Apparently, it sounds better in English now

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In the 1951 film version of Gershwin's "An American In Paris", Gene Kelly as Jerry Mulligan explains why he's chosen the life of an expatriate:

Back home everyone said I didn't have any talent. They might be saying the same thing over here, but it sounds better in French.

In fact, "everything sounds better in French", and in particular, "pop music sounds better in French". Or at least, many English speakers have been telling themselves things like this for the past couple of centuries. You could look it up.

But the linguistic worm has turned, at least with respect to rock lyrics.

According to Bertrand Dicale "Pourquoi ces Français chantent en anglais", Le Figaro, 11/26/2007,

Le temps est à l'anglais. Pas l'anglais phonétique et scolaire des yé-yé, auxquels les Anglais ne comprenaient rien. La langue anglaise qui se chante aujourd'hui en France est celle du folk contemporain ou de la pop élégante, une langue qui demande beaucoup plus que des cours d'anglais de terminale, et qui aujourd'hui rencontre son public, en France et à l'étranger.

The time belongs to English. Not the phonetic and academic English of yé-yé [link], which English speakers didn't understand at all. The English language in today's songs in France is that of contemporary folk or of elegant pop, a language which requires a lot more than a high-school English course, and which is now finding its audience, in France and abroad.

I missed this article last fall, but yesterday I heard an interview on the BBC World Service with Julien Garnier, from the band Hey Hey My My, who explained (as I recall) that he prefers to write in English, because simple things sound more meaningful in English than they do in French. It struck me that there may be some sort of reciprocal "the other language's grass is greener" effect here, where the extra effort needed to process a foreign language really does create more of (certain kinds of) meanings. (Or a more obvious and less interesting alternative: simple poetic phrases are hard to translate.)

I'm not sure that this is exactly what Garnier said, and I haven't been able to find the interview on line. The Le Monde article quotes him as saying « Les gens sont décomplexés quant à l'idée de chanter en anglais » ("People have lost their hang-ups about singing in English"), and

« On n'est pas contre les paroles en français, chanter en anglais n'est pas une revendication, assure Julien Garnier d'Hey Hey My My. Simplement, écrire nous est plus facile en anglais qu'en français. Il est difficile de trouver un langage vraiment pop en français. C'est génial de dire en anglais Here comes the sun (« voici le soleil », tube des Beatles) alors que ce n'est vraiment pas terrible en français. »

"We're not against French lyrics, singing in English isn't a requirement", assures Julien Garnier of Hey Hey My My. "It's just easier for us to write in English than in French. It's hard to find a real pop language in French. It's great to say in English Here comes the sun ('voici le soleil', the Beatles' hit single) but it's really not awesome in French."

Of course, this didn't go without rebuttal. Claude Duneton ("Voici le solei", Le Figaro, 2/21/1008) begins by quoting Garnier's quote — but he takes it from a British newspaper article that translated it into English (Henry Samuel, "Anglophone French bands rock in English", The Telegraph, 11/27/2007), and then he translates it back into French, so it comes out a little different:

Les gens sont maintenant désinhibés là-dessus […] Tout simplement c'est difficile de trouver un vrai langage pop en français. Dire "Here Comes the Sun ", c'est génial, mais " voici le soleil", c'est nul.

People have now lost their inhibitions about this […] It's really just hard to find a real pop language in French. Saying "Here Comes the Sun" is great, but "voici le soleil" is dumb.

Whatever the exact wording, M. Duneton is Not Pleased. For him, this is not a matter of individual artistic choice. Nor is it a simple reaction to the forces of cultural prestige in a particular genre, similar to the forces that led the fictional Jerry Mulligan to try to paint in Paris, or the real Samuel Beckett to write in French. Rather, he sees this as a conspiracy organized by the International Music Industry and its French lackeys:

Ce que vous venez de lire est un article paru au mois de novembre dernier dans un grand quotidien britannique. Je l'ai traduit pour vous car il importe de montrer l'autre face, parfaitement avouée (contrairement à ce que croient les optimistes en France), de l'anglicisation calculée de notre pays. Un mépris évident pour la chanson française se dégage clairement des propos du journaliste, pour lequel la langue anglaise doit être la langue naturelle des peuplades hexagonales. Seule existe la chanson en anglais, nommée expressément music industry. Pas de mystère non plus : sans les quotas, si gênants, imposés aux radios par la France (la détestable « exception française »), notre chanson n'existerait plus. Elle serait reléguée au rang de chants folkloriques indigènes; c'est le but des entrepreneurs de l'industrie musicale : liquider la concurrence.

What you've just read is an article that appeared last November in a major British newspaper. I've translated it for you because it's important to show the other face, fully admitted (contrary to what optimists in France believe) of the calculated anglicization of our country. Evident contempt for French song emerges clearly from this article, for whose author English is the natural language of the hexagonal [i.e. French] tribes. Song exists only in English, explicitly called "the music industry". There's no mystery any more: without the quotas so annoyingly imposed on radio stations by France (the detested "French exception"), our music would no longer exist. It would be relegated to the rank of indigenous folksong; that's the goal of the entreprenurs of the music industry: eliminate the competition.

L'opération requiert comme toujours la coopération active d'une minorité de Français collaborateurs du projet, qui voient leur intérêt financier dans la destruction de notre culture. On les flatte dans la presse étrangère comme nous flattions jadis les chefs de tribus africains afin de mieux les discipliner le procédé est le même, il a déjà servi aux Romains. Il convient au public français de se déniaiser comme l'autre se « désinhibe » : la défense de notre langue n'est pas une marotte de vieux messieurs à parapluie ni de bonnes dames à chapeaux ; il s'agit de la protection vitale de notre identité la plus élémentaire, ainsi que de nos intérêts de base. Il s'agit de résister à une colonisation voulue et concertée pour des raisons platement économiques, comme toutes les colonisations sur la Terre.

This operation requires, as always, the active cooperation of a minority of French collaborators, who see their financial interest in the destruction of our culture. They are flattered in the foreign press, as we once flattered the chiefs of African tribes in order to better keep them in line. The procedure is the same, it was already used by the Romans. And as these people lose their inhibitions, the French public should lose its illusions: the defense of our language is not a hobby horse of old gentlemen with umbrellas and fine ladies in hats; it's a matter of life-and-death protection of our most basic identity, and our fundamental interests. It's a matter of resisting a colonization willed and organized for flatly economic reasons, like all the colonizations on the earth.

Tough stuff. And it's certainly lucky for the Hexagonal Tribes that M. Duneton was able to see the Telegraph's (abbreviated anglophone adaptation of Le Figaro's earlier French-language) article for what it was: a frank confession of the colonialists' plans, from which the camouflaging section of the Figaro article headed « Pas de logique commerciale » ("no commercial logic") had cleverly been omitted.

Cultural imperialism aside, English speakers and French speakers have a long history of strong positive and negative stereotypes about each other's languages. Going back to the 19th century, we have the opinion of Louisa May Alcott (Work: A Story of Experience,1873), who sees English as "solid" and French as "ornamental":

Her wish was to be a governess, that being the usual refuge for respectable girls who have a living to get. But Christie soon found her want of accomplishments a barrier to success in that line, for the mammas thought less of the solid than of the ornamental branches, and wished their little darlings to learn French before English, music before grammar, and drawing before writing.

In contrast, Matthew Arnold ("The Literary Influence of Academies", 1865) thinks that English is good for poetry and French for prose:

How much greater is our nation in poetry than prose! how much better, in general, do the productions of its spirit show in the qualities of genius than in the qualities of intelligence! One may constantly remark this in the work of individuals; how much more striking, in general, does any Englishman,—of some vigour of mind, but by no means a poet,—seem in his verse than in his prose! No doubt his verse suffers from the same defects which impair his prose, and he cannot express himself with real success in it; but how much more powerful a personage does he appear in it, by dint of feeling, and of originality and movement of ideas, than when he is writing prose! With a Frenchman of like stamp, it is just the reverse: set him to write poetry, he is limited, artificial, and impotent; set him to write prose, he is free, natural, and effective. The power of French literature is in its prose-writers, the power of English literature is in its poets. Nay, many of the celebrated French poets depend wholly for their fame upon the qualities of intelligence which they exhibit,—qualities which are the distinctive support of prose; many of the celebrated English prose-writers depend wholly for their fame upon the qualities of genius and imagination which they exhibit, —qualities which are the distinctive support of poetry.

Two hundred years earlier, Aphra Behn (The Translator's Preface, 1688) thought that English was better for plain signification, while French had a better sound, though suffering from excessive ornamentation:

But, as to the French in particular, it has as many Advantages of the English, as to the Sound, as ours has of the French, as to the Signification; which is another Argument of the different Genius of the two Nations. […] But as the French do not value a plain Suit without a Garniture, they are not satisfied with the Advantages they have, but confound their own Language with needless Repetitions and Tautologies; and by a certain Rhetorical Figure, peculiar to themselves, imply twenty Lines, to express what an English Man would say, with more Ease and Sense in five; and this is the great Misfortune of translating French into English: If one endeavours to make it English Standard, it is no Translation. If one follows their Flourishes and Embroideries, it is worse than French Tinsel. But these defects are only comparatively, in respect of English: And I do not say this so much, to condemn the French, as to praise our own Mother-Tongue, for what we think a Deformity, they may think a Perfection; as the Negroes of Guinney think us as ugly, as we think them.

We could multiply quotations from both sides of the channel (and the Atlantic ocean), but I'll just refer you to some of the earlier Language Log posts where related issues have been discussed: "English: International and simple", 6/29/2004; "Paradoxes of the imagination", 9/29/2005; "Another overearnest comedy of fact checking", 10/1/2005; "The miserable French language and its inadequacies", 9/30/2005; "Precision, poetry and paragraphs", 2/21/2007; "English the most idiosyncratic and wordy?", 10/22/2005; "Special linguistic providence", 10/25/2005; "French syntax is (in)corruptible", 10/26/2005; "Thriving on confusion in the Guardian", 5/24/2006; "Is French the safest language for legal purposes", 2/15/2007; "L'amour à la franglaise", 5/7/2007; "Pseudo-intellectual Francophilic nonsense" 10/24/2007.

Or if you prefer, you can watch the colonialist lackeys plotting the destruction of their culture, backstage at Le Triptyque in Paris:

Oddly enough, the comments on the band's YouTube videos mostly seem to be in French, e.g.

Je viens de l'entendre à la radio…Rahh c'est génial !

Oué l'album est d'aussi bonne qualité qu'un album de spoon par exemple!!!exceptionnel

j'irai pas jusque là..enfin je les vois ce soir alors on verra bien…

J'adoooooooooooooooore

j'adore cette chanson
magnifique balade

[Update — Alex Price writes:

In your interesting and amusing post "Apparently, it sounds better in English now", you write:

"It struck me that there may be some sort of reciprocal "the other language's grass is greener" effect here, where the extra effort needed to process a foreign language really does create more of (certain kinds of) meanings."

I was delighted to see a distinguished linguist confirm, even if only in an off-hand remark, something I have attempted to articulate myself. I have appended to this mail an excerpt from a blog post in which I try to explain why, as a non-native speaker, I like reading French (the topic of my post was whether it's better to read a novel in the original language or in translation, assuming one has the option).

I also wanted to mention that there are American bands that sing in French. Probably the best-known is Pink Martini, whose biggest hit (or at least best-known song) "Sympathique" is in French (though most of their songs are not). Also notable is the Nous Non Plus and Les Sans Culottes, "faux French" bands who sing in French or English with a fake French accent and feature cross-cultural stage names like Jean-Luc Retard and François Hardonne (to fully get the joke, you have to speak English and have heard of the French singer Françoise Hardy). There are also bands that don't sing in French but have French names such as the Bon Savants and Je Suis France.

Clever psych-ops by the International Music Industry, no doubt, aiming to confuse the peuplades hexagonales into thinking that semiotic borrowing is a normal part of cultural development.

The blog post that Alex referred to is "Proust and the Remarkable Lightness of Foreign Language". Money quote:

I generally enjoy reading almost any novel in French, even a mediocre one that I probably wouldn't put up with for ten minutes in English. One reason for this, I think, is that French provides the pleasure of dépaysement – estrangement, unfamiliarity. Foreign language makes things foreign; the everyday becomes exotic. The Russian formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky claimed that this effect is one of the goals of art and used the term ostranenie, usually translated as "defamiliarization," to describe it.

And again:

Paradoxically, the work we do to endow foreign words with meaning may also give them the superhuman weight of Delphic oracles. Thus, for example, the two-line poem by Catullus known as Carmen 85 seems more profound in Latin than English: Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris. / Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior. (I hate and I love. Why do I do this, you might ask. / I don't know, but I feel it happening, and am tormented.). Odi et amo has the simplicity, yet somehow none of the banality, of "I hate and I love." It has the power — the weight — of an ancient incantation.

]

[Update #2 — Marc Neimark writes:

There is a bit of controversy at the moment in France regarding the French entry in the Eurovision Song Contest. It will be sung in…English!

I particularly like this bit:

"Mais selon la chaîne publique, la chanson qu'entonnera Tellier lors de la finale à Belgrade le 24 mai prochain perdrait de son mordant si elle était traduite en français.

]



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