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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Why do people think the French say ‘hon hon hon’ when they laugh?

Roll out the most grotesque caricature of a Frenchmen - stripey jumper, onions and beret in place - and before long he will utter a 'hon hon hon', but where did we get the idea that French people laugh like that?

Why do people think the French say 'hon hon hon' when they laugh?
Photo: 'Til there was you/ Tumblr

If you were watching coverage of the US elections over the weekend you may have seen this hilarious clip, in which an American man interrupts the French TV channel BFM's live broadcast to share some of his favourite French clichés – including a hearty 'hon hon hon'.

 

But the man – named as Meka by US publications – is not alone in his belief that hon hon hon is a sound commonly heard in France. The top definition of Urban Dictionary for “hon hon hon” is “the sound of French laughter, in all its nasally glory.”

The “n” isn't actually pronounced, but it signals how the “o” should sound, (so definitely not “ho ho ho” – that catchphrase is taken).

The sound has well and truly permeated pop culture, no stereotypical representation of a French person seems to be complete without it, from New Zealand comedy show Flight of the Conchords to The Simpsons.

 

 
Videos above abound online and the 'hon hon hon' has also taken meme form.
 
Photo: canihascheeseburger
 
But have you ever heard a French person laugh like this in real life? No, nor have we. 
 
So where did we get this impression from? 
 
There doesn't seem to be an 'official' explanation of this, but theories abound.
 
The most popular is that we in the English-speaking world got the idea from Maurice Chevalier, a French singer and entertainer, whose career spanned most of the 20th century. He made it in Hollywood and one of his most famous songs is “Thank heavens for little girls.”
 
His strong Parisian accent is pretty much the epitome of the typical French voice that we English speakers love to imitate, “like zees”.
 
Marc Milleseptcentcinquantesix/ Daily motion
 
Apparently, the “hon hon hon” was his signature laugh, and that's where we all got the idea from. 
 
“Maurice Chevalier might on one occasion have – perhaps while choking on an escargot? – uttered a sound that was unjustly mistaken for a laugh,” writes blogger Emily in the Glass
 
“Later, when paired with his accent in English, this sound must have become known as Maurice Chevalier’s French laugh and, as stereotypes go, soon it was simply the French laugh.”
 
Either way, the laugh made its way into Anglophone culture and has stuck there. It can be heard in Disney's 1989 film The Little Mermaid, a quintessential childhood film for many.
 
Chef Louis, a classically grotesque caricature of a Frenchman, even references Chevalier right at the beginning of his song, listen out for the “hon hon hon” at 0:30.
 
Video: 0bronwyn0's channel/ Youtube
 
Certainly if you manage to make a French person laugh (and having a bash at pronouncing some of these words might achieve that effect) you'll notice they sound nothing like Chef Louis.
 
And if you're trying to indicate laughter in a written communication ah ah or ha ha will do fine, or you can use MDR (mort de rire) the French equivalent of LOL.
 
But maybe you do know a French person who laughs like this? Or a better explanation of this weird myth? Let us know by emailing [email protected]
 
By Rose Trigg

Member comments

  1. I remember “Hon Hon Hon” from ‘Allo ‘Allo, well before Disney took it up for the Mermaid. One of the escaping RAF officers used the expression to simulate speaking French. According to wikipedia, the first episode went out in December 1982.

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.

Masculine

Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty

Feminine

Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 

Plural

And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  

Islands 

Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.

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