Damien MooneyQ. Where do you come from?

DM. I was born in Dublin in the Republic of Ireland and I lived there until I finished university, at Trinity College Dublin, in 2008. I then moved to France for a year before coming to the UK for graduate study at Cambridge and Oxford, and I'm now a lecturer at Bristol.

Q. Were any particular people, or books, a strong influence on you?

Cover of Hornsby bookDM. I think I've always been interested in accents. During my undergraduate degree I was mentored by Rachel Hoare, who'd worked on the regional French of Brittany. I remember being fascinated by how language varies in different places, and when I started the MPhil at Cambridge, the first book I read was David Hornsby's Redefining Regional French and I thought 'I want to do this, but for the south of France!', so I guess you could say that David's work has had a strong influence on the direction I've taken.

Q. The Béarn is a region of France not everyone has heard of, even people who like Béarnaise sauce on their steaks, but it's actually quite a large chunk of sub-Pyrenean France. When did you first go there, and how did you become interested in the dialect?

DM. I'm not sure I'd heard of Béarn before I started to do research there either! I knew that some French people spoke different minority languages in different regions, of course, and coming from Ireland I was particularly interested in how languages can influence each other. I wanted to examine the speech of bilingual speakers to see how their mother tongues influence their pronunciation in French, and so I set out to find some minority language speakers — a difficult endeavour in modern France!

A lecture of mine at Trinity, David Parris, knew an Irish woman who had married a Béarnais speaker and he put me in touch with the Institute Béarnais et Gascon, and the rest is history. I first went to Béarn in 2010 to collect data for my MPhil, then returned twice in 2012 to collect data for my DPhil at Oxford.

Q. How did this project begin? Was there a "this is what I want to do" moment?

Road sign in Bayonne; trilingual in French, Basque, and Gascon OccitanDM. I had the "this is what I want to do" moment long before this project began. When I look back, it was really during my residence abroad in Nice in 2006 that my interest in language contact in France took hold. I remember seeing bilingual street signs in Nice, in French and Occitan/Nissart, and I had no idea that there were any other languages in France! Even for my undergraduate dissertation, I made a study of different attitudes towards pronunciation in different parts of France.

Q. Did the data collected ever surprise you?

DM. Some of the narratives of personal experience revealed the rural France of the past to be a very difficult place to live. There were many stories of hardship and repression, both linguistic and social, and I really am very grateful to have had the chance to speak to real people about their lives, and not just to analyse their pronunciation. Another surprising finding was that the youngest generation of speakers sound much more regional than their parents — this is an issue I deal with in detail in the book, so I won't give any more spoilers here!

Q. Perhaps this is the sort of question I shouldn't ask a linguist, but can you "do" a Béarn accent? Do you lapse into one when you're in the area?

DM. I can certainly imitate the accent and I recognise it without fail! This year at Bristol, I have two Erasmus students from the southwest of France and I knew immediately what part of France they were from. When I was analysing the data for the book, I would hear myself adapt my variety of French to the person I was speaking to, sometimes using very regional pronunciations. I've also been asked on more than one occasion if I'm from the south of France, so there's been at least some influence of my experiences with the Béarnais.

Q. Outside of your academic life, what do you read for pleasure?

DM. I like to read lighter social and political commentary, such as American Savage and Skipping towards Gomorrah by Dan Savage and I also find myself returning to some of the French classics, recently re-reading Flaubert's Madame Bovary for the umpteenth time. I've also become a fan of dystopian fiction and enjoy reading books such as Ensaio sobre a Cegueira ('Essay on Blindness') by José Saramago, which I read in French (L'Aveuglement).

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Damien Mooney’s book Southern Regional French: A Linguistic Analysis of Language and Dialect Contact is now available as volume 47 in our Research Monographs in French Studies series, and comes out in paperback in Spring 2018.

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