Eastern Europe, northern suburbs, whatever

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Doreen Carvajal, "Gems From 2008 Paris Theft Found in Drainpipe", NYT 3/9/2011:

More than two years after men dressed in wigs and scarves struck the Harry Winston jewelry store in Paris’s golden triangle of upscale shops, the police this week discovered a cache of sparkling diamonds from the theft in a far less glamorous place: a drainpipe in the northern suburbs of the city.

Two aspects of this story caught my eye — one a small inadvertent movie echo, and the other a more linguistically consequential question of accent identification.

According to Carvajal's story,

The police were saying little about Monday’s discovery of jewelry valued at $20.6 million other than dryly describing the inventory. “We are saying nothing, nothing,” a police spokeswoman said Tuesday. “The judge is not happy that the information came out.”

This reminded me of Captain Renault's famous line from Casablanca, "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!" Is repetition for ironic emphasis a characteristic of French officialese? I don't think that an American police spokeswoman would express herself this way. (I searched various French-language news sites for the original of this quote, without success; but I presume that it was in French, not in English.)

Carvajal describes the accent business as follows:

The theft, which Harry Winston then valued at roughly $110 million, was called the robbery of the century by the French news media because the armed robbers had planned so precisely that they knew the names and addresses of some of the employees.

The men flaunted a hand grenade and, according to witnesses, barked orders in Eastern European accents, leading to widespread speculation that the robbery was a caper of the Pink Panther jewelry theft ring, which has roots in Serbia and is being hunted by Interpol. […]

The thieves made one crucial error: leaving behind a purse with traceable DNA. Investigators also dissected the accents heard on security tapes and realized that the robbers did not have Slavic accents, but the French of the Parisian suburbs. Those clues led them to a chain of local fences, petty criminals and foreign jewelry appraisers, and finally to the jewels themselves.

Two days after the robbery itself, Le Monde was still expressing the "Slavic accent' theory ("Une récompense de 700 000 euros offerte pour retrouver les bijoux volés chez Harry Winston", Le Monde, 12/9/2008):

En un quart d'heure vendredi en fin d'après-midi, quatre malfaiteurs armés, dont trois étaient déguisés en femme et qui connaissaient les noms de certains employés, leur adresse personnelle et l'emplacement exact des coffres-forts, ont fait main basse sur 85 millions de bijoux. […]

Les enquêteurs n'écartent aucune piste, du grand banditisme français à des ressortissants de pays de l'Est du type des "Pink Panthers", selon une source proche du dossier. Mais à la différence de cette organisation criminelle internationale spécialisée dans les braquages de bijouterie, les braqueurs de la joaillerie Harry Winston s'exprimaient en français, teinté d'accent slave, et leur mode opératoire était moins violent que celui des "Pink Panthers".

In a quarter of an hour Friday at the end of the afternoon, four armed criminals, three of them disguised as women, who knew the names and addresses of certain employees and the exact location of the safes, looted 85 million [euros] in jewels. […]

The investigators are not ruling out any line of inquiry, from French organized crime to the nationals of Eastern [European] countries like the "Pink Panthers", according to a source close to the investigation. But in contrast to this international criminal organization specializing in jewel robbery, the robbers of the Harry Winston jewelry store spoke French, tinged with a Slavic accent, and their mode of operation was less violent than that of the "Pink Panthers".

For those who think of "suburbs" in the American mode, it's important to note that in France, the ethnic slums are stereotypically in the suburbs, rather than in the inner city, and that in particular, Seine-Saint-Denis (northeast of Paris), where the cache of stolen jewelry was found,

… is the French department with the highest proportion of immigrants: 21.7% at the 1999 census […] This figure does not include the children of immigrants born on French soil as well as some native elites from former French colonies and people who came from overseas France. The ratio of ethnic minorities is difficult to estimate accurately as French law prohibits the collection of ethnic data for census taking purposes. However estimates suggest there are 500,000 Muslims out of a total population of 1.4 million.

This raises a number of questions that I can't answer. Is "l'accent de banlieue" in the Paris area objectively similar to "l'accent slave"?  Would the help at an upscale shop in Paris normally confuse the two? Is the accent of (say) Sefyu's raps what's under discussion here?


  1. Alain Turenne said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 5:44 pm

    >Is "l'accent de banlieue" in the Paris area objectively similar to "l'accent slave"?
    I remember reading this story in "Le Monde" with some surprise, and skepticism, about precisely that point.

  2. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 5:54 pm

    The repeated "nothing, nothing" for me does not evoke Casablanca but rather Sgt. Schultz on Hogan's Heroes, whose catch phrase was (in stage-German accent) "I know nothing, nothing."

    [(myl) Good point. Anyhow, these are both America cultural evocations of European official irony.]

  3. Vermine said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 6:03 pm

    Is "l'accent de banlieue" in the Paris area objectively similar to "l'accent slave"?

    Absolutely not. If anything it would be closer to an arabic accent.
    An evergrowing number of arabic words are actually entering in their everyday speak.

    It's also pretty easy to spot the difference between the two accent.
    The suburbs one, arabic tainted, preserves the french syntax, whereas the slavic ones fucks it up.

  4. William Ockham said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 6:09 pm

    I had the same reaction as J. W. Brewer. I immediately thought of Sgt. Schultz. Is Hogan's Heroes like Jerry Lewis?

    I feel really, really old for having made both of those cultural references.

  5. HP said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 7:13 pm

    (in stage-German accent)

    Minor quibble, but John Banner was an Austrian Jew who didn't learn English until his late 20s. So, it might have been "stage-German," but his Austrian accent was genuine enough.

    Which, now that I think of it, is rather on-topic, considering how our expectations shape what we hear when it comes to accent and dialect.

  6. Amerloc said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 7:20 pm

    Me three: Sgt. Schultz…

  7. Ralph Hickok said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 8:13 pm

    But was Captain Renault being ironic? It's ironic to the audience, of course, but I never felt that the character was deliberately expressing irony. And certainly Sgt. Schultz wasn't deliberately being ironic, merely emphatic.

    [(myl) But both Captain Renault and Sgt. Schultz are saying things that both they and their audience know to be transparently false. If that's not irony, what is it?]

  8. HP said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 8:19 pm

    "…The gruff voice was that of a Frenchman. Could make out several words, but cannot now remember all. Heard distinctly 'sacré' and 'mon Dieu.' … Is sure that it was not the voice of an Englishman. Appeared to be that of a German. Might have been a woman's voice. Does not understand German…."

    "Alfonzo Garcio, undertaker, deposes that he resides in the Rue Morgue. … Heard the voices in contention. The gruff voice was that of a Frenchman. Could not distinguish what was said. The shrill voice was that of an Englishman—is sure of this. Does not understand the English language, but judges by the intonation.

    "Alberto Montani, …. Heard the voices in question. The gruff voice was that of a Frenchman. Distinguished several words. … Could not make out the words of the shrill voice. Spoke quick and unevenly. Thinks it the voice of a Russian. … Is an Italian. Never conversed with a native of Russia."

    — Edgar Allen Poe, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 9:19 pm

    @Ralph Hickock: I'd call both of those verbal irony, since the characters are saying something they and their listeners know is untrue, indeed the opposite of the truth.

    @William Ockham: My younger niece and nephew, both still in grade school, enjoyed Hogan's Heroes from Netflix, and the Jerry Lewis joke is still alive. (Lewis received the Légion d'Honneur in 2006, by the way.)

  10. Hiroshi said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 10:11 pm

    Apologies for going off the topic of accents, but doesn't "flaunting a hand-grenade" sound strange?

    [(myl) It seems consistent with one of the standard meanings of flaunt, which the OED glosses as 'To display ostentatiously or obtrusively", and MW glosses as "to display ostentatiously or impudently", etc.]

  11. Linca said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 11:49 pm

    Let's note that someone working at an upscale jewellery shop in Paris probably hears Eastern European and Russian -tinted French much more often than he gets to hear Seine Saint Denis French…

  12. VMartin said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 2:20 am

    Maybe the police should hire LouFCD, the moderator of "Panda's Thumb" forum. He is able to detect Eastern-European accent even from written words:

    lol, I see VMartin’s accent has disappeared entirely these days. Gone are the days of the faux Eastern-European broken English, I guess.


  13. ShadowFox said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 2:43 am

    The assumption of "Eastern European" is interesting. If the gang is merely based in Serbia but with actual member from other Slavic countries, then "Eastern European" makes sense. But Serbia itself is never considered a part of Eastern Europe. So there might be some other interesting association going on here–Slavic=Eastern European. As nonsensical as this may be, this might be the perception "on the street". I've dealt with a number of Poles, Russians, Czechs, Serbs and Bulgarians, and their accents both in English and in French are quite distinct. There might be some similarities between neighboring regions–e.g., Czech and Slovak and Silesian Polish, but that does not even hold generally–even parts of former Yugoslavia all have different accents, despite Serbia and Croatia having different dialects of essentially the same language. What I heard from Slovenians and Macedonians, on the other hand, was nothing like what was coming from Serbs and Croats, and Russians and Bulgarians, next to them, sound like people from another planet. So both "Slavic accent" and "East European accent" are questionable propositions.

  14. Mary Apodaca said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 3:22 am

    I was taught in French classes in high school and college and observed in France that in French stress is communicated through

    a) elongation of a syllable as in "espece d'imbecile" where the vowel in the second syllable of espece and the third syllable of imbecile are elongated, and
    b) repetition as in "Non non non non non non!"… "Rien, rien" … "Moi, je" or "Lui, il" … "Elle, elle"

  15. michael farris said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 3:25 am

    Random comments and questions.

    I'm too lazy and not interested enough to read the original story, but did the Paris police official speak English or was this someone's translation of something said in French? If it's hard to say what's going on.

    I too thought of Sgt Schultz. And it's possible that was the intended reference (especially if it's a translated quote).

    IME very many people are not good at identifying foreign accents, that is they can recognize a native/non-native and/or 'standard'/stigmatised non-standard but that's about it. Confusing urban wasteland and "Slavic" accents wouldn't surprise me.

    I've always thought of Serbia as being Eastern European, Southeastern but Eastern. But my cold war era mental geography still puts everything behind the Iron curtain as Eastern (even though I live there/here now). The only possible change in that basic mental division for me is that East Germany no longer exists and the East/West division scooted over to the German Polish border.

  16. VMartin said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 3:38 am

    Right. Actually the whole concept of "Eastern European accent" is a pure fancy. It is amusing to say that Slovakian (Slavic) and Hungarian (agglutinative Fino-Hungric) have some common accent. In the West Slovakia the stress is on the first syllable, in the East Slovakia it is not.

    The concept of East-Europe is peculiar as well. There is a concept of Central Europe where Czech must be included but no Russians. Do not forget that Prague is several hudreds kilometers westwards from Wien.
    I wonder if someone speaking German from Wien would be described as speaking with "East-European accent".

    Is there btw. some "West-European" accent as well?

  17. cirret said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 4:55 am

    @Hiroshi: I too thought "flaunting a hand grenade" sounded odd, though like myl (and presumably you) I knew what it meant. I'm expecting the object of "flaunt" to be more like a personal quality than a concrete object.

    The first Google page for "flaunt one's *" gives wealth, sexuality and moral views; "flaunt the *" gives navel, androgynous look, female form along with "flaunt the dresses that comfort you" (which also sounds odd to me, though now I am primed for it) and at least one confusion with "flout".

  18. Eugene van der Pijll said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 4:57 am

    The repeated "nothing, nothing" for me does not evoke Casablanca but rather Sgt. Schultz on Hogan's Heroes

    For me, it echoes Edith Piaf's "Rien de rien".

  19. Tom said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 5:21 am

    Surely if they went to the trouble of putting on wigs and sunglasses, putting on a fake slavic accent wouldn't be too much of a stretch?

  20. pm said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 7:10 am

    "Confusing urban wasteland and "Slavic" accents wouldn't surprise me."

    then you don't speak French. I cannot event understand how that
    might be an hypothesis.

  21. richard howland-bolton said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 7:28 am

    @Ralph Hickok "But was Captain Renault being ironic?"
    irr he does immediately say "Oh! Thank you" as he is handed his winnings.

  22. Matt McIrvin said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 8:15 am

    There's a distinction between the character being deliberately ironic, and the author being deliberately ironic while the character is being either nervously deceptive or simply emphatic.

  23. The Ridger said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 9:10 am

    Yes, but Renault is transparently using his discovery of gambling as an excuse to shut down the place, even though he is *currently engaged in the gambling." I'm not sure that's irony: I think it's hypocrisy.

  24. Rube said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 9:26 am

    It seems likely that high end jewelers are familiar with the "Pink Panther" ring, and expect jewel thieves to have slavic accents — they heard what they expected to hear, or at least remembered what they expected when they were telling their story to the police.

    People get accents wrong all the time, even when they aren't being threatened with a hand grenade.

    Anecdotally, I live in Toronto. I grew in southern Ontario less than a two hour drive from where I live now. Hardly a month goes by without someone who proudly declares that they have "an ear for accents" doesn't tell me that I must be from the United States.

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 10:04 am

    In the U.S., I would take someone referring to an "Eastern European" accent to mean sounds-like-first-language-is-Slavic, without getting stuck on what-about-Magyar/Romanian/Albanian concerns, and/or applying a mental map of Europe any more nuanced than the old Cold-War/Iron-Curtain binary division between West and East. (I would probably be thinking of the "Pottsylvanian" characters on Rocky and Bullwinkle as my exemplars of the paradigmatic Eastern European accent in English.) I don't have enough experience with immigrants whose cradle tongue was South Slavic to know if their English is affected in ways that a non-specialist would distinguish from the characteristic or stereotypical ways an East Slavic cradle tongue does. Nor do I know if the differences between different Slavic L1's are more or less pronounced if the L2 is French rather than English, which is what would matter here. (Heck, I don't know if Rocky and Bullwinkle has ever been dubbed into French and if so what sort of accent Boris, Natasha, and Fearless Leader have.)

  26. Phil Jennings said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 11:00 am

    My map of eastern Europe includes the Balkans, except Greece, and extends north to Poland but is vague about the Baltic states. The part of Russia that fits without stretching the rectangle is generously included. Serbia is definitely eastern.

    The archetypical eastern European accent is exemplified by the famous Rula Lenska. It is hardly possible to say Rula Lenska without using an eastern European accent.

  27. Sivi said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 11:08 am

    The frustrating thing here is that Yugoslavia wasn't behind the Iron curtain.

    I think it's true, that "Slavic" and "Eastern European" are pretty interchangeable in people's minds. And even with my Slovenian roots, I'd tend to think of Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Croats, and Bosniaks as Central Europeans, and Serbians as Eastern Europeans.

    Maybe an alphabet thing? I think there's a bit of a cultural and religious validity to the distinction, though.

  28. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 11:25 am

    Pace Sivi, the Tito-v.-Stalin falling-out was a fine point perhaps lost on most Anglophones for purposes of idiom-construction. And the idiom-creating quote (that predated that split) is "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent." But following up on Sivi's other points, I do think that people who self-consciously want their formerly-Communist-ruled ethnic-group/nation-state referred to "Central European" rather than "Eastern European" are usually premising the distinction on one or more of three related cultural/historical points: 1) we are or at least used to be predominantly Roman Catholic rather than Orthodox; 2) we use the Latin alphabet rather than Cyrillic; and/or 3) back before the NATO/Communist distinction became salient, we were ruled by those delightful-in-hindsight Hapsburgs rather than the less-gemuetlich Ottomans or Romanovs. Serbia, regardless of its compass heading, is zero for three on these criteria. But obviously a Croat who learns English (or French) as a second language as an adult is going to sound interchangeable with a Bosniak or Serb or Montenegrin who does the same.

  29. Keith said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 12:07 pm

    I searched for this story, and found it reported in a number of places, but never with that statement from the "police spokeswoman"… and the jewels were apparently not left "in a drainpipe", but were inside a plastic container over which concrete was poured when laying a a culvert at a house in the "neuf-trois" (Seine-Saint-Denis).

    On the French term "banlieue"… this is better translated in most cases as "outskirts" or "satellite towns" of a city, rather than "suburb".

    When I lived in Paris, I had Yugoslavian neighbours, frequently saw my wife's Polish cousin, and ran into many other "Eastern Europeans" in the neighbourhood. There is not really an instantly identifiable "Slavic accent" when these people speak French, but it is quite easy to hear that they are not native speakers of French.

    On the other hand the "accent de banlieue" that you mention is instantly recognisable. It is hard for me to describe, not having studied phonology, but vowel sounds seem to be pronounced lower and further back in the mouth than in "standard French". Speakers will also often make extensive use of "verlan" (backslang) where the syllables of a word are exchanged. For example "tu m'énerves" ("you're annoying me") becomes "tu m'vénères" (which, felicitously, means "you venerate me").

    Also, many Arabic words are used as slang (especially vulgarity, though not always), and some of these have crossed over into the slang of the wider population. E.g., zob (penis), niquer (to fuck), yalla (hurry up), fissa (immediately).


  30. Nijma said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 12:28 pm

    Now I'm wondering if the use of the phrase "human, all too human" in the title of the Stephanopoulos book wasn't meant to be ironic.

  31. Olga said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 12:59 pm

    Agreement with Vermine: absolutely not. L'accent de banlieue, while presumably still changing, is well-established and predates the recent immigration from Eastern Europe. (My exposure to this dialect is from the 90s, so I wouldn't know what, if any, influence Eastern European immigrants have on it.)

  32. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 1:14 pm

    On the Eastern front, I think for many peolpe an "Eastern European" accent is a Russian accent, due to stereotyping in the media and (yes, I know I'm speaking from a very subjective point of view) the general unawareness of there being any other countries east of Germany. Or at least the sketchiness of the general public's knowledge of geography etc.

    I don't know quite enough about the situation in France, but it really irks me that, for example, virtually all fake Polish accents in modern British comedy sound totally Russian to me. Strange and disappointing; with about a million Polish people in the UK at the moment, somebody (or at least comedy writers — they are supposed to be good at this sort of thing?) should have noticed. Or maybe even bother to hire real Polish people… No, that's obviously unthinkable.

  33. Keith said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 3:22 pm

    @Mary Apodaca

    What you see as "repetition" in the case of "Lui, il…", "Moi, je…" and "Elle, elle…" is the use of the disjunctive pronoun (often called the "emphatic pronoun") followed by the usual pronoun.

    je -> moi
    tu -> toi
    il -> lui
    elle -> elle
    nous -> nous
    vous -> vous
    ils -> eux
    elles -> elle


  34. marie-lucie said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 6:52 pm

    the "accent de banlieue" that you mention is instantly recognisable. … vowel sounds seem to be pronounced lower and further back in the mouth than in "standard French".

    This accent is based on old-fashioned, low-class Right Bank Parisian (a variety despised by Left Bank Parisians and most other French people, who call it l'accent parisien, not to be confused with foreigners' conceptions of "Parisian French") and overlaid with some Arabic phonological features. The vowel system is indeed somewhat different, especially "a". But in my lifetime "Standard French" vowels have changed: the oral vowels are more fronted, the nasal vowels farther back, than they used to be (a simplified description). As for the use of verlan, Arabic words, etc, those features are characteristic of a social dialect, not of the accent itself.

    Not all banlieues are slums filled with poor immigrants: in general the ones West and South of Paris (continuing the Left Bank) are not.

  35. Julie said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 12:17 am

    As a Paris resident with an odd accent and an occasional air of not looking quite appropriate (for whatever reason) I find that I am regularly 'politely' asked if I am Polish. I take this to mean 'are you the help'. There is as much chance of a Parisian correctly spotting an accent as a New York sales assistant being able to pinpoint my Welsh accent. None.

    As to the western suburbs, yes, they are outside the city limits with more trees. They are usually referred to as something roughly meaning 'cosy, comfortable towns near Paris', or just as part of Hauts de Seine, which is as loaded a description as Banlieue.

  36. John Cowan said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 1:47 am

    Julie, some New York sales assistants may well be linguistics grad students!

  37. David Marjanović said,

    March 14, 2011 @ 5:43 pm

    "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!" Is repetition for ironic emphasis a characteristic of French officialese?

    No. And I'd represent it as "I'm shockedshocked! — to find that gambling is going on in here!"; it's deliberately exaggerated emphasis that is repeated so it can be increased even further.

    Maybe the police should hire LouFCD, the moderator of "Panda's Thumb" forum. He is able to detect Eastern-European accent even from written words:

    lol, I see VMartin’s accent has disappeared entirely these days. Gone are the days of the faux Eastern-European broken English, I guess.

    Hi, VMartin. Not at all nice to see you. What's going on is that years ago you made lots of grammar mistakes in English, and many of those were unambiguously Slavic; apparently, your English has improved since you and your 20,000 sockpuppets were banned from Pharyngula. LouFCD simply doesn't know the exact meaning of "accent".

    Though I see you still make article mistakes. "The East Slovakia" and "the West Slovakia" are wrong.

    Maybe the police should hire LouFCD, the moderator of "Panda's Thumb" forum. He is able to detect Eastern-European accent even from written words:

    lol, I see VMartin’s accent has disappeared entirely these days. Gone are the days of the faux Eastern-European broken English, I guess.

    Yes, but Renault is transparently using his discovery of gambling as an excuse to shut down the place, even though he is *currently engaged in the gambling." I'm not sure that's irony: I think it's hypocrisy.

    He needs a pretext to close the place, and he knows full well he doesn't need to justify that, so he just arbitrarily grabs one from thin air and rubs people's faces in this fact because he knows they can't do anything about it.

    On the French term "banlieue"… this is better translated in most cases as "outskirts" or "satellite towns" of a city, rather than "suburb".

    Doesn't "suburb" evoke lots of gardens? The inner banlieue, including places like Clichy-sous-Bois where they set all those cars on fire, is almost completely packed with buildings, and the rents are insanely high; that it's not counted as part of Paris is a pure artefact of history.

    What you see as "repetition" in the case of "Lui, il…", "Moi, je…" and "Elle, elle…" is the use of the disjunctive pronoun (often called the "emphatic pronoun") followed by the usual pronoun.

    An alternative interpretation is that they're the pronoun followed by what is only a verb prefix anymore.

    Repetition is used a lot for emphasis in French, though. Where in English you'd maybe say looooots aaand looooots ooooof…, French has y a pleinpleinpleinpleinplein, all crammed into the time it would take you to say aaand — or less.

  38. Stephen said,

    March 15, 2011 @ 8:14 am

    Not being a native French speaker, I can't talk much about slavic accents, but the accent of people from the banlieue is almost instantly recognizable.

    People here almost never guess where I'm from correctly (I'm American, from New York), when I speak to them in French. Admittedly, I have a pretty good accent, but it still sounds slightly foreign, even I can tell. It's just that people read it as German more often than American.

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