vendredi 4 janvier 2013


Working for the king of Prussia is one of these hundreds of sayings that exist in French like there are as many ones in about all human languages. That one isn't particularly uncommon, but Ned who's fluent in French may not have met it yet because it's not used that often and also isn't one that is known and understood by all French speakers.  

All these sayings and expressions - let alone proverbs - form some sort of meta-language that gives any society its pure cultural identity, beyond the sheer technicality of the vocabulary and grammar its language is constructed with.

Am I allowed to draw a comparison with the shibboleth of the Hebrews, a word whose pronunciation serves as a definitive marker to distinguish those who are in from those who are out? 

But where the mere pronunciation of the word "shibboleth" suffices to detect a foreigner, it is the very usage of those sayings by non native speakers of any particular language that indicates what could be termed as an illegitimate attempt to break the barriers.

Let me explain: Unless one is completely bilingual, everybody has a certain distinctive native accent when speaking in a foreign language. No need for a shibboleth test, the intonation is here to hear and tell the rest of the audience that a foreigner is speaking.

But when said foreigner employs sayings that are typically associated with a certain cultural group, there is an instant alarm that is set and informs that a foreigner is trying to penetrate the core of a group which cannot recognize him as a full fledged member. I guess it works the same in all societies, be it an Italian speaking Finnish and using specific Finnish expressions because we're all seduced by the mysteries of foreign languages, or a Chinese speaking Japanese (no wait, there are some other problems in that case...).

There must exist some specific Texan sayings (when the cows come home?)  that some one from Illinois (say) may want to use just to show h/h knows. And although it is spoken in English and with a different accent, wouldn't the Texans be tempted to say to the imprudent intruder: "Sir, will you please keep yourself to yourself and even return to where you belong while you're at it?

34 commentaires:

Anijo a dit…

Pronouncing the French 'u' is difficult for Americans and other non Frenchies I would imagine.

Although I guess it can work the other way as I remember some joke about some foreigner saying 'merci beaucoup', but pronouncing it 'merci beaucul'... ahem..

I also remember the first time I was calling to make a reservation for a room and asked for a room with a nice view, but I asked for 'une chambre avec vouz' instead of 'une chambre avec vue".

Flocon a dit…

"I asked for 'une chambre avec vouz'

Une chambre avec moi Anijo?

Anijo a dit…

Hmmm.. Comme je te tutoie, perhaps I was wanting a ménage à trois with you and Ned? Or perhaps an orgy with all of the other participants? ô-Ô

ahem.. this is becoming entirely too kinky for such a respectable blog.

By the way, why does the first link lead to 'Drive My Car'?

Flocon a dit…

The first line you hear when you open the link to Drive my car is:

"Working for peanuts
is all very fine"

and that's what working for the king of Prussia means.

Travailler pour le roi de Prusse = Travailler pour des clous (nails) = Working for peanuts.

Ned Ludd a dit…

Many French have difficulty with the pronunciation distinction between "i" and "e". Like between "beach" and "bitch" or between "sheet" and "shit". It still makes me smile.

An older woman I knew who once worked at the U.S. Embassy in Paris told the story that when she was new here, she went to a big official cocktail party. She was introduced to a man she had already met. So, she said, we know each other, "il vient de me baiser" instead of "baise main".

I still have trouble with remembering to use the right expression at times, even though I know I know them.

Anonyme a dit…

>>distinctive native accent

>>sayings and expressions


Flocon a dit…


"I still have trouble with remembering to use the right expression at times, even though I know I know them."

Alors fais gaffe, un malentendu est si vite arrivé!

Also sheep and ship. The sheeps are in the ships, and not the other way round.

Flocon a dit…


I remember you gave the first link several years ago.

Maybe the second may help to tell some one from Manitoba from some one from Saskatchewan...

Anijo a dit…

I spent a week with a woman from Saskatchewan. She wasn't all that different as compared to a woman from New Mexico.

I have a fond memory of a friend from Marseille who spent some time with me here in Mesilla. She attempted to say 'shit' as southern New Mexicans or Texans might say it, but instead of saying 'sheeeiiit', she said "sheet". ☺

Flocon a dit…


"She wasn't all that different as compared to a woman from New Mexico."

The phenomena is world wide I guess and is a result of media globalisation.

A Californian girlfriend once said to me that people from the West coast sound "lazy" to people from the East coast because they don't speak as fast as them. Urban legend?

When I had the opportunity to speak English on a daily basis, I had some difficulty with the preterit of "to buy" so a British girlfriend suggested I use "to purchase" whose preterit would be easier for me than "bought"...

As pertains foreign languages, since it's all a matter of sounds in the end, those with a musical ear have an advantage over those who can't distinguish between a trumpet and a piano.

There are other factors of course, psychological as well as emotional.


re your friend from Marseilles, the French are globally pathetically desastrous with foreign languages. When one adds the very specific accent from South-East France to the situation...

Of course there are exceptions but yet...

Anijo a dit…

You're right Flocon. The French from South-East France have a very noticeable accent when they speak French.

I remember one time speaking to this friend from Marseille and she corrected my pronunciation of 'tapisserie'. I pronounced it 'tapisri', and she said 'no, it's tapiseri'... hmmm..

People from the East Coast do speak more quickly than those from the West Coast. It's not an urban legend.

I can easily tell if someone is from New York, Texas, Massachusetts, Maine, or the southern states. Other than that, I cannot readily distinguish any other accents from other states.

Also, a Marseillan accent is very noticeable. Other than that, I cannot distinguish other French accents. I mean when speaking French.

Anijo a dit…

You're right Flocon. The French from South-East France have a very noticeable accent when they speak French

oops.. I meant to say, when they speak English.

Flocon a dit…

"I cannot distinguish other French accents."

For what I know, there aren't that many accents in French (Francophone countries are different cases of course).

The most recognizable among them all is that of the S.E part of the country, needless to say.

No accent in Brittany, just there exists a language quite different from French and it is Breton that very few people speak actually, even if it's on the rise.

There's also a specific accent in the South-West but not all inhabitants speak with it and it is definitively less pronounced than that of Fernandel.

Then, in the eastern part of France you have people who may speak with an accent which strongly reminds of German but then again it is a minority.

Finally, there's the case of Northern France where they speak what is called ch'ti, that is French spoken with a load of hot potatoes in their mouth.

There's something "worth" noting about the Ch'ti accent though.

4 years ago a movie was shot based on the ch'ti accent and the ensuing quiproquo and misunderstandings that follow.

This film (that I haven't seen) has turned the absolute best selling tickets in the history of French cinema with over 20 million tickets sold in France alone.

It's an idiotic film which wasn't meant to be a hit but eventually it grossed over 245 million $.

And now the author lives in Los Angeles...

The possibility that an American remake be made was discussed with Will Smith playing the role of s.o from Arizona (say) landing in Massassuchets (say again) but finally it didn't materialize.

Ned Ludd a dit…

When people ask me about my accent in French--they often think I'm nordic--and when I tell them it's American, they ask it is. Then I tell them it is a "Disney" accent from watching so many of those films and TV shows when I was young.

Its rhythm is certainly slower than in the east. I am even slower. I worked as a DJ on a couple of radio stations and people and when people met me they said, oh, you're the one that speaks so slow. They liked it. My early life was in the midwest which has a distinct accent. Some of my family who moved away years ago still have some of it. To get an idea, see the Coen brothers' "Fargo". I laugh every time I see it.

As to French, I was on a train in the south talking to a man next to me. I had great trouble understanding him so I asked which region he was from. He said Montpellier. The accent from Marseille I can understand because people speak slower.

Anonyme a dit…

After many years of study in the US, and work in Germany, my daughter is now fluent in German. Germans can detect an accent. But it is so slight that they usually conclude that she is just "not from these parts." She has been asked a few times if she was Swiss, and once if she was French. Never, however, has anyone suspected that she was an American. I was an eyewitness to an amusing display of this phenomenon on a freezing night in Dresden. Three drunken Saxons were trying to scalp opera tickets. I deputized her to do the negotiations. The young men knew instantly that she was "not from around here" and asked, as people usually do, about her hometown. They flatly refused to accept that she was an American, and accused her of being a closet Berliner.
She tells me that her social position in Dresden was higher as an American.

Anonyme a dit…

Top 9 Remarks Jan hears from Francophone Tourists

9. "For a Canadian, you speak flawlessly, but very strangely."
8. "You're not originally from Québec?!"
7. "You've never left Canada?!"
6. "We say/measure that differently..."
5. "You have a Dutch-Franco name, but you're not Belgian..."
4. "You're single?!"
3. "Finally, someone who speaks properly!"
2. "You should leave Canada; artisan work isn't valued here."

And the Number One thing Jan hears from Francophone tourists visiting Canada:

1. "I saw your beret, and thought you might understand me."


Flocon a dit…


I'm working on this now and I'm not surprised people think you're nordic when considering the setting of the film.

All the comments focus on the accent in Minnesota. I'm too impaired to tell about the accent anyway.

Frances McDormand's jaw is typical of Scandinavian people though.

Flocon a dit…


I suppose the more extended and the more populous a country is, the more accents exist with most extreme differences between them. China must be a study case in that regard.

As pertains Germany, since you've learned German, I venture to say you'll agree with me that the correct pronunciation isn't the trickiest part to master with this language: It's pronounced like it's written.

Now, my guess is that for an American, the difficulty lies not essentially in acquiring a correct pronunciation of any foreign language but in losing one's native intonation which is usually so heavy. It may be what happened with your daughter: she succeeded in keeping her "natural" American intonation at bay.

I once had Polish neighbours and one day we had a piece of conversation about languages (the girl didn't speak French nor English, but Polish of course and Russian) and, reading some text in Polish (which of course I don't speak at all), I mimicked the way Americans could probably sound in Polish and they burst into laughs because they instantly recognised the purported American accent everybody's used to.

You may find this American/English competition entertaining though...

Flocon a dit…


About your top 9 Remarks, I wonder what #4 has to do with the accent issue ;-)

Flocon a dit…


"Pronouncing the French 'u' is difficult for Americans"

How about Lui s'appelle Louis?

Ned Ludd a dit…

Flocon, you can see the difference in accents if you look up Frances McDormand giving her Oscar acceptance speech. Her real accent is very different than her movie accent. The Coens are from Minneapolis so they must know the culture well.

Anijo a dit…

Ha. Yes, an American might say in attempt to pronounce that, "Louis s'appelle Louis".

I learned that the way to pronounce the french 'u' is to place one's lips in the position to say 'ee' (or 'i' in French) and then say "oo" (or 'ou' in French).

Anijo a dit…

Hugh Laurie plays Dr. Gregory House in the TV series House.

He speaks American English with a flawless American-English accent.

Ellen Degeneres is one of my favorite female comedians.

Anijo a dit…

btw, i looked up 'ch'ti' on Youtube. That is not a pleasant accent to my ears...

Flocon a dit…


According to this map, the population of Minnesota is exclusively composed of German ancestry (with a tiny portion coming from Norway).

Maybe would the first immigrants speak slowly because they were hesitant with a language that was unknown to them in order not to make mistakes and over time this trend passed down from generation to generation?

But according to the map, the Germans are near to everywhere in the US and not all of them speak slowly though...

Now, I've noticed for a long time how many times Americans intersperse their speeches with euh... euh... euh... like they were unsure of their choice of words or their own statements.

Rarely do I hear Americans saying what they have to say without any interruption (except the news anchor people of course).

It would be interesting to know the origins and reasons of this phenomena.

Flocon a dit…

Anijo, It is Lui (like him) s'appelle Louis...

(Him we call Louis)


I was wondering who that entertaining woman was and you tell me she's Ellen Degeneres (She is of French, English, German, and Irish descent. says Wiki).


As concerns Hugh Laurie, Ned mentioned him some months ago with the House series. I knew his face but didn't know anything about him just that I had seen his face several times on the covers of TV magazines.

Too bad 99.9% of foreign programs are dubbed on French TVs, which is an absolute no-no to me. C'est dommage parce que la série avait l'air bien.


re the Ch'tis, this film is so worthless that it didn't even occur to me that I could provide a link.

To the rest of the French the Ch'tis accent sounds horribly peasant like but on the other hand, that is how accents sound to those who don't belong to the group that sounds "barbaric".

People from the south (Marseille or Montpellier) say Parisians sound "pointus" (sharp) [as opposed to "arrondi" (rounded)] to their ears...

Anonyme a dit…

Flocon, with Jan's permission, I'll clarify #4:

Nearly all of the francophone tourists Jan's ever met are women.

I've seen several conversations where a francophone woman exclaimed to Jan "you're single?!" and proceeded to ask him out on a date...

Flocon a dit…

"I've seen several conversations where a francophone woman exclaimed to Jan "you're single?!" and proceeded to ask him out on a date..."

Now, there's no chance that could happen to me... And yet I'm a Francophone :-(

Ned Ludd a dit…

"When the cows come home" is not Texan. In my youth, it referred to dairy cows that would come home at the end of the day. Cattle in Texas had to be rounded up by the Cowboys.

Actually, it turns out that the expression is from the 19th century apparently from Scotland--Wiki.

Flocon a dit…


This is where I learned the expression "When the cows come home" many, many years ago, and there was no reason why it should be some specific Texan saying indeed.

Je n'ai pas eu la curiosité de chercher about this expression but since you've done the job I've followed suit and found that site which may also be helpful when you wonder what is the English counterpart of some French expression you've just met for the first time.

Ned Ludd a dit…

Flocon, it's a good link. I looked up "calendres greques", but I was surprised not to see in English, "a month of Sundays".

Flocon a dit…

C'est souvent (toujours?) le problème avec les dictionnaires ou sites de ce genre : Ils en font trop et il y a des dizaines d'expressions totalement inconnues sauf celle que l'on cherche.

Pour a month of Sundays (que je connaissais pas), it's here qui donne bien les calendes grecques mais pas l'inverse en effet.

Google translation qui est en général très faible avec les expressions donne ceci qui est tout de même useful to an English speaker who wouldn't know what the Calendes grecques are.

Ned Ludd a dit…

The late comedian George Carlin talks about English expressions. He also has one where he says that anti-abortionists, usually Catholic or some other religion, should be in favor of gay marriage because those people won't have abortions.

I hope that Holland will have the guts to completely ignore the Catholic anti-gay marriage demonstration today.

Flocon a dit…


Wait until I'm back from the protest march and I'll post my report tomorrow...