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)).
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