Sounding out les misérables

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Les Misérables is unusual for novels of its period in giving almost no indication of its characters’ pronunciation of French. The omission is striking in a work that highlights slang usage and includes fragments in many languages other than French. This essay argues that the ‘soundlessness’ of speech is camouflaged by heavy use of the word accent to draw attention to the affect of spoken utterances. The camouflage obscures the implausibility of Valjean’s transformation from peasant and convict to entrepreneur, philanthropist and mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. Unimaginable in the English or German domain, where regional and social origins are indelibly marked in the enunciation of consonants and vowels, the accentless French of Les Misérables presupposes a concept of ‘standard diction’ at odds with linguistic reality. It foretells the state of affairs in contemporary France, where perception of the regional and social functions of variation in speech is very low. Les Misérables therefore appears less problematic now than at the time of its composition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)241-251
Number of pages11
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cultural Studies
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Music
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Literature and Literary Theory


  • French dialects
  • Jean Valjean
  • Language
  • Les Misérables
  • Parisian speech
  • Phoneticism
  • Phonology
  • Sociolinguistics
  • Speech
  • Victor Hugo


Dive into the research topics of 'Sounding out les misérables'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this