Le Français de ma tante

Adventures in Françoz

Brian Steel

[Published in The Bulletin, Sydney, Australia, 15 January, 1991. Corrected and expanded version, November 2001]


It must be the last straw when our very own Resident Rhodes Scholar invites a distinguished French oceanographer and TV personality to accompany him on a pre- or post-election tour of Antarctica and, in announcing this event in the full glare of the media cameras, rechristens Commander Jacques Cousteau as Yak. Mais non, within a week or so worse was to follow. The Australian Ballet proudly launched its advertising campaign for 1990 with the slogan: 1990: Pas d'Excellence. Incredibly, no one in that not uncultured organisation saw that the `clever' French slogan contained one of the most basic of schoolboy errors, making it look as though the Ballet Company was suicidally intent on proclaiming its lack of excellence. So, Bob and all you other pollies, trendies and media people who give such bad lip service to the French language, follow the basic lessons contained in these few paragraphs and then, maybe, when you ask them politely, the French will at last desist from exploding all those horrible bombs all over the Pacific as their retaliation to our constant barrage of linguistic barbarisms.

In spite of the current vogue for Asian languages and the stampede to earn a fortune by being nice to our many temporary Japanese guests and real estate buyers, old habits die hard. There is nothing more ingrained in us than to sprinkle our speech and writing (especially if it is to be heard or seen by the public) with evidence of our European cultural heritage. Another excellent example of the benefits of multi-culturalism? Well, not quite. You see, unlike our European cousins, very few of us are exposed to the French language in school and so there is no common base of elementary language knowledge to draw on. Rather the opposite: for most of us the only regular exposure to French comes from the often arcane language seen on restaurant menus (there you are! two basic French borrowings already). This state of affairs is what produces the daily crop of blissfully ignorant howlers, probably the biggest in the Southern Hemisphere.

Because, by and large, we have little or no inkling of the basics of French pronunciation and vocabulary, we gaily copy what we hear or read, we improvise or bluff our way. So? A lot of vague accusations without a shred of evidence. Well, in the interests of an Entente plus cordiale, voici a few relevant shreds for you, examples of this strange hybrid tongue, Le Françoz -- all of them seen or heard in Australia.

The rot probably set in with the early adoption of "abba tore" (abattoir) and "rezzer vore" (reservoir), showing from the outset a sturdily defiant refusal to bow to foreign norms. In this case, it was a refusal to recognize the proper pronunciation of the common -oir (="wahr") ending for French nouns and adjectives. Another French diphthong which causes us trouble is eu, especially in the make of car commonly referred to as a "Pew Joe", where "Purr, Joe"(=Peugeot) would be an acceptable anglicised rendering. Other extremely common mispronunciations -- you must have heard them! -- are:

"boo-jwa" (for bourgeois, with its typical throaty French 'r' sound; read "boor jwa");

"bi-zair" (for bizarre: = "biz-are");

"bon appa teat" (for bon appétit: = "bon ah pay tea");

"coupe" (for coup : = "coo"; as in coup d'état, coup de grâce - more on this one in a moment or two; not as in coupe, the dessert).

In the latter two examples, the stumbling block, is, Hélas, the very elementary fact that many final consonants in French are not pronounced but merely bear witness to the original derivation of the words on their long journey from Latin (or sometimes other languages) to contemporary French. Ignorance of this is what caused an ABC film critic to rename the French town of Varennes "Varenz" (instead of "Va ren", in case any of you out there are struggling). A further unfortunate complication (i.e. mistake) ensues when those who know a bit about French final consonants and their nasty foreign habits show off their knowledge (remembering phrases like mardi gras and pâté de foie gras) and talk confidently about a "coo de gra" (coup de grâce) which has been given or delivered somewhere or other in the world. What they mean, of course, since -ce can hardly be considered a "final consonant", is "couda grass", isn't it?

Another fatal error (Ha! -and femme fatale should not rhyme with the first syllable of the Engish word "feminine" but with that of "famine", thus: "famfa tal" -- feminist psychoanalysts, please don't write in about my word associations). As I was saying, another fatal source of errors is to read the French word as if it were English. It is quite wrong to talk of "configh dents" (rhyming with to "confide") when real French has its "con fee dons" (masc.) and "confee dontz" (fem.): confidents, confidentes (note the 'e' for the feminine form)..

Like the throaty French 'r', the mouth-puckering and therefore unmanly 'u' sound seems way beyond our capabilities, so in Le Françoz ["Fran sozz"] "duh boo" usually replaces début (more on written accents soon), i.e. "day bew" - a non-problem, really, since it is the first syllable of the inimitable Oz word "bewdy". Some tailors and car sales personnel should nevertheless note that 'u' is not the same as 'ou' (pron. "oo") and so any claim that a car or a garment has "velure trim" (craftily rhyming with "allure") should be reprocessed as velours (otherwise known as 'velvet' to us).


And how about those fiendish frog nasal vowels? No way, mates! We already saw how the -oir ending ( "wahr") has been firmly rejected. The same fate was promptly dished out many moons ago to such nasal words as "londjeray" (for "lan djeree": lingerie) and even "Cwon trow" (for "Cwan trow", or, as the bottles say, Cointreau). And, sports writers, Alain is not "A lane" (rathe close to Hélène) but "Ah lan".

What else is so un-English about French, causing us all this bother? Well, the gender business for starters. Although not a main part of our language, the difference between masculine and feminine is , unfortunately for Françoz speakers, an absolutely central part of French. Which is what produces errors like the following (committed if not directly by a major posh Victorian hotel at least on its behalf by the Victorian Tourism people). "Nouveau cuisine" was the bold and proud boast in a tourist brochure, making the noun cuisine masculine, an error absolutely dumbfounding given the milieu, if I may use the term, in which it is a commonplace, usually impeccably gendered: Nouvelle cuisine. And what do you think of "La Petite Salon" in big letters outside someone's shop? No prizes for resexing that one. Returning briefly to the question of confidents/confidentes, it must be very disconcerting to the French ear to hear Australian males speaking of themselves or other males as "confi donts". And those who advertise or sell cars, boats and appliances should avoid "grande luxe" and stick to the correct masculine adjective, grand.

French written accents are another source of trouble for the unprepared, the inattentive or the dumb. So is their use of the apostrophe, but here we can claim sweet revenge, since they can't manage our apostrophe either. The simple truth about the apostrophe in French is that L' is used before a vowel (e,g. L'arbre) or before a 'mute' 'h', which amounts to the same thing (e.g. L'homme). Not so in Le Françoz, of course, far from it. "L'Beaumaris" proclaimed a local hairdressing salon sign not too many years ago. Equally perverse, like a determinedly naughty schoolboy (all right, all right, or girl!) was the effect of a headline in The Australian some time ago: "Vive La Entrepreneur" (where even a "Le" would have been wrong, though more statistically plausible). For the uninitiated, accent troubles too are legion in Le Françoz. In the main, they are (perhaps sensibly) omitted in print in English-speaking countries, but for those who do try to include them, there is also many a slip 'twixt tongue and paper, the main error being an acute accent for a grave, or vice versa: "Premiére Escort"; "cortége" (with matchingly inaccurate pronunciation: "core tayje"). Interestingly, the person who wrote "devotées", by analogy with real French words like fiancées, shows not only an ignorance of French but also a pretty shaky grasp of English pronunciation. (Go on, try the two for yourselves if you don't believe me.) Such a Françoz speaker is also wide open to the accusation of being pretentious.

Pretentious use of Le Françoz is most often evident in the media and in advertising, though politicians and others grab their share of it as well. Whoever wrote (in a Victorian tourist brochure) about a restaurant with a "plush decore" should be made to consult an English (or French!) dictionary more often, or use the Spell Checker on the word processor. Another pretentious use is surely "Embosser D'Elegance" -- no charge here for the two dropped acute accents -- to advertise some "elegant" office tool that someone wants us to rush out and buy. The point here is a misuse of the epithet usually associated with equestrian events (Concours d'élégance). Much more misplaced is the sign announcing yet another hairdressing salon: "Chez Cheveux", which really would make a French person laugh (or cry, or foam at the mouth) since the very Gallic preposition chez (so popular with Oz namers of houses: Chez nous, 100% correct) is only used in front of names or pronouns, not just any old common noun like "hair". Still, if the object of this sign is to attract one's attention, maybe it works - and at least they didn't muddle their cheveux with chevaux.

A further manifestation of pretentiousness or linguistic snobbery is to mistake an ordinary English word for a French one and to spell or pronounce it accordingly. I mentioned one previously: "devotées". But the best (i.e. the very worst) I have come across was perpetrated by the prestigious host of a polemical current affairs program on television. Here, the famously outspoken righter of wrongs (and lately of novels also, it appears) demonstrated an idiosyncratic belief that the French word coup (the very same!) and the verb "to recoup" belong to the same family. He spoke, with his usual aplomb and panache but with less finesse, of trying to "recoo her losses" - oh là là! Such blunders are not rare in the spoken media. Here is another, from a different TV channel: "Police have found a cachet of arms." (Presumably top drawer stuff there, maybe even coats-of-arms). Here again, a basic or minimal knowledge of the pronunciation of the two French words involved would have avoided the possibility of error (cachet vs. cache: "ca shay" vs. "cash"). And, from an ABC political commentator, "obese eeonse" (obéissance a.k.a."obey eesonse").

Which still leaves us with a few odds and ends to tidy up. Like, for example, the name of the luxury yacht moored in the St Kilda Marina: "Relaxavous", a rich person's deliberate eccentricity, the cocking a snook at correct spelling by an early school leaver blossoming in business, or pure ignorance? And bad spelling turns up occasionally: "L'art parissien", again showing no knowledge at all of the basic realities of the French language (single 's' = 'z' sound in English, double 's' = 's' sound - but, credit where credit is due, croissant is, mercifully, nearly always correctly spelled, however well or badly it is baked). Also, for the next French centenary of the Storming of the Bastille, I suggest that media people learn the real name of the French national anthem: not "the Marsa Lays" but the (or La) "Marsa Yays" - La Marseillaise, the feminine ending of which, -aise, also comes in so handy for menu writers and readers.

Too clever by half are those with perhaps a little knowledge of French who then perpetrate howlers like: "a fay accompli" (fait accompli: "fate accomplea"), where the normally silent final consonant (begin the article again if you've forgotten them already) is pronounced, because it is followed, as are so many, by a vowel. Oh, those devious, slippery French, always changing the rules of the jeu! It is equally ignorant for journalists or politicians who wish to disguise the plain English "Nothing ever really changes" as "Plus ce change" or "La plus ça change" when they mean but haven't heard or read properly Plus ça change ... To which they could add, although it is not at all obligatory, the rest of the French saying: plus c'est la même chose. Nowhere near such ignorance and certainly not yet a hanging offence, but still wrong, is the final 's' of the following noun phrase: (These chefs create) "tours de forces" i.e. "turda force". And if any of your friends are always using the happy phrase "joie de vie" (probably in association with the other happy-making eau de vie), tell them to listen carefully because in real French it is joie de vivre ("djwa duh veevra")

Other apparent sources of problems which can be a cause for worry for many educated people, not least media arts people, are the foreign-sounding names of French writers, although musicians and composers are much better catered for. Often a feeble and not at all convincing compromise is to disguise one's dubious familiarity with French by pronouncing the Christian name in English and then having a stab, more or less convincing, at the surname, which tends to have been heard more often or more clearly. Thus the eminent French feminist thinker and writer, Simone de Beauvoir, can be made to sound very butch indeed by being referred to as "Simon" (i.e. "sigh mon", rather than "Sea moan") de Beauvoir ("Bo vwa").

Before moving on to my free birthday present for your friends, the Crash Course, I offer two non-carping notes. Impeccably French and Australian was the ingenious ABC radio commentator who pronounced of some one: "After he faux-pa'ed on that one,..." This, at least, seems to be a sensible neologism; it may even catch on. Secondly, and by way of illustration of the main underlying point of the article, I wish to tender as evidence the newspaper advertisement which appears regularly once a year announcing that a local Melbourne menswear shop with a French business name will be holding its sale: "L'Homme Sale". Presumably many readers of that sign do not see the ironic and perhaps unconscious double-entendre. In the unlikely event that any of my present readers are in this category, I hasten to add that in real French the adjective sale ("Sal") means "dirty".

"Ohra vwa".


Crash course in Le Français comme il faut down under (Le Françoz).

Abba twa(r)
Ah lan not Ah-lane (Alain, eg Ducasse)
Ah plom
Ahmoor propra
Ahpray mwa luh daylyoudge
Ahpray voo
Alla cart
Alla mod
Am pass
Ann djay new
Bass tea
Be czar
Bet nwar
Bon ah pay tea
Bon vwayadge
Boor jwa
Brick a brack
Ca shay
Cart blonsh
Commeel foh
Con core daylay gonse
Con fee, Don [his]
Con fee dont [hers]
Coo pay
Cooda grass
Cooday ta
Cor tehj
Cordon bluh (or blur)
Cordon sa knee tear
Creeda Kerr
Cwan trow
Day bew
Day bacl
Daydja view
Dee stray
Djwa duh veevra
Do blontonder
Doss eeyay
Duh reegur
Duh trow
E-Day feeks
Ey lass
Esspree duh core
Famfa tal
Fate accomplea
Fee onsay
Fett voh djer
Foh pa
Folly ah durr
Folly duh grondyer
Fote duh myuh
Gar knee
Ghee [the boy's name]
Gron lyooks
Katorz djwee yay
Kel domahge
Koo shett
Lan djeree
Lar jhess
Lavvy on Roz
Lessay fair
Lum [=L'homme]
Ma sirs
[not Ma sooz/Mass ooze]
Mardee Grah
Marsa Yays
May nahge ah trwa
Me crow feesh
Me dee
Me liyuh
Mow teef
Neesh [not Nitch]
No bless ohbleehge
Noovel quizzine
Noovoh reesh
Oat kootyure
Oat quizzine
Obey eesonse
Odor twalett
Oh Fay
Oh, Nat, you're `L'!
Oh ravwa(r)
Ombara duh reeshess
Ombara duh shwa
On famee
On klayve
On mass
On passon
On root
On shontay
On toorahge
On wee
Onfon terreebla
Ontont cor deeal
Ontra noo
Ontra pranure
Or dervra
Orda combah
Pa duhduh
Pa say
Pan ash
Par excellonse
Plyou sa shandge (plyou say la mem shows)
P.S. duh Raisy Stonse
Pon see on
Pon shone [a -- for --]
Puhtea shoe
Purr Joe
Qua fur
Qua furs
Quaf yure
Raise you, May
Ray's on Dettra
Reeanne nuhva plyoo
Rezzer vwa(r)
Ronday voo
Ruh peshahge
Ruh shershay
Sam pateek
Savwa fair
Say la vee
Sea moan
Sha Gran
Shah Poda Pie
Shaze Lounge
Shershay la fam
Song frwa
Soup's on
Ton meeyuh
Ton pee
Turda force
Turda France
Uh plom
Va nordy nair
Vee's a Vee
Veev la deefayronse
Vollow von
Vuh looer
Vwa la
Vwa see

Le Françoz - Supplement (Feb. 1991, revised Nov. 1994, and later)
(Mainly media usage)

Ah lane [Prost]
Ah plom
Alla mod
Ann tear nashy oh nahl
[not: Ann ........... nah lay]
Bees you /Bee Joo
Brick a brack
Creeda Kerr
Day Dhja Voo
Dee stray
Dhjon ruh
Doss eeyay
Folly ah durr
Gron lyooks
Koze Say Lebbra
Lar jhess / Lar's Yes
Ma laze
Ma sirs [Ma sooz/Mass ooze]
May nahge ah trwa
Me crow feesh
Neesh [not Nitch]
Oat kootyure
Oat quizzine
Oh, Nat, you're `L'!
On root
On wee
P.S. duh Raisy Stonse
Plyou sa shandge (plyou say la mem shows)
Pon see on
Pon shone [a -- for --]
Pour Onkooradhjay lay zoatruhs
Qua fur
Qua furs
Quaf yure
Raise, you, May
Ronday voo
Sang Frwa
Savwa Fair
Say la vee
Trays (not Traites)
Vwa yer
"Ay-djonse France- Presse" (newsreader on commercial TV)


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