformity across the length and breadth of the country.

In the same way that regional languages were suppressed, so were regional accents discouraged. The surest way to get on in the world was to make sure you spoke in the same way your boss did.

Learning French

The clearest accent to survive is that of the Midi, which is spread over a broad swathe of the south of the country.

"You have to remember that a century ago most people in Provence didn't speak French, but Provencal," says Philippe Blancher, linguistics professor at Rennes university. "The inhabitants learned French as a foreign language and kept the pronunciation of the original - Provencal."

Thus bread and wine is not "pain" and "vin" but "pang" and "vang". And every syllable is clearly pronounced, including a final "e". Thus "France" becomes "France-er."

Along the German border people have difficulty separating their "t"s and "d"s and their "g"s and "c"s, so "tende" sounds like "tente" and "goutte" sounds like "coute."

And up in the north they have a tendency to swallow their vowels, so that "pas" becomes "pos."

But most other differences have been ironed out. A French Professor Higgins would find it frustrating work.

Times have started changing though. Last month education Minister Jack Lang announced that regional languages such as Breton and Basque will be part of the school curriculum.

Decentralisation is on the political agenda, and the increasing acceptance of accents is part of the same trend.

"Behind the fear of globalisation is the fear of uniformity," says Henriette Walter.

"In the past people wanted to be indistinguishable from everyone else. But no longer. Now an accent is like a flag. They're saying 'Look at me. This is who I am!'"

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