Monday, March 22, 2010

French Expressionists

This past week, 82-year-old Simone Veil was inducted into the Academie Française. This amazing woman is a holocaust survivor, champion of women's rights here in France and across Europe, and only the 6th women to become a member of this prestigious institution. She joins the likes of Alexandre Dumas, Louis Pasteur, Voltaire and Victor Hugo on the list of those who have worn the green robes. This Monday memory is in honor of her induction....even though I'm absolutely sure she'd be mortified if she knew it.

The French language is for me, one of the most beautiful in the world. It is fluid and melodic and these qualities… this euphony…is considered one of its most important characteristics.  The French share my enthusiasm for their mother tongue. They are proud of it…proud enough to actually have an official body, called the Academie Française, whose job it is to stand as sentinel against any perceived pollution of the language. These 40 people, who are appointed for life (thus they hold the title “les immortels”) make decisions on grammar and usage, which words will be permitted into the official language, what English words will not be allowed and what should replace them. They direct the compilation of the official dictionary and have been doing so since 1635. (In recent history, they’ve only allowed regular, or simple, verbs that are all conjugated exactly the same way which is great news for imbeciles like me!)) And luckily for me they are only safeguarding the written language because there is much more to it than that.

One of the funniest things I’ve observed when watching and listening to French speakers is their use of sounds, facial expressions and body movements. Of course, people of all nationalities use them. But here in France, these seem more vigorous and distinct.  Of course writing down what they sound like is impossible and their exact meaning is even more difficult to discern which is probably the reason “les immortels” have avoided the issue entirely! But les gestes français are considered important enough to be taught in French language classes and explained in detail on numerous internet sites

There is a particular sound I’ve heard often that sounds a bit like clucking and and a bit like tisking. It’s kind of a rapid-fire uh, uh, uh, uh.  For months when people used this with me I thought they were chastising me in some way, which I just assumed I deserved. But in fact, it’s a sound of agreement…kind of like “yes…I see what you mean.

In the same vein, frequently my french friends make a sound that involves an intake of air with a small, gaspy noise. Sort of like the person is mildly startled. This one also caused confusion for me..I kept thinking I was saying something mildly risque without knowing it (which happens, believe me), but I now realize that it generally means "uh huh...uh huh" as in "I'm listening". At least I hope that's what it means!

The French have a common movement in which they stick out their lips and expel enough air to make a little whooshing sound. If this is done alone, it seems to be an expression of mild disgust. I think the meaning might be  “whatever”.  If it’s accompanied by a little eyebrow lift and possibly a slight raising of the hands it’s more like “can you believe that?”  If the hands go up a little higher and the sound is sharper and the lips stick out a little further it means “that is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard”. This movement and it's variations is not to be confused with what I have heard termed "the French face-fart" which can also be accompanied by arm gestures and it means "I don't know" or "it's not my fault".

There is also a sound that might finish off a story or can replace the end of a story whose ending is simply understood  and there’s no need to really finish.  The mouth puckers up like it’s about to whistle, but instead, a odd noise (like the sound a chimpanzee makes when he’s goofing off) is emitted.  I find this noise to be terribly useful because I can never finish any story or sentence completely in French. It has served me well!

The gestures are innumerable and I'm starting to get the hang of it. For example, when you point to someone and then raise your hand to your nose and sort of crank it, that means "he's drunk". Point to your eye and pull it down a little and that means "he's full of it". Tap the top of one hand with the palm of the other and that means "let's go".  With all three of these, you can actually talk to your girlfriends on a Saturday night out, without saying a word. 

"This guy is not only drunk, he's full of shit. Let's get out of here".

And of course there is the well-known movement that takes place exclusively while driving. It’s the sharp, upward slash of the hand and arm (many times both hands) followed by any number of expletives. But I think this movement was actually stolen from the Italians because they are the true experts at it.

French people use their lips more than English speakers. They have to because the sounds necessary to speak it require these lip gymnastics. But it’s actually very charming and sensual. I love to watch the lips of French people as they’re speaking. Often when I sit on the bus or in a cafe, I try to decide who is French and who is not just by watching their mouths and body movements.  I can’t hear them but their lips and facial expressions give them away. I’m getting pretty good at it. 

I just finished class and I’m not finding the language so wonderful right about now. It might sound beautiful but it’s a pain to learn and I’m beginning to doubt that I ever will. But right now, I CAN manage French sounds.  And if you could see and hear me, you would see that I’m sticking out my lips and letting out a little air. This means I’m disgusted by my seeming inability to learn to speak French. And after I push the button to publish this story, it will be followed by that cute little monkey sound that means, “the story is  finished”.



  1. I notice that when I have been speaking French all day, the muscles in my face are tired...a French friend tells me that the reason French women don't get wrinkles is that speaking the language keeps the facial muscles supple!
    Yet another French myth?

  2. It's amazing. As I read this blog I am also hearing your accent, as though you are French speaking english. Love it.

  3. Haha. Fun post! Good on you for taking on the task of describing these gestures so well - it really is quite something! I've always had an expressive face, but I have a whole new repertoire after living in France :)

  4. Fly: ah the subject of French myths.There's a post! But actually, I've wondered about that and actually find french women seem to have more wrinkles around their mouths. Fact or be the judge!
    Joanna: Welcome to my blog. In fact, I'm an idiot trying desperately to not massacre a beautiful sound...and failing miserably.That's why I love the gestures. I can't screw it up!
    Paris:Moi aussi! But I now find myself bah-ing and poofing, and whooshing alone with the rest of them. Love les gestes!

  5. It took me almost a year to explain the american uh huh and uh uh {positive and negative) to my french wife.... I can't wait for dinner tomorrow so we can talk about the infamous OO LA LA..... Lips will be flyin'.... That will take us into Corsican my wife is French Corsican...
    A demain pour le sanglier!!!

  6. It all sounds absolutely wonderful.

  7. You write about the things I think about and wish I had said.

    Bravo to Mme Weil - if I were her I never would have returned to France.

  8. I feel like I am eavesdropping on such a wonderful and fascinating journey. I hope you don't mind, but I do want to hear (read) more and to join in whenever I can.

  9. Cory: The Sanglier rocked! (That's wild boar for those who don't know.) I'll save Ooh la la and Ooh la (with a little bit of hand shaking) for another post!

    FF: Thank you. That's a compliment. When I started this blog I wanted it to mostly be about life in France with a little more mixed in (like internet dating perhaps). I am trying to follow that chemin. And yes...oh to be as strong as Mme Veil.

    JoAnna: Stay with us and join in often. I love it and am truly glad you're here.


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