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Friends in France (A Vowel Merger)

In the last twenty years or so, much attention has been paid to something like a new Great Vowel Shift in North American English, which in some respects resembles the original Great Vowel Shift, a major change in the pronunciation of English that took place in England between 1350 and 1500. Part of this development in contemporary American English is the merger between stressed [ɛ] and [æ] such that the traditional pronunciation of the former merges with that of the latter, which results, for instance, in the word friends sounding like France, or best sounding like bast, etc. This new pronunciation can be heard from mostly youngish female speakers in particular, although occasionally younger males also exemplify it.

Which brings me to the origin of this post, since it may be of more than passing interest to regular readers. While listening to a classical music station this morning (WMHT-FM), I perked up my ears when the female announcer introduced the next piece, Mozart’s Trio for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano in E-flat major, also known as the Kegelstatt Trio (K. 498). But where she intended to be understood as saying “friends” in describing the companions with whom Mozart customarily played skittles––the German word for ‘skittles’ being Kegel, hence Kegelstatt ‘bowling alley’, where musical myth has Mozart composing this trio––what I heard her say was “France,” then quickly realized my misperception and identified its cause. After all, nothing could mar the pleasure of hearing it again: I had played the clarinet part many times in my youth, with my mother Lydia Shapiro at the piano; then later in life with my wife Marianne Shapiro. As Mozart said to Salieri in Pushkin’s “little tragedy”: “Когда бы все так чувствовали силу/ Гармонии!”


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