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.
* Oh là là, qu’est-ce qu’on s’est pris !
ouh là là is treated similarly:
1. Marque l’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.
* 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
This is not lexicographically helpful, but it does provide a useful object lesson in l'arbitraire du signe.]