Gender and Liaison in French: a Paradox within a Paradox?
2022-04-12, 11:30–12:00 (Europe/Vienna), Room 4

According to what has become known as the Gender Paradox, ‘Women conform more closely than men to sociolinguistic norms that are overtly prescribed, but conform less than men when they are not’ (Labov 2001: 293). This generalisation, supported by considerable empirical evidence, would predict that, for any sociolinguistic variable, women will use more of the standard or prestige variant than men where variation is stable, but more of the innovative variant where change is in progress. Such predictions are, however, defied by the evidence of liaison in French, a phenomenon which involves variable pre-vocalic realization of word-final consonants (e.g pas [z/Ø] encore; il commençait [t/Ø] à lire). Here no consistent pattern emerges: while Malécot (1975); De Jong (1994) and Meinschaffer et al (2015) report greater use of liaison among women, Ashby’s (1981) data show men leading women, and Ranson (2008) finds no significant gender difference, a finding confirmed for the Phonologie du Français Contemporain (PFC) survey by Durand et al (2011: 128).

For French politicians, however, a much clearer picture emerges. Laks & Peuvergne (2017) note a steady decline in many forms of liaison in political discourse, with women consistently leading this change, as Labov’s claim would lead us to expect. We can thus find a ‘typical’ gender pattern only by looking at an extremely atypical group of speakers, for whom the usual explanations for the gender paradox cannot apply. Women are generally found to introduce forms from outside their speech community but, far from being innovative, non-liaised forms are in fact the default forms in all francophone communities. Women’s innovation has been linked to accommodation with a broad network of social contacts, yet the pattern observed is found only in public speaking, i.e. a style associated with uninterrupted monologue, which does not involve interaction with others.

A more promising approach reframes the question in terms of power and authority, which have largely been denied to female politicians in a country which has never had a woman President, and whose sole female Prime Minister lasted less than a year. Drawing on my own and others' data, I shall argue that liaison signals not formality as is generally assumed, but rather the authority of the written word, which exerts inordinate power in France. A consequence of their limited experience at the highest level is that women are far less likely than men to be required to demonstrate the authority of office or the bearing of a statesperson, and to adopt an appropriate speech style in doing so.


Ashby, W. J. (1981b) French liaison as a sociolinguistic phenomenon. In: W. W. Cressey and D. J. Napoli (eds.), Linguistic Symposium on Romance Languages 9. Georgetown University Press: Washington, DC. 46-57.
De Jong, D. (1994) La sociophonologie de la liaison orléanaise. In: C. Lyche (ed.) French generative phonology: retrospective and perspectives. Salford: European Studies Research Institute. 95-130.
Durand, J., B. Laks; B., Calderone & A. Tchobanov (2011) Que savons-nous de la liaison aujourd’hui? Langue française 169: 103-135.
Labov, W. (2001). Principles of Linguistic Change, Vol. 2: Social Factors. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers
Laks, B. & C. Peuvergne (2017) ‘La liaison en français contemporain dans la parole publique (1999-2015)’. Journal of French Language Studies 27/1: 55-72.
Malécot, A. (1975) French liaison as a function of grammatical, phonetic and paralinguistic variables. Phonetica 32: 161-79.
Meinschaeffer, J.; S. Bonifer & C. Frisch (2015) Variable and invariable liaison in a corpus of spoken French. Journal of French Language Studies 25, 367-96.
Ranson, D. (2008) La liaison variable dans un corpus du français méridional : l’importance relative de la fonction grammaticale. In J. Durand; B. Habert & B. Laks (eds) Congrès mondial de linguistique française. Recueil des résumés et CD-ROM des actes. Paris: Institut de Linguistique Française & EDP Sciences. 1657-71.

I've worked for thirty years at the University of Kent, where I've been, at various times, Head of French, Russian, and English Language and Linguistics. My first love, however, is French: as a sociolinguist I've worked on dialect death and the emergence of regional French varieties in the north, and more recently on the variable phenomenon of liaison, which involves variable realization of normally silent word-final consonants (e.g. in 'pas [z/Ø] encore'). Generally though I'm interested in anything that gives me an excuse to go back to France!