J’Adore Mon McCafé (dans mon Cubliclé)

It’s always fun to see how marketers attempt to add an exotic foreign language “je ne sais quoi” to their product line, and one of the better ones (IMHO) was the McDonald’s McCafé line which attempted to show how this extraordinary brew could add a touch of French elegance to your daily commute (commuté).

Aside the cheesy sociolinguistic aspect (as documented by Mark Liberman on Language Log), I do think think this does give a little bit of insight into how our grammar treats French (and pseudo French) borrowings.

When analyzing borrowings into a language, it is clear that some languages are a little more privileged than others. For some languages like French, most English speakers will actually make an attempt to pronounce the words “correctly” (the same is true for Spanish in the U.S., but not necessarily outside North America).

For instance, we “know” that French words have stress on the final syllable, drop the final consonant and have /wa/ clusters where English doesn’t (e.g. quoi /kwa/, DuBois /dubwa/ and croissant /krwasã/). If you’re really talented, you may even try to replicate the nasal vowels such as the one in en suite (/ã swit/) as something like /ã/ or maybe /ãn/, but not plain /an/

On the other hand, if the borrowing is from another language like Hindi, Japanese, Welsh or even a native American language, the same effort isn’t usually made (unless an individual speaker knows the language). The reason for the status of French and Spanish is of course due to both proximity and cultural history. There’s enough contact between the two populations that many English speakers have developed linguistic tools to categorize and pronounce these words differently.

For instance both French and Spanish introduce /pw/ and /kw/ consonant clusters, particularly consonant+w /Cw/ which are normally not allowed in English. French words are also marked as having word-final stress, even though the normal English stress pattern is NOT word-final stress. In phonological terms this could be considered a “stratum” or an area in the lexicon (mental dicitonary) where the normal rules don’t apply.

Depending on the level of contact a stratum can become very developed. English technical borrowings with Latin and Greek rules have a class of rules and even suffixes/affixes all to themselves which apply only to Latinate words (One is the alternation of “c” between /k/ and /s/ as in “electric ~ electricity”.

The French part of the grammar isn’t that robust in English, but it does have the traditional property that it’s NOT 100% accurate of real French grammar. For one thing, there are limits in how much authentic French phonology we can accommodate. Few English speakers will pronounce French “u” in the correct way – as the front vowel /y/ or /ü/ depending on your transcription system. It’s very hard for English speakers to distinguish unless they have special French class training.

Also, there are errors in implementation in our English pseudo French versus real French. A classic example is the cold potato soup vichyssoise which in French grammar is pronounced with a final /z/ or /viʃiswaz/. A lot of waiters who didn’t take all four years of high school French though routinely drop the final consonant (i.e. /viʃiswa/)…because that’s what happens in the French stratum.

The one from the McCafé ad I noticed was how the final “e” always became “é” or /e/ “eh” with a stress. Hence “cubicle” /kubikəl/ becomes cubiclé /kubikle/ and “shuttle” /ʃʌtəl/ becomes shuttle /ʃʌtəle/ . Ironically though, in actual French spelling the “e” in “cle” and “tle” would actually be dropped altogether. Hence “cubicle” would be /kubikl/ and “shuttle” might be the really exotic /ʃytl/. Try saying that early in the morning over your McCafé

I also have to applaud McDonald’s for one more thing. In the past few years French has been a neglected cultural resource (even on the Food Network). It’s nice to know there’s a marketer out there who’s willing to bring back some old-fashioned mystique français (or is that mystique française?).

P.S. Technically “French magic” is la magie française. while la mystique is mysticism. Did I mention that borrowings can undergo change in word meaning?

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