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Mythbusters: Is French really a 'sexy' accent?

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Mythbusters: Is French really a 'sexy' accent?
Does a French accent really make people go weak at the knees? Photo by ALAIN JOCARD / AFP

It's regularly named as the 'sexiest' accent for men, women and even cartoon skunks - but is there anything intrinsically attractive about the French accent? Linguists say it's all in our imagination.

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Surveys (doubtless very scientifically rigorous) abound on the subject of the 'world's sexist accent', and French usually comes out on top, although sometimes beaten by Italian.

It's a long-standing trope that seductive or charming characters in English-language TV or film will be French, and even extends to cartoons - remember the romancer/sex pest cartoon skunk Pepé Le Pew and his thick French accent?

 

But what is it about the French accent that gives it this reputation? According to one expert, it's all in the minds of Anglophones.

Dr Nigel Armstrong, a lecturer in French and sociolinguistics at the University of Leeds, said the reason we find French sexy has little to do with the language itself.

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"There’s nothing in the accent itself that has anything to do with it being considered sexy,” Armstrong told The Local.

"People, especially the British have this stereotypical view of sexy French women in Paris, the haute couture, the French cuisine and we consider them stylish people, and all this adds to their sex appeal, which is basically what makes their accent seem sexy.

"Any accent is just a series of sounds. The explanation of why we find French sexy and charming is cultural and social.

"There have been several surveys carried out in the UK about how people react to the different regional accents we have. Birmingham often comes out bottom of the table. There’s no linguistic explanation for that, it’s just people often have a negative opinion of Birmingham as a bit of grimy post-industrial city.

"Similarly the London accent is often rated badly when it comes to honesty and that has to do with the stereotypes of cockney’s being ‘jack the lad’ type characters.

"The accent that the Queen had always rates highly in terms of intelligence but low when it comes to friendliness.

"One thing that’s nice about the French accent - for foreigners - is that you generally can’t make sense of it in terms of class or social standing.”

So there you have it - our perception of the French accent has nothing to do with the accent itself, and everything to do with how we perceive the French.

Exactly where that French reputation for style, romance and seductiveness comes from - and whether it's true for even a tiny portion of the population - is a topic for another day.

And what accents do the French themselves find sexy? Italian rates highly among French women - for similar reasons around stereotypes of 'romance' and believe it or not the British accent is often regarded as sexy (or at least charming) by French people.

A version of this article was first published in 2013.

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