Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Mots d'Heures

At some point when I was little, my mom showed me some strange French poems from a collection called Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames. I don't speak French, but that's beside the point. Here's a sample of one:
Un petit d'un petit
S'├ętonne aux Halles
Un petit d'un petit
Ah! degr├ęs te fallent
Notice anything odd about it? If not, try reading it aloud a few times. Still nothing? This might help.

This is a writing technique called homophonic translation, in which words in one language approximate the sounds of words in another. Here, the author, Luis d'Antin van Rooten, claims that the poems are a lost French manuscript, and writes copious notes attempting to explain the bizarre and archaic vocabulary and syntax. But the poems always make at least some effort at coherency; the translation of the first two lines is roughly "A child of a child was surprised at Les Halles." The story of Ladle Rat Rotten Hut uses a similar technique, but in English only, replacing every word or phrase with a near-homophone.

Bilingual puns are of course a glorious tradition even when less extreme. My mother once saw a cheese shop called C'est Cheese ("it is cheese" in Franglais.) My high school Latin teacher told me he thought the greatest pun of all time was from a cartoon about Sir Charles James Napier's conquest of the province of Sindh in India: his hypothetical message to his commanding officer was simply Peccavi - Latin for "I have sinned." And of course, my favorite joke about the Olympics: A spectator sees an athlete training with a long pole, and says "Are you a pole vaulter?" The athlete responds, shocked, "No, I'm German, but how did you know my name?"

So, in lieu of trivia today, I have a riddle based on a terrible French-English pun. Why do the French never have two eggs at breakfast?

3 comments:

  1. The concept behind this blog is fantastic. It's, it seems, the only logical natural evolution of your love of words.

    I especially like this entry right now, but that may also be because right now I am in France, and man, do the French like their "jeux de mots." On another note: the Sindh pun reminds me of home, and here's why. There's a Taiwanese restaurant in LA called SinBaLa, and when referring to going to SinBaLa for some delicious Taiwanese noms, my friends and I often say, "When are you free this week to Sin?" It's not exactly right, but OH WELL. That's what it reminded me of.

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  2. Isabella - Thanks so much! Glad you like the blog. French and English have a great relationship in so many ways. Hope you're enjoying France, and thanks for the praise. Keep sinning.

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  3. Also, congratulations to the anonymous punster who left a note in my dorm room with the correct answer to the riddle here:

    "Because one is enough." Or, perhaps more clearly: "Because one is un oeuf."

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