Cat Noir: how children learn non-native sounds

My granddaughter has just turned 4 and has recently become very keen on a cartoon character called cat noir. She pronounces noir as a two-syllable word, with a vowel [ə] inserted after the [n]: [nə.waː]. In contrast, many speakers of British English—including her 6-year-old sister—pronounce this word as a single syllable: either [nwa] or with a longer [a] as [nwaː]. This latter pronunciation is much closer to the French pronunciation.

I discuss below:

  • whether [nw-] is a valid English sequence
  • whether English speakers can pronounce [nw-]
  • how English children learn to pronounce [nw-]
  • the history of the French word noir

Is [nw-] a valid English sequence?

The sequence of written letters <noi> is pronounced [nwa]. Sources listed below treat [w] as the second consonant in a cluster of consonants, not as a glide combining with the following vowel to form a diphthong. Thus, they analyse [nwa-] as [nw-a-] rather than [n-wa]. Of those sources, only Davis and Hammond (1995) explain the reason for this analysis.

Does English permit the consonant sequence [nw-] at the start of a syllable, for example at the start of a word? Davis and Hammond (1995), Hammond (1999) and König and Gast (2018) say explicitly that it does not. Although the English consonant sequences listed in Bauer (2015) and Cruttendon (2008) do not include [nw-], these 2 sources do not say explicitly whether the English sound system prohibits [nw-] or whether the lack of native words beginning with [nw-] is merely a historical accident.

Hammond (1999) concludes that the English sound system rules out consonant sequences of a first consonant followed by [w] if the first consonant is not:

  • [s-], which can precede far more consonants than any other consonant can.  Example: swell.
  • voiceless, non-labial stops or fricatives: [t-]; [k-]; [θ-]. Examples: twang; quick; thwack.
  • voiced, non-labial stops ([d-]; [g-]), though only in a few words. Examples: dwell; Gwen

Hammond’s conclusion rules out [nw-].

Words still perceived as non-native

[-w-] can follow some other consonants (such as [pw-]; [bw-]), but only in a few words borrowed from other languages and in some names. Examples: pueblo; bwana. Presumably, [nw-] in noir might be another example. These sequences do not seem to be part of the native English sound system.

English speakers seem to vary in how much they adapt various sequences of non-native origin. For example, Davis and Hammond (1995) comment that American English speakers (especially in California) typically:

  • insert the vowel [u] after the initial [n] in pronouncing the Spanish word nueve [nweve] ‘nine’, resulting in the pronunciation [nuweve]; but
  • do not insert a vowel to split up the sequence labial consonant + [w] in Spanish loan words like pueblo [pweblo] and buena [bwena] (as in the proper noun Buena Vista)

As far as I know, no native English words start with the sequence [nw-]. The only English words I have found starting with this sequence are clearly based on the French word noir (for example, film noir and Pinot Noir) and noisette. Most English speakers probably still think of these words as borrowed from French, not as fully part of the native English vocabulary.

Can English speakers pronounce [nw-]?

Although native English words don’t start with the sequence [nw-], most English speakers seem to find it easy to pronounce. In fact, I can’t recall hearing an English speaker inserting an extra vowel between the [n] and the [w] before I heard my granddaughter doing that. Indeed, even her slightly older sister (6 years 2 months) already pronounces noir in the same way as adult English speakers—without inserting an extra vowel.

Why do English seem to find the sequence [nw-] easy, even though it is apparently not part of their native sound system? The reason might be one of the following:

  • Perhaps [nw] isn’t a valid sequence of consonants in any English words, but is so close to valid sequences that English speakers can easily tweak their sound system to include this sequence when they come across it. In contrast, most English speakers struggle to learn to pronounce more exotic sequences such as [gn-] (in gnu) or [kn-].
    [kn-] used to be a valid English sequence, as still shown by the spelling of Knee, and indeed is still a valid sequence in German, as in Knie (meaning ‘knee’).  
  • Perhaps [nw] isn’t a valid sequence of consonants in native English words but is, by exception, allowable in words borrowed from other languages—in this case, French. Children in England often start learning French in primary school or early in secondary school. Noir is probably a word they learn early.
  • Perhaps [nw] isn’t a valid sequence of consonants in native English words, but can be used in names. Both adult and child English speakers often come across names that don’t fully fit the English sound system.
  • Perhaps [nw] is a valid sequence after all and it is just a historical accident that no native English words currently start with it. If a word starting with that sequence were to come into existence, no-one would doubt its legitimacy.

Learning to pronounce [nw-]

Interestingly, the older of the 2 girls, who is only 6, already pronounces the sequence [nw-] without any obvious difficulty. She hasn’t received any teaching in French and I doubt whether she has come across much French yet, even informally. So I don’t think she can have picked up the pronunciation from French models.

Of course, the place where both girls seem to have picked up this word is in a name (Cat Noir). So maybe they are both learning how to pronounce a word that doesn’t quite fit the English sound system. The 4-year-old isn’t quite as far along that path yet as her older sister.  

Perhaps one other clue comes from when the girls’ mother was herself around 2 or 3. When talking about her toys of the 7 dwarfs, she used to pronounce dwarf bi-syllabically as [də.wɔːf] rather than [dwɔːf]. This further example suggests that very young children are still learning which initial consonant clusters are valid in English, especially clusters that they have not yet met often. Some sources below suggest that the cluster [dw-] may be only a marginal part of the English sound system, appearing in only a few words, such as dwell, dwindle and dwarf.

Overall, it seems that the sequence [nw-] either is part of the English sound system or, if not part of it, is so close that adult speakers and quite young children can easily tweak their sound system slightly to include it.

History of French noir

Alkire and Rosen (2010) summarise how the vowel in the French word noir (meaning ‘black’) descends from the late Vulgar Latin nigrum [nɪgrum]. The vowel developed from [ɪ] to [wa] through intermediate stages as follows: [e] > [ej] > [oj] > [oɛ] > [wɛ] > [wa].

The modern spelling <oi> for [wa] dates from an intermediate stage when the pronunciation was [oj]

In some words, the intermediate stage [wɛ] went on to become [ɛ]. One interesting example is the pair of words français (an adjective meaning French) and François (a personal name). These were originally the same word, derived from late Latin Francus (a name for the Germanic tribes known as the Franks) with an adjectival suffix -ensis. In the Middle Ages, this word was pronounced [franswoj] and spelled françois. In modern French, the personal name retained this pronunciation and spelling. However, the adjective meaning French is now pronounced [fransɛ] and spelled français.    

Sources

On the status of onglides in American English, in Phonology 12, by Stuart Davis and Michael Hammond (1995)

The phonology of English: a prosodic optimality-theoretic approach, by Michael Hammond (1999)

English phonotactics, English Language & Linguistics, Volume 19 issue 3, by Laurie Bauer (2015).

Gimson’s Pronunciation of English, 7th edition, revised by Alan Cruttenden (2008)

Understanding English-German Contrasts, by Ekkehard König and Volker Gast, 4th edition (2018)

Romance Languages: A Historical Introduction, by Ti Alkire and Carol Rosen (2010)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: