Differences like hearing letters sounded at the end of words that are usually silent are among those you may have come across.
Reader Mary Douche, for example, told us that one of her south-west friends says moins as moinZ, even though in most of France the last consonant is not pronounced. At the opposite end of the country, in the north-east, they pronounce the T on vingt.
Lots of readers from the south notice the change that occurs in some of the nasal vowels there, such as Scheenagh Harrington, who said she loves the way people in Castres say ‘peng’ for pain and ‘demeng’ for demain.
According to Chris Sears, at the station in Bergerac they announce “the arrival of the tron”, while Nathan Phillips said he has picked up a Ch’ti accent – “I say shud instead of sud, because I live in the north”.
Reader Jane Dimba told us the northern expression ‘y drache’ for il pleut’, while Lesley Kirton said she is amused at how her husband, who spoke little French before coming to France, now has the accent of their mountain village in Ariège – “I am constantly correcting him, only to hear him talk with locals and they say exactly what he says – the last letters of many words sounded, especially the S, and lots of other differences.”
In a bid to chart such variations, linguist Mathieu Avanzi from the Catholic University of Louvain, in Belgium, has created the website francaisdenosregions.com where he blogs about regional differences in language and posts maps deriving from surveys he carries out among thousands of visitors.
He said regional French should be distinguished from a dialect. Similar to languages like Spanish or Italian, dialects developed separately from Latin while conventional French took a different course.
“Regional French is French from Ile-de-France, but which has gained a regional colour depending on the local dialects and history.
“If you hear someone speaking a dialect like Walloon or Picard, you won’t understand them, but with regional French, you usually can. There might be certain words that you don’t understand, but the general grammar and the syntax and sounds are more or less the same.”
Another difference is that dialects can have very restricted areas – down to a single village – but regional French may be similar across a large area. He said the most noticeable regional kinds are the ‘Ch’ti’ accent from the far north, the typical southern accent found from Marseille to Toulouse, and eastern accents which sound Germanic due to the influence of the Alsatian dialect.
“Before doing the survey I didn’t know, for example that in Ile-de-France [and a large central part of the northern half of France] they say persi for persil [parsley], whereas I always said persiL.
“Sometimes it’s hard to understand the logic and you really need a map per word. For example in the moinS area [south-west] they also pronounce the S on encens [incense], so we can deduce that in the south-west they say the S’s at the end of words; that seems to make sense. But in the north of France they say persi but they pronounce the L on the end of sourcil [eyebrow], whereas it’s the opposite in Belgian French.
He added: “I also never knew that in the south-east people say peuneu in stead of pneu. It comes from the fact that in the south they have tendency to add ‘eu’ sounds and they don’t like having a consonant followed by another one. They will also say un-eu peu-tit-eu fill-eu instead of une petite fille.”
Other typically southern features include adding a ng sound to the end of words ending in N or M. There is also a north-south split in the sound of the O in rose, which is an ‘open’ O (as in English pot) in the south, or closed (with very rounded lips, quite close to the English pronunciation) in the north.
Tradition has it that the ‘best’ or ‘purest’ French comes from the area of Tours, to the south-west of the capital, which, Mr Avanzi said, is due to the fact the royal court used to be based in the area. He said it is not appropriate to say it is ‘better’ than other versions, but it is true that French there is probably of the most standardised kind, with the fewest regional quirks – and such as you will usually find marked in dictionaries or used by most announcers on national radio.
However he said more and more specifically regional words are being included now, along with a note about the area of France they are from.