X là là

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I'm in France for a few days, at a workshop at ENSTA on Traitement de l'information multimédia. I'm staying with friends who have an energetic and enterprising two-year-old son, and so I've had the opportunity to do a bit of language acquisition. One of the commoner bits of child-directed speech, at least in this particular household, is a familiar French exclamation that I'll write as "X là là!", where "X" stands for a range of vowel qualities from IPA [ɑ] through [o] to [u].

All the versions of this exclamation share the factor of surprise, or at least the idea that something is out of the ordinary and worthy of note. But there's another dimension: is the noteworthy thing good or bad? And as far as I can tell, the higher and rounder the initial vowel, the more problematic the event or object under discussion.

I can't think of any comparable phonetico-semantic continuum in English, but in the typical circumstances of use, "ah là là" seems to be roughly equivalent to "wow", while "ouh là là"  might be translated as "oh dear".

However, the explanations offered for this range of expressions at fr.wiktionary.org ("le wiktionnaire") are not at all consistent with my inferences.

ah là là is glossed as "Sert à exprimer de la lassitude, ou une certaine contrariété fataliste (néanmoins souvent chargé d'une connotation affectueuse)" — "Serves to express lassitude, or a certain fatalistic annoyance (often carrying an affectionate connotation)".

oh là là gets three listed senses:

1. Marque l’étonnement, la surprise, la stupéfaction.
__("Indicates astonishment, surprise, stupefaction")
* Oh là là ! C’est incroyable !
* Oh là là ! Quelle bonne nouvelle ! C’est formidable !
* Oh là là ! Quelle catastrophe ! Je suis navré.
2.  Marque l’enthousiasme, l’excitation.
__("Indicates enthusiasm, excitement")
* Oh là là, j’y cours tout de suite !
3. Marque la déception.
__("Indicates disappointment")
* Oh là là, qu’est-ce qu’on s’est pris !

ouh là là is treated similarly:

1. Marque l’admiration.
__("Indicates admiration")
* Ouh là là ! Qu’il est beau !
2. Expression d’avertissement.
__("Indicates warning or concern")
* Ouh là là, ce que vous dites est très grave !
3. Indique du sarcasme.
__("Indicates sarcasm")
* Ouh là là, c’est que vous me faites peur !

Crowdsourced lexicography is not in general very reliable; and attempts to gloss things like exclamations are likely to be problematic under any circumstances. So I look forward to the day when a large searchable corpus of recorded French conversation will make it possible to learn something more about the distribution and uses of such expressions.

In any case, the American stereotype for "ooh la la" appears to pretty far from the mark.

[Update -- one of the online dictionaries in which I looked for a relevant entry asked me if I perhaps was looking for

halal
blabla
hula
gala
koala
lama
hallali
ouragan
palan
smala
ultra

This is not lexicographically helpful, but it does provide a useful object lesson in l'arbitraire du signe.]

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16 Comments »

  1. Murray Smith said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 7:32 am

    I noticed a distinction ah-là-là v. oh-là-là among television commentators on a tennis broadcast in Paris some years ago and asked a friend about it. After a moment's reflection, he said ah-là-là means something good happened, and oh-là-là means something bad happened. Wow and Oh dear seem to fit the bill.

  2. Eric TF Bat said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 7:38 am

    I fear I will never be a linguist. I look at French and I get horrible flashbacks to high school. Doesn't happen with any other language, but is it possible to get a degree in linguistics with the proviso that one will refuse to have anything to do with French? It may excite comment, I fear.

    [You got my vote. You may be comforted by my post "The miserable French language and its inadequacies" at http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002504.html (which has taken some real flak from francophiles, lemme tell ya). Just pray that our future does not hold francophony enforced by le Microsoft. — Geoff Pullum]

  3. richard howland-bolton said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 7:52 am

    @ Eric
    ouh là là!

  4. Mark Etherton said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 8:11 am

    One small faux ami: 'déception' isn't 'deception' but 'disappointment'.

  5. RP said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 8:51 am

    @Murray Smith,
    It reminds me a bit of the various distinctions English has between "aaa", "ahhh", and "awww".

  6. Neil Coffey said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 9:43 am

    Note that some of what you're witnessing isn't necessarily restricted to child-direct speech.

    There are also variants with different numbers of "là"s, just to add to the confusion ("oh là!" with just one "là" would be quite common in the adult language to indicate surprise, whereas to indicate more of a 'calamity' as I recall either 6 or 10 là's are common "oh là là là là là là (là là là là)", but not, for example, 7 or 9…

  7. CClinton said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 9:48 am

    English "Wow" and "Whoa" are fairly close to the same phenomenon. This may just be me, but I feel like "Wow" (with a lower starting vowel in the diphthong) expresses a much stronger sense of surprise/astonishment/impressed-ness then "Whoa," which in turn has a higher initial diphthong vowel.
    "Woo~Woot" could be related, but I feel like it is more for personal victories.

  8. Shangwen said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 10:01 am

    I am fluent in French (I live in Canada), but other than seeking the glories of federal gummint work, it is pretty useless outside Quebec, unless you have big plans to open a resort in New Caledonia.

    Mark, while you're there, I suggest you earn the love of the French by throwing up your hands with an expression of delight and shout "Ouragan!" each time some dainty morsel is set before you.

    Thanks for linking to Pullum's article on French–loved it.

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 10:43 am

    Is the "American stereotype" of ooh la la distinctively American? I would have thought that (like perhaps most but not all stereotypes held by Americans of French people/culture/language) it originated in England and was Anglosphere-wide, but I suppose I could be wrong about that. The hits for the phrase in the BNC seem consistent with American usage, but there are only four of them so perhaps not enough data to be sure. The arguably best-known songs titled Ooh La La (the Faces one and the Goldfrapp one – well-known enough that the "American" hits in COCA include references to both) also seem broadly consistent with American usage but were written by Brits.

  10. Robert Coren said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 11:12 am

    Surely the various shades of meaning of such exclamations are conveyed as much or more by tone of voice than by choice of vowel. I can certainly imagine saying "wow" to mean "That's really amazingly beautiful", and also saying "wow" to mean "Oh, that sounds really bad, I hope it gets better soon", and there being no doubt in my hearers' minds which one I meant.

    [(myl) Performance certainly matters, and not only for exclamations. But I think there might be more doubt in your hearers' minds than you think, at least if the performance is presented interpreted out of context. Perhaps I should do for "wow" what I did for "oh great"... ]

  11. Lazar said,

    July 9, 2011 @ 8:58 am

    My naïve anglospheric impression of "ouh là là" is that it's something to be interjected when we want to give a facetious impression of Frenchness and romance. (Une certaine idée de la France?) It's closely associated in my mind with the stereotypical French nasal laugh, "Hon hon hon!"

  12. YM said,

    July 9, 2011 @ 5:03 pm

    In Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius's mother says "eh, la la". This is set in New Orleans (though she's not French). I don't know how it's pronounced. The sense of it is exactly what you have here for ah là là.

  13. Peter said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 11:45 am

    On admittedly fairly slight acquaintance, I have the impression that in the northeastern US, oy oy oy can similarly vary across a vowel continuum, with its meaning shading as it does. Can anyone who uses it themself confirm or deny this?

  14. ronbo said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 12:57 pm

    Any grouping by region or class? I know a Moroccan-born native speaker in her 60s who has never said "ooh-la-la" in my presence (we go back a long way) but says "oh-la" frequently and under a wide range of circumstances: from objective bad news to mocking my accent.

    I also know a few BCBG women in their 30s who live or have lived in Paris and use "ooh-la-la" or "oh-la-la" a lot, also covering a great deal of ground.

    Two whole data points – why research further?

  15. Gadi said,

    July 12, 2011 @ 9:27 am

    @Peter:
    Is the "oy-oy-oy" you refer to borrowed from Yiddish? In Israeli Hebrew we've borrowed it as "Oh yo yoy" or "Oo yoo yooy", though I can't say I can distinguish semantic differences between the two, only prosodic ones. Nowadays it's mostly used to speak to children, or ironically. Or Ironically to children: "Oh yo yoy yo yoy yo yoy!"
    We do also have "ay ya yay" which is more common and takes various meanings depending on intonation.

  16. Rubix said,

    July 16, 2011 @ 3:23 am

    @Neil: variants with different numbers of "là" always use an even number, because pitch is used to separate them — usually, odd "là"s are lower than even "là"s.

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