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The recent discussion of how to pronounce "Uyghur", and especially the treatment of the medial consonant, brought up the case of yoghurt/yogurt, which in French is "yaourt" — and today on the Omniglot Blog the Word of the Day is yaourter, "to yoghurt", which is said to be

a French word for the way people attempt to speak or sing in a foreign language that they don’t know very well. Often they mishear and misinterpret the word or lyrics and substitute them with familiar words.

Some of the comments on the Omniglot post suggest that the English equivalent is the noun mondegreen. I've never heard anyone verbing mondegreen, and a bit of web search doesn't turn up much except for the http://twitter.com/mondegreened (which I'm sorry to say belong to someone named "Julian", not "Ed"), and a post on "The mondegreening of America", and a few other things.

But it seems that the key thing about the French word is the nonsense imitation of another language, which is more like a specialization of doubletalk than a verbal equivalent of mondegreen.

There's nothing available from Gallica,  nor from wordreference.com, nor from the Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française, so (pending asking Francophone friends) I need to fall back on general web search. And that turns up things like this comment:

Just for the story, in France, when we don't speak English and we want to imitate the sound, we call it "yaourter"(to yoghourt), the imitation sounds like a very nasal language, kind of like a baby crying. It mostly imitates the "cowboy" accent.

Or this one:

Prenez une poignée de bons amis, de préférence des amis aimant chanter, chantonner, fredonner ou même yaourter. Et qui n’ont pas spécialement peur, les liquides houblonnés aidant, de se cramer la honte dans des bars où ils sont pourtant connus. Mettez leur entre les pattes une petite boite carrée pleine de cartes, nommée Shabadabada, et laissez agir quelques heures. Observez le résultat : il semblerait qu’ils alternent des phases de faisage de gueule et d’autres de franche rigolade.

Or again this:

… j'ai rajouté de la super musique dans le lecteur sur votre droite… Playlist à chanter, yaourter, meumeumer, hurler, casseroler aussi!…

These examples do make it seem as if yaourter is a mode of vocal production, with any sense of "slip of the ear" being very much secondary. And it's not clear to me whether imitating the sound of another language is central to its meaning, or if it's rather something more like scat-singing, or sung double-talk, or something like that.

English has a lot of words for speaking or singing nonsensically, but I can't think of any word that refers specifically to nonsensical imitations of the speech of foreigners, although there's a long anglophone tradition of producing such imitations for the amusement of others.


  1. Spectre-7 said,

    July 21, 2009 @ 9:11 pm

    A Google search for "mondegreening" is somewhat productive.

  2. Ray Girvan said,

    July 21, 2009 @ 9:16 pm

    the imitation sounds like a very nasal language

    That's rather odd, because I think UK English speakers consider French to be a highly nasalized language (see Brummie is beautiful). To imitate it, I'd nearly close my mouth, expand the upper nasopharynx as much as possible, and make a kind of "Hawng-de-hawng" noise through my nose.

    [(myl) Although I can't come up with a reference at the moment, I recall some psychophysical experiments indicating that "nasal" as an ordinary-language descriptive term seems to mean something like "somehow odd or unexpected in timbre". This makes sense, because the acoustic effects of coupling the nasal cavities into the vocal resonance system are quite variable, adding pole-zero pairs at all sorts of different frequencies. ]

  3. Nick said,

    July 21, 2009 @ 9:19 pm

    Yaourt (Yet AnOther User Repository Tool) is also a wrapper for the standard package manager (pacman) in Arch Linux, so in that context a yaourter would be someone who uses yaourt. Yaourt "imitates" pacman, and adds extra functionality.


  4. rootlesscosmo said,

    July 21, 2009 @ 9:34 pm

    "Shabadabada" is a pretty accurate version of the syllables sung by Nicole Croisille and Pierre Barouh on the music track of the film "Un homme et une femme," directed by Claude Lelouch.

  5. John Cowan said,

    July 21, 2009 @ 10:38 pm

    Check back to your 2005 post on grammelot.

  6. Noetica said,

    July 21, 2009 @ 11:53 pm

    Often they mishear and misinterpret the word or lyrics and substitute them with familiar words.

    Interesting to see the persistence of the verb substitute with with. This is not covered in the current M-W Collegiate, though the older and much more comprehensive W3NI makes allowance for it:

    3 : to replace with another {substitute yesterday's steady opinions with the latest fancies} {names like Jane are always substituted by the pronoun she — R.A.Hall b. 1911}

    This matter has been discussed at length in the thread Lost for Words: II, at Language Hat. Be warned, though: the contributors are anything but lost for words.

  7. dr pepper said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 12:03 am

    There's always the classic: "barbarian".

  8. XauriEL said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 2:55 am

    One might call it 'Parlay voo' or perhaps 'durka durka' (from Team America: World Police)

  9. Zwicky Arnold said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 3:13 am

    To Noetica: there's a fair literature on "substitute OLD with/by NEW' for older "replace OLD with NEW" and "substitute NEW for OLD". I wrote to ADS-L in 2004:

    … the use of "substitute" for "replace" is venerable; see MWDEU on "substitute", citing the OED (examples back to the 17th century), Fowler's rage over the usage, complaints from other usageists, a pile of examples (including one from Robert A. Hall, Jr. in American Speech (1951)), and the practice of M-W dictionaries since
    Webster's Second (1934) to treat it as standard.

    (There is, in addition, a much more recent variant "substitute OLD for NEW". For extended discussion of the three variants for "substitute", see David Denison's 2009 paper

    Argument structure. In Günter Rohdenburg & Julia Schlüter (eds.), One language, two grammars? Differences between British and American English, 149-65. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Available on-line here, in a down-loadable version.)

  10. Chris said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 3:30 am

    Like other commenters, I already knew about mondegreens. However, I recently discovered the soramimi, thanks to this post at Fritinancy.

  11. mollymooly said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 4:39 am

    If "yaourter" does not in fact mean "sing along in fake English", I suggest "rhubarber" might do.
    The canonical fake-Irish gaelic phrase for anglophones is "mahogany gaspipe".

    I think UK English speakers consider French to be a highly nasalized language

    I call to mind the French lesson in "The Simpsons": the kids laugh [hə hə hə]; the teacher says "ah! en français!"; the kids laugh [hɑ̃ hɑ̃ hɑ̃].

    I recall some psychophysical experiments indicating that "nasal" as an ordinary-language descriptive term seems to mean something like "somehow odd or unexpected in timbre"

    On a related note, Trask's definition of "guttural":

    A meaningless label typically applied by the linguistically unsphisticated to any unfamiliar language or speech variety that doesn't sound like Italian.

  12. Noetica said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 5:27 am

    On substitute:

    Thanks, Arnold Zwicky. Fascinating. And thanks also to David Denison, who has dropped in at Language Hat and contributed from his research, including Pete Townshend's definitive answer on what he meant by substitute in the song of that name (though much else remains uncertain in the lyrics, of course; O tempora, &c.).

  13. Johanne D said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 8:37 am

    Here at least another language is involved (in Star Académie, a sort of American Idol): "On entend mieux Alexia qui yaourte toujours un peu en anglais." (http://www.generation-nt.com/sa5-un-prime-de-revanche-entraide-1853141.html)

  14. Mr Punch said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 8:42 am

    Seems to me that "mondegreen" is something entirely different – has nothing to do with foreign language. But there is some parallel to "barbarian," which derives from the ancient Greeks' representation of non-Greek speech as "bar bar bar."

  15. Chad Nilep said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 8:47 am

    @ Ray Girvan [and myl]
    In the introduction to Folk Linguistics (2000) Nancy Niedzielski and Dennis Preston suggest that the folk term "nasal" is used to refer to inappropriate nasality, including both nasalized and denasalized speech. So if English and French speech differ in nasality, speakers of each language might call the other "nasal."

  16. Laurent C said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

    As a native French speaker, I wouldn't know that word. In the contexts Mark provided, I would have assumed they used empty yogurts as homemade kazoos.

    It seems to be still rare on the internet.

  17. Aurore said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

    So far I never head anyone use "yaourter", but I heard the expression "anglais yaourt" a few times.
    (My mother "yaourte" or speaks in "anglais yaourt" when she tries to sing some English songs. "Like a candle in the wind" become something like "Lagaakadeuh izeu wiiii" – 'eu' being the French sound, similard to the 'i' in "bird".)

    And it's not clear to me whether imitating the sound of another language is central to its meaning

    I would say it is. It's different from misheard lyrics or scat. It's really the imitation of another language, even if the person that attempts such a thing doesn't know the language at all. (Well, if the person knows a bit the language, then it can be misheard lyrics).

    Sometimes some people use that expression to say they speaks very badly English, too.

    I realised I talked only about imitation of English, here, but that's because as far as I remember, I always heard that for that language. People don't "yaourt" Spanish or Italian. I guess that's because the word "yaourt" itself sounds a little bit English. (to untrained hears :) )

  18. judith strauser said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 12:14 pm

    I'm a native French speaker too, and an English-to-French translator, and I know and use 'chanter en yaourt' to mean singing nonsensical phonemes or mangled French words to replace (usually English) foreign lyrics one cannot parse (or for a comical, mocking effect). I've been doing it a great deal in my youth, ever since I was a pre-pubescent Michael Jackson enthusiast in the eighties: I particularly remember one summer at camp, how one of our counselors taught us a string of mangled French words to sing in place of the lyrics to 'Beat it' to achieve a somewhat competent imitation to a non-anglophone ear.

    I had never until now met the verbed form of the word, though, and 'yaourter' bothers me somewhat. I think I'll continue to call it 'chanter en yaourt' or 'faire du yaourt' (making yoghurt – the straight meaning could be misunderstood, of course, but the context renders the intended meaning clearly). Some verbings I like, and some I just… don't.

    I would definitely say that the fact the original one is trying to imitate is foreign is a key concept in 'yaourt singing.'

  19. CWV said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

    In English, this practice could be called Swedish Chef-ing.

  20. Jean-Pierre Metereau said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

    If it's using French words to sound like English, my favorite little book is "Mots d'Heures, Gousses, Rames." One example: "Et qui rit des cures d'Oc…" But the phrases actually mean something in French, although what they mean is usually not anything anyone would say.
    On the nasal thing: It always puzzled me when I had just come to the States to hear Americans describing French as "nasal," whereas my father and mother described English as spoken through the nose. Eventually, I figured that "nasal," like "guttural," just meant that the speaker didn't like the sound of the language.

  21. tablogloid said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 1:09 pm

    I grew up in Montreal as an anglophone between 1947 to 1970. To speak French was often called "ding-dong" as in, "Parlez-vous le ding dong?".

  22. tablogloid said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 1:10 pm

    Whoops! My apologies to LL purists for using "between" with "to".

  23. Tom Vinson said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

    There's a nonsense version in English of "Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau", the Welsh national anthem, which is supposed to sound close enough to the Welsh text to be sung in public. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hen_Wlad_Fy_Nhadau.
    The match looks a bit dubious to me, but I don't know Welsh.

  24. Ellen said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

    Jean-Pierre Metereau, for those of use who don't read French, can you give us the English that "Et qui rit des cures d'Oc" is supposed to sound like, and/or a phonetic transcription?

  25. Katya said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 1:48 pm


    I'm not good with IPA on the internet, so here's the best I can do:

    Et qui rit des curés d'Oc?
    De Meuses raines, houp! de cloques.

    ay kee ree day cue ray dock
    duh muhz rain oop duh clock, etc.

  26. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

    I agree that Swedish-Chefing sounds like a good analogy, which reminds me that many years ago I was surprised to learn while watching the Muppet Show dubbed into German that the Swedish Chef had been transformed into the Daenische Koch. [ae=a w/ umlaut] I've never gotten a satisfactory explanation about how the Swede-to-Dane substitution enhanced the humor value for a German-speaking audience. I assume the Koch's lines embodied a German approach to what would sound intrinsically comical/incoherent/foreign, but I can't actually recall (and haven't searched youtube for examples) if it sounded materially different than someone trying to speak German with the original "American" Swedish-Chef accent.

  27. Ray Girvan said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 2:13 pm


    Another example seems to be "adenoidal" (Google "adenoidal tones"), which is used to mean, variously: upper-class, lower-class, having a blocked nose, strident, lacking in affect, whiney, indistinct, plaintive, gormless … in other words, just weird in some way.

  28. Tom said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

    Then there's the one that begins "Un petit d'un petit …"

  29. Sili said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 7:13 pm

    Thanks Katya, the second line helps make sense of it.

    Iono about Der dänische Koch, but mayhaps it has to do with Denmark bordering on Germany? I don't know if more Danes holidayed in Germany than Swedes, though.

    Presumably Ken Lee has been linked here before (it would seem the most likely place for me to have first seen it), but here it is again.

  30. Nanani said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 9:22 pm

    Yaourt is so European. In (my dialect of) Canadian French, it's yogourt (the t is of course silent, and the vowels aren't pronounced the same as English yogurt.)

  31. Ray Girvan said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 9:38 pm

    Tom Vinson: Welsh national anthem … The match looks a bit dubious to me

    Lovely! In large part it's not phonetically precise, but Nigel Jenkins is a clever humorist who has adjusted it into coherent nonsense.

    My hen laid a haddock, one hand oiled a flea,
    Glad farts and centurions threw dogs in the sea,
    I could stew a hare here and brandish Dan's flan,
    Don's ruddy bog's blocked up with sand.

    Dad! Dad! Why don't you oil Auntie Glad?
    Can whores appear in beer bottle pies,
    O butter the hens as they fly!

    Compare: Hen Wlad fy Nhadau.

  32. jp said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 3:56 am

    Reminds me of a fascinating set of youtube videos here, incited by a man who wanted to hear 'fake English'. If you look under 'related videos', there is a 54-second clip by a German user named "Elaphos" which, in my opinion, is the holy grail of yogurting.

  33. jp said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 3:57 am

    aw shucks, my link failed. the video is here

  34. jp said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 3:58 am


  35. TM said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 4:22 am

    "And it's not clear to me whether imitating the sound of another language is central to its meaning"

    Yes, I'd even say actually imitating english is central to the meaning, since the expression dates from the french pop/rock singers of the 60s.

  36. mollymooly said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 8:40 am

    Un petit d'un petit by Luis van Rooten from "Mots D'heures, Gousses, Rames" [mother goose rhymes]

  37. mollymooly said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 8:42 am

    That's Un petit d'un petit

  38. John Cowan said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

    Fortunately, John Wells has already done the heavy lifting on how well the Welsh national anthem works in Jenkins's version, pronounced with a South Wales accent. Scroll down, or search on the page for "Hen Wlad".

    What he doesn't address is the extent to which the Jenkins version looks convincing in terms of how your mouth is seen to move, even when the wrong sound comes out. Supposedly it's quite good on that scale as well.

  39. John said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 1:13 pm

    The word is new but the phenomenon has been around for a long time. My wife (French) tells the story of a teenage friend of hers who at birthday celebrations would sing "Les peits beurs de Toulouse".

    And of course there's always "Mots d'heure: gousses, rames".

  40. Jean-Pierre Metereau said,

    July 24, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

    Sorry, Ellen. I can't do IPA on a computer–I even struggle with getting the accents aigus on my name–but it sounds like "Hickory dickory dock."

  41. Aaron Davies said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 7:37 am

    I think the correct English term is now "buffalax".

  42. Jessica Banks said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 3:09 am

    There's a food-related parallel in choral singing; it's closer to the "Hen Wlad" example than "yaourter," though, because it works best with English songs. I've heard a number of conductors recommend that, if a singer forgets the words to a song, they should sing the word "watermelon" to the tune. The vowels are broad enough that it'll look like they're still singing something meaningful without grating against the actual vowel that should be sung following the actual words, and it lacks any plosives or fricatives, voiced or otherwise, that would "punctuate" the flow of music at a wrong moment. I've been lucky enough not to have had to use it in concert situations, but then again, I've also never caught anyone using it as an audience member wise to the trick, so either nobody else is doing it either, or it works passably well.

  43. Terry Hunt said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 9:47 pm

    I've been looking for a copy of "Mots d'Heures, Gousses, Rames" for some years (half the fun is in the chase), to join my treasured volume "Mörder Guss Reims – selected Poems of Professor Leberwurst."

    Opening poem:

    "Hol' mir der Hubert! Wenn Tuder kaputt,
    Zu Gitter . . . Porto Gabun?
    Bat wenn sie Gott da, der kaputt Waschbär . . .
    An Zoo-Depot doch hat Nonn'."

    In such disinguished company, of course, I need not add the explanatory footnotes. (In preview mode, a spurious line space has appeared between lines 3 & 4 which I can't eliminate.)

  44. Terry Hunt said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 9:58 pm

    Above, please insert 't' in "disinguished" as appropriate. For some reason my keyboard is a fiend for dropping random letters in these comment boxes.

  45. Emily said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 4:07 am

    Not to imitate the sound of a foreign language, but to imitate the sound of a crowd speaking when acting, our director would tell us to "rhubarb", i.e., say the word "rhubarb" over and over with varied inflection to imitate a conversation.

  46. John Cowan said,

    September 10, 2009 @ 8:21 pm

    Yet another version is used for making crowd-talk: randomly say "natter natter" and "grommish grommish".

  47. James McKaskle said,

    September 13, 2009 @ 12:32 pm

    The Greek word Barbaros (barbarian in english) means something along the lines of "people who sound like they are saying 'bar bar bar bar' when they speak," ie, a foreigner.

  48. What does English sound like to foreign ears? – The Blogs at HowStuffWorks said,

    June 14, 2011 @ 8:49 am

    […] English nor Italian, but the sounds are meant to resemble English. Linguist Mark Liberman wrote a facilitating post about this sort of thing over at Language Log discussing yaourter, the French word for an attempt […]

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