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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Why all the snobbery in France around regional accents?

France has a long history of accent rivalry that still remains valid today.

Why all the snobbery in France around regional accents?
Why would someone say the southwest French accent is 'a little rugby'? Photo: AFP/French government (map)

After newly appointed Prime Minister Jean Castex spoke on TV for the first time social media flooded within seconds with people commenting on his accent.

“I love Jean Castex' accent, I feel like I'm on holiday,” said French right-wing European Parliament MP Nadine Morano, rather patronisingly.

Castex, who is from the south-western département Gers, speaks like a typical south-western French, which means he stands out in the heavily Parisian-dominated French political classes.

One commentator said his accent was “a little rugby,” presumably referring to the fact rugby's stronghold in France is the south west and not Paris.

But what is so “rugby” and regional about Jean Castex, a senior civil servant who has held prominent government positions and who is best known for leading France out of lockdown?

READ ALSO: The regional French slang you'll need for travelling around France

'Hillbilly'

“If someone’s pronunciation differs from “the standard French”, which means the French spoken in the greater Paris region, they will be discriminated against,” linguist Mathieu Avanzi, author of the blog Français de nos regions (French of our regions), told The Local.

Strong regional accents are associated with lower social-professional categories, the linguist explained.

The “standard French” is the French spoken in the greater Paris region of Île-de-France. Historically, this was where the French kings lived.

Still today French people “associate the Île-de-France region with prestige,” according to Avanzi.

“It is the cultural, political, media-friendly capital. Everything outside this region is hillbilly,” he said.

“In France, the region of Paris has played the center role for centuries, geographically speaking. The power, the biggest media but also most of the writers of commercial dictionaries (Larousse and Robert, to mention the main ones) are in Paris”, Avanzi wrote in a blog article

French writer and journalist Anne-Elizabeth Moutet says: “The truth is that French regional accents (and patois) *were* ruthlessly suppressed under the Third Republic. Yet they were killed off by television, not the government. And they're more often than not a huge asset in politics.”

 

 

The map below shows the percentages of French people who have the feeling they have a regional accent. 

Today, you can trace variants of this Parisian “standard accent” out on a geographical line that stretches out to Nancy in the east and Rennes in the west, the linguist explained.

That does not mean that a Rennais and a Parisian will consider their accents identical, but their accents belong to the same category.

The biggest accent divide in France is between the Northern accent and the Southern accent, Avanzi explained.

“The Northern accent is known as nice but vulgar. The Southern accent reminds people of holiday but not necessarily of hard work,” he said.

The accent found in the northernmost region of France Nord-Pas-de-Calais, is notorious in France, known as Ch’ti (sticks). French people tend to think of les Ch’tis as slightly brutish and simple, a myth founded partly on the ch’ti accent, which can be hard to understand for French people from other regions.

READ ALSO: Is the 'endearing' Marseille accent in danger of dying out?

 

'Glottophobie'

Stereotypes like these are firmly ingrained into French mentality and rivalry and cliches of people with different accents is a phenomenon that has existed for decades.

More recently, it got a name: glottophobie (a sort of xenophobia of languages).

A French linguist invented the term in 2016 to categorise what he said was a typical French phenomenon of discriminating against people with regional accents. 

This year, glottophobie could even be recognised as a legal problem in France, after a southern MP from President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling party proposed a bill aiming to end work-discrimination of people with regional accents.

The law has not yet passed and is set to be debated in the French parliament this year.

READ ALSO: Grumpy Parisians and drunk northerners: What are the French regional stereotypes?

A social media effect

So can an accent really be the reason behind someone being held back in professional life in France?

“Many people adapt their pronunciation, journalists for example learn to control their accent, but it’s difficult to measure if it really prevents them from getting a job,” said Avanzi.

Social media has however lead to accent discrimination becoming a well-established problem in France, with gaffes easily going viral – like MEP Nadine Morano's comment regarding the new PM’s accent making her feel like she was on holiday.

In 2018, a video showing far-left MP Jean-Luc Mélenchon mimicking the Southern accent of a journalist went viral, showing how badly a turn a misplaced comment from a Parisian politician on a regional accent can take today.

“The new PM has a regional accent, and we should be happy,” Avanzi said: “It’s an important step in the history of discriminations linked to the accent in France, but also with regards to the recognition of the French language's regional varieties”. 

Before handing the government reins over to Castex, former PM Edouard Philippe, whose accent is classic Parisian, is said to have told people present at a meeting that “[Jean Castex] has a huge accent but he is really skilled”. 

“No, Prime Minister,” Castex replied, according to French daily Le Parisien. “It is you who has the accent.” 

By Olivia Sorrel-Dejerine

 

 

 

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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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