08 November 2009

La Joie de [ʒ]

It goes to show that you can learn something even from the trashiest of novels. The second-hand bookshop along my road has a habit of dumping Jilly Cooper novels on the £1 trolley outside the shop and, as Westminster Libraries are currently letting me down with all of the books I want to read involving a wait of at least a week, I have given into temptation. The latest involves a (stunningly pretty, of course) world-famous violinist who turns her hand (so to speak) to the "male-dominated world of conducting" after a botched suicide attempt leaves her without a very functional left hand. I have learnt a little about symphony orchestras but the most crucial thing was how to spell my favourite phoneme.

[ʒ] is the sound you hear in the middle of the word pleasure or the beginning of the French word joie--it's the gorgeous, sensual sound that is technically known as a voiced palato-alveolar fricative but that's not very catchy. You get a lot of them in French thanks to the two waves of palatalisation, which took place in the language in the second to third (first wave) and fifth to ninth (second wave) centuries. In the first wave, the hard Latin [k] and [g] sounds (as in the beginning of English cat and gob), when pronounced before [e] and [i], gradually came to be articulated further forward in the mouth, near the palate, in anticipation of the vowels, producing the sounds [t'] and [d'], which became [ts] and [dʒ] (as in pretzel and ridge) and, later, [ʃ] (shh) and [ʒ] (pleasure). This is how you get the soft palatal sound at the beginning of the French word gens from the hard [g] at the start of the original Latin gentem. In the second wave, a similar series of changes took place in words where [k] and [g] were followed by [a], which is how the French jambe with the soft [ʒ] comes from the hard Vulgar Latin gambam.

In English, of course, it depends at which stage we borrowed the word from French as to whether the sounds are unpalatalised (as in cat rather than the palatalised French chat), palatalised but with the pretzel/ridge sounds (as in chamber (vs the French chambre), which comes from the Latin camera), or palatalised with the shh/pleasure sounds (as in siege).

Nonetheless, [ʒ] is, sadly, quite rare in English and certainly doesn't merit its own letter in our over-crowded alphabet. Quite often, however, I need to use it in writing to make clear what I mean. For example, I often want to transcribe a shortened form of usual to [u:ʒ], which I often use in colloquial speech. But how? Writing use could easily become confused with the word use, us' is similarly no good and usu' is a vowel too far. However, in Jilly's book, one of the characters uses the word caszh, which is clearly a shortened form of casual which has the same palatal sound in the middle as usual.

It's quite a clever solution, really, given that in French phrasebooks, the sound is often given as [zh] in the transcription for English people. It annoys me a little because "z" and "h" don't really bare any resemblance to the sound but then, when has the English alphabet ever fitted the sounds in our language (actually, there was a pretty good fit in the 12th century)? In an ideal world, of course, I would switch over to IPA when I wanted to make myself clear but it's likely that only the rare species Alumnus linguisticus would really understand. Perhaps the only solution is to move to France where [ʒ] is business as uszh.

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