Know wonder we struggle with French pronunciation

Maybe if I had more French, I’d be able to appreciate these more. There exists a book of Mother Goose rhymes written by Luis d’Antin van Rooten that has to be mind-bending if you are bilingual.

His book Mots d’Heure Gousses, Rames, as you might expect from the title, is written in French – but rather odd, archaic-sounding French. The book ostensibly contains a collection of poems, which have scholarly footnotes attached to them. In fact, the brilliant idea behind this book is that if you read the French poems aloud they sound exactly like English nursery rhymes spoken with a French accent. This is called homophonic writing and here’s an example from the start of the book:

French poem Nursery Rhyme
English translation
Un petit d’un petit

S’étonne aux Halles
Un petit d’un petit
Ah! degrés te fallent
Indolent qui ne sort cesse
Indolent qui ne se mène
Qu’importe un petit
Tout gai de Reguennes.

Humpty Dumpty

Sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty
Had a great fall.
All the king’s horses
And all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty
Together again.

A child of a child

Is surprised at the Market
A child of a child
Oh, degrees you needed!
Lazy is he who never goes out
Lazy is he who is not led
Who cares about a little one
All happy with Reguennes

That almost makes me want to learn French just for the wordplay. My second language was German (now extremely rusty, I’m afraid), and I don’t think you could do anything similar, because the pronunciation is so close to English already. I wonder if you could do something similar with Italian?


  1. Pierre Le Fou says

    I’m fluent in both French and English, and honestly, it doesn’t work so well. If I did read out loud the French text to an anglophone, they’d have a really hard time understanding the implied English words. There are just sounds in each language that can’t be mapped to the other one, no matter how much you try.

  2. blf says

    Whilst I live in S.France, I do not consider myself fluent in French. Even so, I concur with Pierre Le Fou@1, using mangled modern-Français pronunciation, it seems difficult for a modern-English speaker to understand. However, as the OP notes, supposedly it’s written in “rather odd, archaic-sounding French”, in which case it could be more-understandable (I have no idea).

  3. Susan Montgomery says

    @1. It kind of works if you know little to no French and use a broad “Inspector Clouseau” accent while reading it.

  4. brucegee1962 says

    Wow, I remember coming across this book in the 70s. Hadn’t thought about it in years.

  5. ghira says

    I have shown this to a lot of people over the last 40 years or so and it seems to work pretty well. I even gave a talk on “Medieval French Poetry” at a conference in France, and the conference chair read one of the poems aloud (he was in on the joke). The English native speakers in the room laughed and all the French people looked really confused. Some native French speakers have said things like “This French is very odd. Is it medieval?” but others have said “This is just gibberish.”

    When I’ve had native English speakers read a poem aloud, usually NOT in on the joke, everyone except the person reading the poem has seemed to understand what was going on.

    There is a German version, Morder Guss Reims.

    I don’t think it works as well as the French version.

    I’m dubious that Italian would work very well: the spelling to sound mapping in Italian is pretty solid both ways round, it seems to me. I’d be happy to be persuaded otherwise.

  6. ghira says

    Also if you want more of the same, note that there are two French “sequels”. “N’Heures Souris Rames” and “Guilliaume Chequespierre”, not by the same author.

  7. akela51 says

    There are two follow-ups by John Hulme: “Mörder Guss Reims” and “Die Gesammelten Werke des Lord Charles”. The first brings the Mother Goose Rhymes in fake German, the latter German nursery rhymes in fake English. Very enjoyable.

  8. jimfoley says

    Ooh, I actually own a copy of this! (probably found in a 2nd-hand bookstore long ago; currently in storage somewhere…) It was a lot of fun trying to work out what nursery rhymes they matched; there were a few I never did work out.

  9. Rob Grigjanis says

    In my stilted, archaic French it works quite well except for the really clunky Qu’importe un petit.

  10. PaulBC says

    I wish I had studied Spanish instead in high school. It would at least be useful to me now. I have never been able to speak or understand French. Granted, there was insufficient emphasis in the way it was taught. I liked learned conjugations and so on, but I now think normative grammar is mostly a waste of time. It certainly did not leave me with any practical skills.

  11. James Redekop says

    Reading out the French would sound kind of like a member of Monty Python reading Humpty Dumpty with a French accent exaggerated to the point of incomprehensibility.

  12. PaulBC says

    I really had to struggle to see the connection in pronunciation, which only shows how I completely failed to “get” spoken French. While my attempts to learn Mandarin as an adult were not successful, I feel as if I can tell where the words start and stop when I hear it spoken. That may be illusory, but with French, I know I can’t tell.

    Given the choice I had available in high school of French, Spanish, or German, I really picked the hardest one based on my own strengths and weaknesses. (This continues to annoy me to this day when I think of it.) (Also that I wasted time taking a Latin elective, though I enjoyed that and it did help my vocabulary.)

  13. dianne says

    PaulBC@12: Have you attempted to use French in a French speaking country? My high school French is an extremely blunt instrument, but it allows me to get my point across in shops and things. I think it not unlikely that yours would work the same way, maybe better since there’s a decent chance high school was more recent for you than for me.

  14. René says

    This reminds me of the fake Latin that is actually French and the fake Latin that is actually Dutch (in my father’s Brabant dialect), viz. Sumpti dom est hic, apportavit legato alacrem. (Son petit domestique apporta vite le gateau a la crème) and Ditis nepis potentis ne grote (Dit ‘ne pispot en ‘t is ‘ne grote). English translations upon request :-)

  15. PaulBC says

    dianne@15 That ship has sailed. I did try to use a little self-taught German when I lived in Zürich about 25 years ago (I know they speak Swiss German, but you can get by with standard German). It was awkward though I had picked up a decent reading vocabulary over the course of a year and could even understand a little when spoken.

    Developing fluency involves making foolish mistakes in front of people, and I hate doing that. Actually if I had to pick up a language today, there is interactive software that could help. It is doubtful that I will, and if I do try to pick one up, it’ll probably be Spanish.

  16. bcw bcw says

    Definitely works better if your accent is bad. It did change the meaning of “tant pis / tant mieux” to a giggle for me as a kid. You have to be willing to mix both the accurate French and English sound meanings of the words.

  17. whheydt says

    My father had French (plus Latin and Greek) in high school. Later, when he was in the Navy and had liberty in the south of France, he said he could read the newspapers just fine, but the local conversation was unintelligible because every third word was Italian.

    It was a different era… He graduated from high school in 1927 and was in the Navy from mid-1927 to 1933.

  18. Rob Grigjanis says

    whheydt @20:

    the local conversation was unintelligible because every third word was Italian.

    Maybe your dad was hearing Occitan, the once-predominant language of Southern France. Some words do sound a bit more like Italian.

    One of my favourite songs is in the Auvergnat dialect of Occitan.

  19. Richard Smith says

    While not Italian, I recall this from Latin…

    Ebili, ebili, eris ego,
    Fortibus es in ero
    Nobili, nobili, demis trux
    Sevatis enim causen dux

  20. jrkrideau says

    My French is not all that fluent especially as I have been in an anglophone part of the country for years but I do not get it. Of course most of my French is from Québec not France and we all know those French people speak funny.

    @ 28 whheydt
    I stopped in a small town in the South of France years ago and checked into a small hotel. No problem with the young woman on the desk. Later, in the dining room her husband took my order. Almost total incomprehension on my part.

    I find that I am okay in Montreal but Northern Ontario? Argh. Still it is the same in the same in English. I think that man in Glasgow was speaking English.

  21. PaulBC says

    I watched Trainspotting when it came out. I was in Zürich at the time, where rather than dub English language movies, they provided both French and German subtitles. I would listen to the Scottish accents. Then read the French subtitle as best I could. Then read the German subtitle as best I could. Synthesizing them all I could usually make out the dialogue.

  22. PaulBC says

    René@17 Maybe it’s like the “No Jesus No Peace” bumper sticker.

    “No French, no wonder.” “Know French. Know Wonder.”

    It, uh, almost makes sense.

  23. Colin J says

    My parents had that book and would fish it out from time to time. The only poem I remember was “Un petit d’un petit” so I guess that was the highlight. I must check with my brother & sister to see if either of them took it.

    PaulBC @24: I also saw Trainspotting when it came out, but I was in Edinburg. What I wouldn’t have given for subtitles! The rest of the cinema kept laughing while I was going “Huh?”

  24. Ridana says

    If you copy and paste this into google translate (including the line with only a period) and have it speak to you, most of it does work. The “all the king’s horses and men” part is kind of a stretch, but otherwise it’s pretty cool.

    Un petit d’un petit
    S’étonne aux Halles
    Un petit d’un petit
    Ah degrés te fallent
    Indolent qui ne sort cesse
    Indolent qui ne se mène
    Qu’importe un petit
    Tout gai de Reguennes.

  25. PaulBC says

    Ridana@27 I should have tried that sooner! I am especially impressed at how well “Tout gai de Reguennes” works.

    The fact that French is spelled this way and pronounced that way really hammers home why I could never get the hang of it. Also the final consonants that you don’t pronounce at all.

    I used to have fun listening to Google say my name in Chinese. Paul is a little bit of a stretch: 保罗 (Bǎoluó) but my last name comes out phonetically. There are many more written characters than there are ways to say them, even with the four tones, so it should be possible to transliterate English into a recognizable subset of Mandarin sounds, written as Pinyin. I am not sure if anyone has ever tried this (but probably). It might take some practice to understand it.

    Writing something with any Chinese semantics that could be mistaken for English is harder. It might be doable for short sentences. If you picked tone carefully, you might even be able to make some sound like questions and others like assertions.

  26. Tethys says

    The French swallow their consonants, but it’s similar enough to Spanish that they share identical phrases that sound alike, but don’t look remotely the same in writing. I’m always surprised at the difference between how French is spelled, and how it’s actually pronounced.

    Rene @16

    Dit ‘ne pispot en ‘t is ‘ne grote). English translations upon request

    The Latin says something about rich grandsons, and I think the Brabant is ‘This the pisspot, and that is the grit/groats.’ The only word I’m sure about is pisspot.

  27. John Morales says

    Tethys, of course, ‘pisspot’ can refer to either a chamberpot or an overly bibulous person.

  28. Tethys says

    John Morales

    A pisspot is also an adjective for someone who is being crabby. I suppose a drunk on the ground is possible too, as it’s idiom.

    I know a few in German that don’t make any sense, but guessing at the meaning of grote in Brabant dialect. Rote grote mit floud is a red berry pudding, thickened with oats/grits and topped with cream.

  29. Ridana says

    28 @PaulBC: Probably too late for you to see this, but I like this one in Japanese. The google translate lady sounds so cute.
    乳首ドゥー (the English translation makes it funnier)