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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Excuse My French, But Is This REALLY French?

Today, I started listening to Polish Hip Hop for a graduate project I’m working on at the University of Colorado — specifically, the rhythms of the rapper’s words, not the beat behind them, the art of the video, or anything else like that. The first guy I checked out was O.S.T.R., this song:

I was somewhat surprised to find out that the rhythms of the Polish words were extremely similar to those of English words, to the point that English words could have been interchanged into the melody, and things would still sound the same — the semantic meaning would be different, but the musical rhythms could have stayed the same.

Surprised by this, I decided to pick the language from the countries we’ve studied that is as different as possible from English and Polish, and decided on China. I did this to see if the same thing would still happen. However, the rhythms of the Chinese video here

were incredibly similar to those of both English an Polish as well. How the hell could this be?

I mean, when people speak these languages in real life, their rhythms are incredibly different. Having studied French for years, I know that the accent of every grammatical clause or word in French falls at the very end. English speakers like us might pronounce the word for your state like this:


But French people would say:


We might say:


But French people would say:


All of this is true, even though Colorado’s accented syllable is the penultimate one, and Texas’ accented syllable is its first one. France simplifies that into the same thing: an accent on the final syllable.

But listen to where the accents fall in this French rap song:

Even if you don’t speak French, and they’re talking too quickly for me to understand what they’re saying anyway, you can hear that the rappers’ accents aren’t falling only at the end of the sentence; they’re falling inside as well. This makes this kind of rapped-French more similar to English than it is to “proper” French.

It seems, then, that French rappers must break the rules of speaking French in order to rap in French.  Perhaps this might be an “extension of self”, a rebellion against the norm that is acted out not just verbally (the meaning of the words they say), but phonologically (how they grammatically say those words) as well (this idea might be developed further later.)

And just in case a person might think these rules I refer to are no more than loose conventions, consider the Académie française:

I now quote Wikipedia: “The body has the task of acting as an official authority on the language; it is charged with publishing an official dictionary of the language.”

Could a living, breathing art like rap ever have happened in a language with such a cloistered climate? It’s no mistake that French used to be the language of diplomacy; in the future, we’ll speak of a lingua anglica, not a lingua franca.

English is so popular because it has no problem incorporating other languages’ words, like omerta, or (ironically) even French ones, like voyage. In contrast, the Academié française proscriptively decrees that French people should use the word “le courrier electronique” when referring to what we call e-mail. But what is easier for a person, no matter their native language, to say: “e-mail” (2 syllables) or “le courrier electronique” (8 syllables)? The answer is “e-mail”, obviously, so that’s the word most French people use.

Don’t doubt the power of nativist institutions like the Academie française. A certain percentage of all songs on French radios stations must be in French:

And the Toubon Law makes the use of French in many public instances mandatory:

I mention all of this to show that these ways of speaking French from France aren’t just conventions; they’re taken as common foundations of a well-integrated social fabric, on an equal level with virtues as idealistic as France’s cherished secularism (laïcité:, which has so recently been thrown into the forefront of the world’s consciousness with the Charlie Hebdo killings.

Some other notes on the societal conventions of speaking French from France:

1.) People who speak French from France (not African/Caribbean/etc. French, which I’m not familiar with) speak more quietly than American English speakers;
2.) Such French people talk more quickly than American English speakers; and
3.) French people speak in more regular, straightforward, constant rhythms than American English speakers.

You can see all of these conventions manifested in a series of interviews with native speakers outside the abbey of St. Michel in France, here:

Listen to how quietly these francophones speak, how they never pause (even for a second) until the end of the sentence, and how quickly they speak their words. For all of these reasons, I can read and write French really well, but when I try to speak it and combine it with my nails-on-chalkboard accent, it’s almost impossible to be understood by others.

So in that rap song I just linked to, note that the francophones are variously upsetting those established conventions at certain times: they speak (yell, maybe) loudly, they speak relatively slowly, and they speak in stop-and-start rhythms, not a run of straight syllables until the end. Once again, French speakers seem to have to imitate English (or at least speak in non-French ways) for now, in order to be able to rap.

These subversions of French grammatical norms line up well with the uniquely French linguistic phenomenon of verlan:

Verlan basically inverts and reverses the rules of French. It’s not just harmless wordplay; it’s destructive wordcrime, to certain establishment institutions like the Academie francaise. Verlan is, unquestionably, a subversive reaction to such entities; disenfranchised, criminalized (not necessarily criminal) youth use it as a code (technically, an “argot” that authorities like cops don’t understand in order to communicate with each other.

Could French speakers’ conscious or unconscious imitation of English function in a similar way?

Combine this now with what I couldn’t have missed in listening to that Chinese hip hop video I linked to before: the distinguishing tones of the Chinese words — necessary in most circumstances for proper comprehension — are now completely gone! There is a minimum of “high level”, “high rising”, etc., tones:

Having talked to a Vietnamese speaker — another tonal language — I found that the absence of what would seem like vital verbal information is actually, to a native speaker, not a huge hurdle. You simply need to know the language very, very well to understand the rapper, and you also have to use context clues to figure it out as well. Similar to verlan, does this function as a way to define an in-group and an out-group?

It’s my theory, then, that these languages actually now have to imitate the norms of the English language at this point in time in order to be rapped. Chinese rappers imitate English’s lack of tonality; French rappers imitate the fact that accents in English can fall anywhere in a word, and so on.

It occurs to me that this imitation of English, in at least some Chinese and some French rap, is an evolutionary stage in international rap. I draw this conclusion because I find similarities to it in the development of other musical genres when they are transported to a different country.

Consider, for instance, classical music in China. After it was eventually accepted by the Communist party there, there was a major effort to make classical the dominant music of the country. For instance, a conservatory system of teaching music, an import from Western countries, was established. Tan Dun, the most famous Chinese music composer (think of movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), is, in fact, a huge example of the success of this system. (He attended the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.)

The early Chinese composers largely imitated Western styles, often inartfully, with no originality or what I’d call artistic self-awareness, and came off as sounding like kitsch.

A modern composer like Tan Dun, however, has merged classical and folk aesthetics in his own music. For instance, he uses the traditional pentatonic scale, but he forms complete chordal harmonies behind it. This gives his music a decidedly authentic feel, while crossing the East-West divide. A great example of this is his “Song Of Peace”:

Compare the intro of the piece with what immediately follows. The opening is clearly in a Chinese aesthetic, with a deep sensibility for timbre (sound-color). Only afterwards is it that we get a melody in equal-tempered intonation, a decidedly Western development.

Something similar happened when Japanese classical music first came of age. Toru Takemitsu utilized traditional Japanese instruments like the biwa flute, but used it in an full orchestra.

It might be one day, then, that French and Chinese rappers can rap in ways that are not just semantically French and Chinese, but grammatically French and Chinese as well. But that day doesn’t seem to have come yet.