"Qu'esseuh-que ça veut direuh?"

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"A row over mocking non-standard French accents", The Economist 10/25/2018:

It took an outburst that went viral to introduce the French to a new word: glottophobie. […]

The episode emerged last week when Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a far-left firebrand, mocked a reporter with an accent from south-west France. "What does that mean?" he snapped, imitating the journalist's Occitan twang; "Has anyone got a question phrased in French, and which is more or less comprehensible?" His put-down was as bizarre as it was offensive. The Paris-based Mr Mélenchon is a member of parliament for Marseille, a city known for its Provençal lilt.

The journalist was Véronique Gaurel, who is from Toulouse but has lived and worked in Paris for 30 years. Here's one version of the episode:

According to an an article in Mediapart ("Mélenchon méprisant face à la journaliste Véronique Gaurel", 10/17/2018):

Melenchon sait aussi se montrer méprisant face à la presse quand elle lui pose des questions qui lui déplaisent. Interrogé à l'Assemblée nationale par Véronique Gaurel, journaliste à France3, le chef de file de la France insoumise n'a pas du tout apprécié de se voir rappeler qu'il n'avait pas toujours crié au scandale quand des adversaires politiques étaient visés par des enquêtes judiciaires.

"Et alors? Quesseu-que ça veut direuh?", a répliqué Jean-Luc Mélenchon en singeant l'accent méridional de la grand reporter originaire de Toulouse et qui travaille depuis trente ans à Paris.

Alors que la journaliste tentait de contextualiser sa question, évoquant les propos de l'ancien candidat à la présidentielle lorsqu'il jugeait normal que la justice enquête au sujet de François Fillon et Marine Le Pen, Jean-Luc Mélenchon a tourné en dérision ses efforts: "Non madame, vous ne savez pas de quoi vous parlez. Vous dîtes n'importe quoi". Puis s'adressant à la foule de journalistes qui assistaient à la scène:"Quelqu'un a une question formulée en français? Et à peu près compréhensible parce que votre niveau me dépasse, je ne comprends pas".

Mélenchon can seem scornful when the press poses questions that displease him. Interrogated at the Assemblé nationale by Véronique Gaurel, reporter for France3, the leader of France insoumise didn't like being reminded that he has not always cried foul when his political adversaries were targeted by judicial inquiries.

"So what y'all sayin'?" replied Jean-Luc Mélenchon, aping the southern accent of the international correspondent, originally from Toulouse, who has been working for 30 years in Paris.

When the journalist tried to contextualize the question, evoking the former presidential candidate's remarks when he found it normal for the justice system to investigate Françoise Fillon and Marine Le Pen, Jean-Luc Melenchon made fun of her efforts. "No madame, you don't know what you're talking about. You're saying whatever." Then addressing the crowd of journalists present at the scene: "Does anyone have a question phased in French? And more or less comprehensible because your level is beyond me, I don't understand you."

Here's another version of the exchange where the audio is a little clearer — and the clip includes discussion of a (non-serious?) proposal to make it illegal to make fun of someone's accent:

If I understand the sequence, Mélenchon was testy because of an investigation of campaign finance irregularities that involved police searches of his home and his office:

These confrontations motivated him to use the reporter's regional accent as an excuse to avoid answering her question.

But in a later press conference, M. Mélenchon turned the accusation around by claiming that he thought the journalist was putting on a southern accent to mock him:

Despite extensive French media coverage and a fair amount in English-language European news sources, I haven't seen anything in the American press yet about any of this.

A web search will turn up plenty of information about l'accent Toulousain, mostly discussions how it's the most "charmant" and "sexy" version of French:

 

In some cases, regional accent differences are obvious to outsiders. Québecois sounds very different to me from Parisian French, maybe because the deleted high vowels give it a different phonotactic texture. And the same thing is true of Lisbon Portuguese versus Brazilian Portuguese, even though I understand almost nothing of either one of them. But so far, I'm not getting the instant recognition of Toulousain that's apparently clear to native speakers.

 



10 Comments

  1. Rodger C said,

    October 30, 2018 @ 6:51 am

    "So what y'all sayin'?" Are you deliberately implying that M. Mélenchon is the equivalent of Americans who don't know that "y'all" is a plural?

    [(myl) I wasn't trying to open that particular can of worms — see "Singular y'all: a 'devious Yankee rumor'?", 12/31/2009 for discussion — but just trying to find a conventional way to signal "Southern accent" in translation. Mélenchon apparently speaks with a standard formal Parisian accent, and his ability to mock southern speech accurately is not clear to me and has not been discussed in any of the accounts that I've read or listened to.]

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    October 30, 2018 @ 7:38 am

    For me, as perhaps for Roger C., "so what y'all sayin' ?" jarred in the translation. I didn't feel it added anything, and was not (to me, at least, a Briton rather than an American) the best way to represent M. Mélenchon's "Et alors? Quesseu-que ça veut direuh ?" in a translation, probably because it relies on the reader being familiar with (what I take to be) stereotypical Southern (North) American speech. But equally I would not want to see (e.g.,) Cockney used in such a context to represent Toulousain in an otherwise Parisian context. I think such things are best left to the reader to infer rather than being spelled out by an analogy that can be expected to work only for some part of the overall readership.

  3. Anne Cutler said,

    October 30, 2018 @ 7:53 am

    I took it right away from the quote used as the header that the way the Southern accent was being mocked was the usual way – adding schwa where there is a silent e in text (so, a schwa in qu'est ce que where the ce might normally be rendered as a slight lengthening of the sibilant alone, adding a schwa at the end of dire).

    [(myl) Indeed. But although this is obviously the stereotype, I don't hear actually hear it as a striking feature of l'accent méridional, and Parisian speakers also vocalize e muet with some probability (albeit a lower one). Maybe this is just insensitivity on my part.]

  4. Ginger Yellow said,

    October 30, 2018 @ 8:34 am

    But equally I would not want to see (e.g.,) Cockney used in such a context to represent Toulousain in an otherwise Parisian context.

    Of course not. It would be a West Country accent.

  5. SamC said,

    October 30, 2018 @ 2:05 pm

    The Toulouse accent was very obvious to me as a foreigner when I went there to study abroad – the day I landed, I took a bus to my hotel and asked the driver if we had passed my stop. His response "C'est pas loin" sounded like "Say pa loo-ang" to me (sorry for the clumsy phonetics), and I thought he was talking about the street we had just crossed instead of telling me we weren't far.
    The most prominent feature people usually imitate is that nasal ending ("Toulousain" as "Toulouse-ang"), which I think isn't far off from some Quebecois features.
    Anyway, I'm agreed that the translation muddied the waters. You could just as easily have used a stereotypical Boston accent to make the same point (or maybe a NYC "Whattya sayin?"), there are so few parallels between Southern France and the southern U.S.

  6. milu said,

    October 30, 2018 @ 5:17 pm

    So, I've lived in or around Toulouse for a few years now (I'm from Normandy). I feel that though the Southwestern accent is indeed distinctive (the usual sociolinguistic patterns apply, with urban, affluent and educated individuals typically tending towards a Standard French dialect); and Mélenchon's phonological caricature is a very common (and tired…) fake-Southern accent, used for mimicking any accent from Bordeaux to Nice (though SWern and SEern variants are fairly easy to tell apart).

    The videos you picked are rather unhelpful, as most of the speakers in them exhibit little distinctively SWern traits and instead mostly tend towards Standard French. As I mentioned above, this is most likely due to higher linguistic normativity in urban centres and higher social classes.

    here is a video about Toulouse's male 13-player Rugby team where some typical Toulouse accents can be heard:

    https://youtu.be/Tt0WVtadLrA?t=127

    Here, we hear the coach begin: "C'est ma première saison…" ("this is my first season…") and he does exhibit the typical phonological trait crudely caricatured by Mélenchon: "première saison" is pronounced /pʁəm'jɛʁ.ə.se.zɔ̃/ rather than (the standard variant) /pʁəm.'jɛʁ.se.zɔ̃/. That is, the schwa at the end of "première" is pronounced, making it a paroxyton (this accounts for the conventional epithet for southern accents as "chantant", lilting); whereas speakers from the north of France always place the tonal accent on the last syllable, and accordingly drop their "e muets" as these schwas are improperly called in school grammars.

    https://youtu.be/Tt0WVtadLrA?t=103

    This other speaker provides clear instances of another typical trait, the twangy nasal vowels pointed out by SamC above:

    "après, une finale, c'est cinquante-cinquante…" ("a final is fifty-fifty anyway…")

    Gere's his second "cinquante" in IPA: /sɛŋ'kaŋ.tə/. Compare with standard French: /sɛ̃'kɑ̃t/

    https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fran%C3%A7ais_m%C3%A9ridional

    This French Wikipedia page, though describing "Meridional (i.e. SEern) French", offers a good overview of the phonological differences from the Standard variant.

    This comment is long enough, so I'll abstain from commenting on the "glottophobie" thing further than to note that, as one person briefly points out in the local news item, the worst form of accent-based discrimination affects not rural southern speakers but the suburban poor, both white and non-white— though of course the latter form the majority in such neighbourhoods— whose "accent des cités" (projects/ghetto accent) is very distinctive and widely disparaged.

  7. Michael Proctor said,

    October 31, 2018 @ 1:43 am

    @milu > "Toulouse's male 13-player Rugby team"

    I'm curious, is that the usual way to distinguish Rugby League (13 players a side) from Rugby Union (15 players a side) in France?

  8. milu said,

    October 31, 2018 @ 7:26 am

    @Michael Proctor: I'm sorry I won't be of very much help, I know practically nothing about rugby. But FWIW, the 15-player (being the far more common form) is usually just referred to as "rugby" (oddly enough, the gallicised pronunciation of the word is /ʁydbi/ where you would expect /ʁygbi/), while the 13-player discipline I usually hear referred to as simply "rugby à 13".

  9. Philip Anderson said,

    October 31, 2018 @ 8:40 am

    I am not sure I would describe Québecois as a regional French accent, and I certainly wouldn't label Brazilian Portuguese (which has its own regional accents) that way, and more than I would American or British English.

  10. mg said,

    November 2, 2018 @ 7:11 pm

    Years ago, a Parisian friend imitated a Lyon (if I remember correctly) accet for me and to my NY ears it sounded like French spoken with a Brooklyn accent.

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