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?


  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.

  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.

  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."