Written by Andrew Livingston

Stereotypes of the Francophone world, part 2

You may have seen maps of US states or countries of the world labelled by the first Google suggestions given when you ask “Why are (people from x country) __?” But those searches have all been done in English, to my knowledge.

So what happens when we search in French about other countries with high populations of French speakers? Last time, we looked at four francophone countries in Europe. Today, let’s take a look at North America and the Caribbean. We can’t cover every country, and many don’t have suggested Google results, but here’s a smattering of stereotypes for you.


Canadians (outside of the Québecois): Nice, maybe healthy (maybe not), and afraid of the dark. I find this adorable.

French Canadians: they do that weird swearing thing, they have an accent, and they are no longer pickup artists. What happened? Who hurt you?

US of Americans: I guess we’re all a bunch of fat, stupid, circumcised, English-speaking French-lovers. I guess we are stupid if we love a people that calls us fat and stupid.

Mexicans: Fat and longing to live in the land of the fat free.

Haitians: Oh my gosh, you can’t just ask people why they’re black.


Notes on (very unscientific) experimental set-up:

The search syntax “pourquoi est-ce que les (x) sont” didn’t really work, but “pourquoi les (x) sont” and just “pourquoi les (x)” did. Go figure.

I stole the map from here: And by stole, I mean used a work released into the public domain.

Stereotypes of the Francophone world, part 1

You may have seen maps of US states or countries of the world labelled by the first Google suggestions given when you ask “Why are (people from x country) __?” But those searches have all been done in English, to my knowledge.

So what happens when we search in French about European countries with high populations of French speakers? Let’s find out:

francophone europe large

In red: France. The first and third searches, if true, might explain the second…

In yellow: Belgium. I’m almost inclined to say they can do anything they want, as long as they keep riding their motos in pyjamas.

In white: Switzerland. It seems they’re the rich, cultured kind of racists, not like those redneck Belgians.

In blue: Romania. They have the impressive distinction of not being known for their racism, although the first result, ‘dirty’, may well come from the other three countries above, and prove that yes, they are a little bit racist.

Surprised to see Romania mentioned? Although French is not an official language of the country, Romania has tons of fluent French speakers and well-established cultural ties (read about it here; scroll down a bit to get to “Francophonie”).

Note: the syntax “pourquoi est-ce que les (x) sont” didn’t really work, but “pourquoi les (x) sont” did. Go figure.



2. Google.

Pardon Their French, part III

French usage in anglophone media can range from “pretty respectable” to “was that supposed to be French?” Last week, part deux focused on a character’s inexplicable French-narrated-while-singing thoughts in the TV show Community; on the first week, part 1 took a look at how French was used in Sherlock Holmes(film, 2009). Today’s follow-up goes right to the most glorious instance of French and Franglais ever used in film: the taunting French knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Do I need to set the scene for you? I hope not. You should be thinking of moose- and llama-riddled opening credits, an epic soundtrack, and questions of coconut migration already. But in this post, we’re just dealing with the French.

And what are the French doing in Britain?

Most of the dialogue is not in French at all, but instead an outrageous French accent. However, there’s one fantastic imperative that has (I hope) fooled legions of aspiring francophones:

Fetchez la vache!

Of course, fetcher is not a real French verb, but with all the other cognates floating around, it’s plausible that it would be. I like to think that somewhere out there, there’s been some nerdy kid raised on Monty Python who’s innocently dropped it into an attempted French conversation, only to elicit the same incredulous “Quoi?” as we hear from the other French knights.


For the quality of the French usage, 0/5 stars. For the quality of absolutely everything else, this classic is above reproach.

Pardon Their French, part deux

French usage in anglophone media can range from “pretty respectable” to “was that supposed to be French?” Last week, part 1 took a look at how French was used in Sherlock Holmes(film, 2009). Today’s follow-up takes a look at a more recent example, this time from the TV show Community‘s fifth season (2014).

In this clip, a wistful French woman’s voice sings the thoughts of Greendale Community College’s Dean, Craig Pelton, variously described as a “pansexual imp” and “innocent pervert”. His crush on one of the main characters leads him to awkwardly attempt to engineer situations to get him closer to the object of his affections, including, in this scene, a failed attempt to get Jeff to learn Excel with him.

So how’s the French? Well…it’s about what we’d expect from an institution with Greendale’s reputation.

The most prominent mistake comes at the very end, when the Dean realizes, in song, that his thoughts are in French (with a question mark of surprise). The singing voice audibly says, Mes pensées sont français. See the problem? The word pensée is feminine, so there are two possible corrections to make: either “mes pensées sont en français” or “mes pensées sont françaises”. The latter, though, seems that it would have the meaning of culturally or nationally French…which also doesn’t seem to make sense.

The other big mistake comes towards the middle of the song: comme les marins qui fument cigarettes sur le canal”. If Dan Harmon and the script writers had read What The French?!, they’d know that needy nouns like cigarettes need articles: des cigarettes would have worked.

The verdict: The style of the singing and the music and the bizarre way it fits the scene are great. The actual French grammar leaves a bit to be desired.

Pardon their French

French usage in anglophone media can range from “pretty respectable” to “was that supposed to be French?” I hope to look at that full range in this mini-series of posts.

Let’s start on a relatively high note:

Sherlock Holmes (2009) casts Robert Downey Jr. as the titular character alongside Jude Law as Dr. Watson. I hope it doesn’t spoil this five year-old movie for you when I say there is fighting involved (albeit often in clever ways), and one of the bad guys is a francophone giant called Dredger. Holmes hears him speak French, and is apparently never one to back down from an excuse to practice his conversation, as you can see a little of in this clip:

Now, the giant, played by real-life huge person Robert Maillet, is a native Canadian French speaker, so his French is fine (the deep voice and the fighting might make it sound slightly different, but it’s authentic). What’s impressive is RDJ’s passable accent and delivery (there’s more than what you see in the above clip) is pretty good, especially considering how difficult it is to act in a foreign language. Plus, there’s always the excuse of British arrogance to excuse any slight accent he might retain; sure, Sherlock would be able to master French, but why bother pandering to their elitist pronunciations?

One semi-goof: the script was written in English, and only later did the director find out that their giant actor was a native French speaker. One piece of dialogue is an unfortunate victim of translation: the giant is supposed to say, “Did you miss me?” with “miss” carrying the double meanings of sentimentality and attack. The problem is, French has the weirdest possible way to express sentimentally missing someone; when the giant says, “Tu m’as manqué?” this carries only the meaning of “Did (your attack) miss me?” and would mean ‘Did I miss you?’ when used with the sentimental meaning. Did the writers/actor choose the right one for the line? Does it really matter? You be the judge.

“Manger ses mots”: a French idiom

manger tes mots

Manger ses mots means to mumble. Another, non-idiomatic way to say it is with the verb marmonner.

112 Gripes (Our friends, the French), part 1

At the end of the second world war, United States forces stationed in France experienced what might be diplomatically called “tensions” with their hosts. It’s not really hard to see why; even in the best of circumstances, different cultural values are going to make life complicated. And then throw in the minor detail of France’s general weariness at having been invaded and occupied, American soldiers’ general post-war fatigue and likely under-reported PTSD, and you have a recipe for a lot of gripes.

But the US military couldn’t let tensions boil over, so they took 112 of these gripes and made a pamphlet, the most effective morale-corrector known to man. The document was circulated in France among enlisted Americans starting in 1945, and you’re in luck: this priceless document has been scanned and is available to read right here.


Here are a couple highlights, in case you were on the fence about clicking on that link (which is a lot of effort, to be fair). I’ll be making editor’s notes in [square brackets], too.

Gripe #20: “The French aren’t friendly.”

Uncle Sam’s rebuttal: “Some Frenchman are; other Frenchmen are not.

     The French as a whole are not as “hail fellow well met” as we Americans are. [‘Cause that’s totally how I greet friends and strangers. Hailing them, and the like.] Neither are the British, the Swedes, the Greeks, the Mexicans.

     Frenchmen don’t get personal or confidential quickly.

     They don’t “open up” as quickly as we do in the States.

     The French are very polite; they are also more formal than we are about personal relationships. (So are the Chinese.) The French respect another person’s privacy, and they like to have their own privacy respected too.

     It is natural for anyone to think the people of another nation are not as friendly as his own people. It’s hard to be friendly in a foreign language. It’s hard to be friendly when you’re hungry, cold, and have gone through six years of war – as the French have. Yet the Americans who came into Normandy, or who came into Paris right after the liberation, still talk about the astonishing outburst of gratitude, generosity and friendliness which the French displayed toward us.

     Back in the States, many of our troops complained that the people in the towns near the training camps were not friendly. People from our South often complain that the people in the North are not friendly. A Texan in Vermont finds New Englanders “cold” and “snobbish”. [As they should be!] Do we then say that all Americans are unfriendly?

     Friendship, said a wise man, lies in this: “To desire the same things and to reject the same things.” [What wise man was that? I’d sure hate to spend time with most of the people that statement describes.] On this basis, the United States has never had a better friend than France.

Gripe #45: “The French don’t bathe.”

     “The French don’t bathe often enough. They can’t. They don’t have real soap. They they had no soap worthy of the name since 1940. The Germans took the soap, for four years. [WWII will forever be remembered as Europe’s war for soap.] That’s a long time.

     The ration for Frenchman today, four months after the war is over, is two cakes of poor ersatz soap per month – 20 grams every two months. Most real soap can only he obtained on the black market, where it costs around 125 francs for 310 grams. [This explanation doesn’t do anything for us in 2014, unfortunately.]

Gripe #53: “The French are primitive. French farmers still wear wooden shoes.” [First of all, how is that a gripe? “I just refuse to occupy the same landmass as people who wear wooden shoes,” said no one ever.]

     “The French farmer is more sensible than you think. The French farmer wears wooden shoes because they insulate his feet against mud and damp much better than leather can. [You know what, as much as I don’t care about wooden shoes, I’m finding the prospect of defending them even less intellectually appealing. And I still don’t see how that makes them primitive.]

     France does not have the very hot summer days and nights we get in the Middle West. The landscape of France is not deforested because for centuries the French have been careful to re-plant the trees they’ve cut down. [Buncha hippies. I knew there was a reason we didn’t like ’em.] And so the rivers of France run deep all year round, and the French soil is cool and moist, and wooden shoes come in mighty handy. The French farmer finds them more practical than leather shoes.”

As fun as it is to see what annoyed Americans about the French in 1945, this pamphlet is also a pretty interesting look at an important time period in the relationship between two countries with a really complicated past. What kind of gripes would you put in a 2014 edition? And what kind would they put in a version about Americans? I’d read that in a heartbeat.

An average French guy explains French culture

I’ve found an “Ask Me Anything” session (AMA) with a friendly Frenchman who explains French culture from his own perspective. The following quotes are edited for length and content, like a TV movie, so be warned if you go to read the source.


Q: Why were all the French folks I encountered in Nice/Antibes/Cannes really nice to me, but then the Parisian ones generally ignored or were a giant [bunch of jerks]? Are they just fed up with Americans visiting Paris vs in the south, things are a bit more laid back and not so crazy?
French Guy (FG): They are known for that. They think France = Paris and everything around is just cows and incest families.But they are like a tribe, if you follow their customs (never smile !) you’ll be one of them.


Q: How do the French feel about the fact that the English mock them relentlessly?

FG: This is an endless cycle, they moke [sic] us, we moke belgian, belgian mokes dutch, etc…
But to be honest, we don’t really care.


Q: Is it true that public sector workers in particular will take massive 2 hour lunches, eating a full meal at a restaurant and then basically doing no work for the rest of the day?

FG: True story. And apparently this makes them sick more often !

Follow-up Q: Heh, so is it just accepted behavior?

FG: I have exaggerated. The firm’s culture between public and private is really different. In a private firm, everything is about performance. In a public firm, it’s almost impossible to be fired and you have no real stress from anyone. They are the most secure jobs of France, but it’s not really easy to have a job here. And you’re less paid btw.

The stinkiest cheese

For as much stereotype-busting as I tend to do on this site, I sometimes have to look at the facts and admit that sometimes, every once in a while, the myths have some truth to them.

As you may have read in the title, it’s true: France has produced the stinkiest variety of cheese. The long-distance gag-reflex-triggering champion. The one cheese to nauseate them all.

According to this 2004 BBC news article, scientists applied their knowledge and tools to the question of the relative smelliness of cheeses, using “an ‘electronic nose’ to analyse the cheese odours, along with a panel of 19 human testers”. Their results showed that decent, normal cheeses like English Cheddar and Parmesan were among the least odorous, while the ultimate stench title belongs to Vieux Boulogne, the soul-crushing odor of which is apparently “created by the beer reacting with enzymes in the cheese”. Yikes.

What’s horrifying is the BBC article’s note that the Vieux Boulogne actually beat another French cheese (Epoisses de Bourgogne) that smells so bad, it’s been banned from being taken on public transport in France. Can you imagine the prolonged problem that was bad enough to cause the French to enact actual legislation to put an end to it?

It may look tasty, but the whole bottle of wine is necessary to forget the horror of just smelling this demonic dairy product.

Case closed. The French can and do make some stinky cheeses.

A guide to asking in French

Here’s a follow-up to last week’s wall of text. Hopefully it will be much easier to use.

guide to asking

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