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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.


  1. I started listening to French rap when I began studying it in High School, and quickly discovered how much of a liability that could become when attempting to speak it later. Interesting stuff!

    (Also, if you're studying Linguistics at CU, then I've probably seen you around Eaton. Go buffs, etc).

    1. Great! Glad you liked it :)

      Yeah, actually, I was telecommuting for the research work at CU, so I was never actually there. This was done under Dr. Adam F. Bradley though, a pretty famous professor in your English department who studies rap.

      Peace man! Hit me up at if you want anything else!



  2. Fascinating article Martin, like always. The unique sound of languages, and how it is expressed in rap by artists that speak them, is something i've been thinking about alot actually. I came to very simillar conclusions, but with less knowledge of other languages to back up my ideas. I have some examples of rap albums that experiment with a more "oriental" sound, from my local scene, if you're interested. (Not french or chinese, sadly).


    1. Of course I"m interested, hit me up at man! Glad you liked it :)



  3. French guy here,

    The thing with the french accent is that sentences don't have any rythm. A word alone can ("coloraDO" - even here that's not a true stress like in English), but sentences don't (or maybe just the last syllable of the last word)) and that explains a lot of things.

    "Their RHYthms are inCREdibly DIfferent"
    "Leurs rythmes sont incroyablement différents"

    Sentences are more linear in French, it's like a continual signal, where English would be kind of like a sine wave. If you get the comparison.

    I think words stresses / rythm are the reasons why English speakers may speak louder, the contrast between stressed/unstressed syllables has to be noticeable, when in French it's all the same volume level.

    You can't even compare rapped French with spoken French ... and can't with English neither (do you speak the way you rap? I don't think so.)
    To my ears french rap doesn't sound at all like English rap, and no they don't break any grammar or phonological rule to rap, and that is not rebellion or anything ahah, that's just French with melody (voice, flow). Again, in English, do you speak the way you rap/sing? ...

    Since words are not stressed you can use them to rhyme the way you want.

    "POssible" in english; you'd make this word rhyme with the "PO" right? Like "... POssible ... HOspital". It flows better and it's way easier than rhyming the "ssi", for example.
    There's no such thing in French since there's no stress. "possible"; you can rhyme "po" or "ssi" or "ble" without making it sounds strange or forced. "... POssible ... POlice" or "poSSIble ... CIble" or even "possiBLE ... BLEU"

    Yes there are more and more english words in the french language ... but i think it's true for most language, because of the internet.

    "French people talk more quickly than American English speakers"

    That's just what YOU feel. Ask any French people (or else) and they'll tell you the same with English (if they don't understand it very well).

    "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."

    What I said earlier..., there's a difference between speaking and rapping/singing. Do you think French singers don't raise/stress any notes ;)?

    "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."

    The way we rap in French doesn't sound English or non-French in any way.

    (about Verlan) "youth use it as a code that authorities like cops don’t understand in order to communicate with each other."

    Lol, don't rely too much on Wikipedia ! That might have been true like 50 years ago, but nowadays everyone uses those words (young people), and if they don't, they know them. Even my grandparents know some verlan, it's not a code.

    I can't speak for other languages (Chinese, Polish, ...) but I think you're just confusing melody/flow with spoken conversation.
    As soon as there's an instrumental, the way you rap/sing doesn't sound like the way you speak, and that's true for any language.

    1. >Sentences are more linear in French, it's like a continual signal,

      Continuous signal is a rhythm.

      >"French people talk more quickly than American English speakers"...That's just what YOU feel.

      No, you're wrong. In a completely objective, controlled, and empirically-run demonstration, French is spoken more quickly than English. If you take the most basic meaningful linguistic unit of a morpheme:

      more morphemes are pronounced in the typical French sentence over 10 seconds than English. The morphemes/second metric in French is greater than the morphemes/second metric, as measured in English.

      >That might have been true like 50 years ago, but nowadays everyone uses those words (young people), and if they don't, they know them.

      You make the classic mistake of being too young and thinking that certain debates that have raged for hundreds of millenia are over and done with, and it's because of people like you, who take progress for granted, that things like Trump winning the Republican nomination, Le Pen next year, or the far-right candidate in Austria ALMOST winning have/will happened:

      And his daughter will be your president next, everything's fine though!

  4. Don't you think that the reason why they all converge to English has nothing to do with English itself, but with the way music is constructed? It might be more linked to the way beats force syllables to be placed. If you look at Dutch, a language very similar to English in terms of syllables and tone, it sounds very similar to the way an English rapsong would be constructed. Not because of English influence, but simply because of rythm. You need to subdivide your syllables and change the stress according to where it would go in the bar. So tonal or non-tonal languages have little choice but adapt. It might be that because rap was born in English that it feels more natural. But it feels equally natural to rap in dutch, I would say.
    An example from an awesome dutch hip hop group.



    1. Hey could you email me at man? I could really use your expertise and experience as a native Dutch-speaker, to understand my ideas and how they might apply in another non-English language, besides French.

      Thanks man!



  5. Thanks to the french guy, I approve everything you said! It is funny to see people wasting so much time in analysing and speak about topics they don't have a clue. You should study rap itself before using it as a tool to justify your funny theorys

  6. I disagree with your assessment regarding the lack of tones in Chinese rap being an 'imitation' of English language rap. I'm a linguist residing in Taiwan, and am intimately familiar with tones in Mandarin and other Sinitic languages.

    The matter is simply that tones fall into the prosodic domain of language, much like intonation (of a question in English, for example), except that in tonal languages like Chinese and Vietnamese prosody varies by syllable, in what linguists refer to as a phonemic status.

    Music, by virtue of having melody, forces its own prosodic contours onto the lyrics, which effectively cancels out any tonal information in the syllables. Unlike languages with lexical stress, where the stressed syllable is marked in a variety of ways that may include pitch, length, and amplitude among others, tonal languages rely mostly on relative pitch and pitch contours to distinguish tones. In order to accommodate for the pitch of the music, the tones are simply dropped. Some information is lost that way, but language is generally sufficiently redundant for the lyrics to be reconstructable.

    This phenomenon of tonelessness is not restricted to rap, and in fact occurs in all types of Chinese language music.

    1. >Music, by virtue of having melody, forces its own prosodic contours onto the lyrics, which effectively cancels out any tonal information in the syllables.

      Great idea you have there!

      >This phenomenon of tonelessness is not restricted to rap, and in fact occurs in all types of Chinese language music.

      Could you email me at with examples of that tonelessness phenomenon? I am absolutely dying to talk to you, and this platform is way too restrictive for me to do so! haha, I really, really hope to hear from you :)


      Martin Connor