French Regional Accents: comment?

We have just returned from a 10-day holiday in Corsica, hence the lack of posts, comments etc for a while. I did schedule this post to appear while I was away, but for some reason it didn’t, so here it is now. To follow, once I have sorted out my photos, are some posts about Corsica. Watch this space.

I have often written about the French language on this blog, but I have never talked in any detail about French regional accents. See some other posts in Language, under ‘Topics this blog covers’ in the right-hand sidebar.

When we first moved here, we expected everyone to speak in received French pronunciation. After all, that was what I had learned at school. What we hadn’t allowed for was that, like all countries, France has its regional accents. Down here in the southwest, the accent is quite pronounced. They add an ‘e’ onto almost every word. Delivery is at machine-gun speed and most sentences end with ‘quoi’ (in Toulouse it’s ‘con’ – don’t ask).

I remember clearly one of our first forays into the local Intermarché supermarket. We needed some flour but I couldn’t find it, so I asked a woman stacking the shelves, ‘Où est la farine, s’il vous plaît?’ OK, today I might put it slightly better than that. However, it wasn’t my rather naïve French that the woman had a problem with; it was the accent. I had to repeat my question several times. Then the penny dropped: ‘Ah, la farin-er,’ she said. 

When I recently attended the regional finals of a national French grammar competition in Toulouse, I came up against the regional accent in a big way (see my post here). Part of the exam consisted of a dictation delivered by the patron of the competition by video link. However, he was unintelligible to everyone (not just me) and the local organisers decide to read the text themselves.

It started well (for me) since the woman doing it read it in what one might call received French pronunciation. This was unacceptable to the Toulousains in the audience since they didn’t understand her accent. So they changed to a Toulousaine, after which I was lost. Most of the mistakes I made occurred after she took over. I simply couldn’t follow her accent. 

We are reminded of this almost daily. Our neighbours were born and bred in the region. Mme F is reasonably easy to understand. Her husband, alas, isn’t and doesn’t get any easier even after 14 years. His lack of front teeth doesn’t help things along. Some other neighbours from Paris who have a maison secondaire say they don’t understand him either, and they’ve known him for 30 years.

M. F’s first language is not French but Occitan* and his delivery of French is based on the latter. He is also slightly hard of hearing. If he hasn’t caught what you said he says, ‘Commenger?’, his version of ‘comment’ or pardon. If you haven’t understood what he has said (which is not uncommon) and say, ‘Comment?’ he just says it louder but no more intelligibly.

It’s not easy being a foreigner…

*An aside (I’ll provide more info later): Occitan is a separate language which was spoken throughout the south of France in many different variations. With its roots in Latin, it sounds like a cross between French and Catalan. It started to decline from the 16th century, when it was decreed that Northern French would henceforth be the language of administration. At one point, the government banned speaking it at school, in an attempt to reinforce centralisation by making everyone speak French.  

Today, the language is enjoying a revival and it’s not uncommon to find local newspaper articles in Occitan. All the village signs in our area show not only the French spelling but also the Occitan spelling of the village name (e.g Caylus (French), Cailutz (Occitan)).

Copyright © 2011 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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6 Responses to French Regional Accents: comment?

  1. sara ellen ben-eliahu says:

    I enjoyed reading your observation concerning the variety of accents, words, abberations, etc., that exist in most languages. My mind was stunned to attention when you happened to choose Catalan for one example when considering some of the so-called dialects or languages spreckled about your region. Indeed there is an evident connection between Catalan and Provencial. However, if we wander about Spain, we will discover that “Gallegos” (meaning French in Greek) by both pronunciation and many word spellings is suspiciously associated more with Porteguese than Spanish, as we of today might imagine, unless of course we could weed through Cervantes or Calderon without first mastering considerable years of graduate studies in Renaissance Spanish. Assuming that you have a smattering of Greek and its lisping pronunciation which adds the Islantic symbol for “th” — this would suggest that Greek has come to these parts of the world with ship traders at the time of Magna Grecia. As is true with some Sicilian dialects. It poses so many wonderous questions to whet the imagination of any deviant personality who finds such studies facsinating.
    May I be so brazen as to suggest a book you might enjoy reading? “Parler crocquahnt,” the author of which I cannot remember at the moment. Great stuff! Take a trip to the Canary Islands and discover where the Latin American accents originated!!! It will be revealed that the common sailors who made the long journeys to the New World originated from that very same spot on the map!! You will also verify this by going into any musically-inclined bistrot on the islands and hearing the local rhythms of the guitar and mandolyn!!??? — groups who will eventually play to the complicated beat of the Juapango, which we will recognise from most Mariache bands, particularly around Guadalajara Mexico. Now take a rip and mingle around the area of Bretagne where a good many Irish , formally English teachers in Paris and other major cities, have come to reside at retirement. Peel an ear to the local mother-tongue languages — not French — and if you know Welch, Herberdian Scots, or accents from that Green Place over the pond, any one of them will tune you in to the similarities. Even in the US., just imagine the varieties, more difficult to unearth today because of our glorious media, where in places like the Appalachians during some of my younger days, one could pick up late Renaissance English!!! Television has changed all of this of course.
    May I compliment you on your English style!! Another precious element that is disappearing from the English scene. Just consider too how the BBC has, I would not say developed, but deteriorated, ever since around the 1980s with their change of policy concerning regional accents and even so-called popular programmes! Oh dear, oh dear, what is the world of fine arts coming to?? But who alas has ever read Patrick White anyway these days??? Certainly not any Aussie I’ve met, though in general they are a convivial lot.
    Plod on lass!!!. Sincerely yours, Eugene Garvin, Castellar Village up the mountain from Menton.

    Hi — I am logging this in on my subscription to your site. Eugene is my esteemed partner and husband.
    Sara Ellen Ben-Eliahu

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    • nessafrance says:

      Many thanks for this erudite and informative comment. There’s so much in here that I am at a loss to reply, except to observe that the origin of language and its development clearly interests you as much as it does me, although I suspect you know much more about it than I do. I will certainly get hold of the book you recommend.
      I’m planning to do some more research on Occitan and its origins when I get some time. I was also fascinated to learn about a whistling language developed amongst shepherds in a particularly remote Pyrenean valley. No one now ‘speaks’ it, although there might be one or two very old people who remember having heard it. I’d like to know more about that.
      Thank you also for the compliment – I’m always open to those! I fully agree about the BBC. We don’t get English TV here and whenever I return to the UK, I am greatly disappointed by the decline in standards. Where are the wonderful BBC1 dramas and BBC2 historical documentaries they used to do? Now it’s all celebrity chefs and people turning suburban semis into Gothic horrors. But don’t get me started on that.
      Keep on ranting about standards!
      Kind regards,
      Vanessa

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  2. Hope you had a lovely holiday. I can just about remember what they are!!
    This is familiar territory – our old neighbour speaks Creusois, and even my kids can’t understand him and they’re completely fluent in French. I shall have to look into the roots of that dialect.

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    • nessafrance says:

      We get a proper holiday about once every 4 years and this was great. The issue of language in France is fascinating – there’s a very good exposition of it in ‘The Discovery of France’ by Graham Robb. I suspect that Creuse might be above the Occitan line – so your neighbour might be speaking an old version of what is now the ‘proper’ French language, but I am not expert by any means. If you read Graham Robb’s book, you’ll find that there is a very distinct line between the language of Nothern France and Occitan, which can be traced geographically. I am planning to do a lot more research on this.

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  3. Joanna Lamb says:

    Welcome back from your holiday Vanessa! Sympathise so much about accents, the Italian language as we know it has only been in existence since 1945, before then it was all regional language and here in Le Marche they have a very particular accent which defies all the text books! The younger age groups speak modern Italian but will still fall into the accent when excited. I practice what I want to say and then just get some strange stares back until the penny (centissimi) clicks and they say ‘oh you mean blah’ exactly like I thought I said it! Perhaps I should be like one of our friends, he speaks very good Italian but all delivered in a very English accent (a bit like in Hello Hello) and seems to have no problems!

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    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks, Jo. I try very hard to speak French with a French accent, but I can never get rid of my English accent. Sometimes I simply can’t tell the difference, but they still come back and say, ‘Oh, you’re English, aren’t you?’ I don’t think I will ever rid myself of my English accent, but I suppose at least I can make myself understood – after 14 years…

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