Linguistik online  25, 4/05

French of the present and the past: the representation of the Parisian vernacular in Maurice Chevalier's songs [*]

Michaël Abecassis (Oxford)


1 Introduction

The influence of the mass media on language has led to a large number of studies (Chambers 1998, Bernet 2000, Colin 2000), but hardly any linguist has worked on a corpus of songs with the exception of a few references to popular French songs (Bernet 1995, Carton 1995). Whether the media plays a major influence on language is highly controvertial, leading to generalisations such as that the media invents words and disseminate them, sometimes even arguing that this entails sound and grammatical changes. The sociologist S. Lieberson (2000), looking at the correlation between names familiar from the media and the way people name their children, found that people tend to overestimate the influence of the media. Instead of popularising names, he showed that the media are not responsible for an active change and only reflected language changes that were already entrenched. Labov (1984) showed that in the inner-city of Philadelphia, daily passive exposure to standard English language on television and education has little effect on the dialect of young African American residents. Milroy /Milroy argue on the contrary that the media, such as television do have an influence in spreading idioms and popularising innovations, but viewers would not necessarily adopt them in the long run (Bauer 1994: 7-8). The analysis here will investigate what Chevalier's songs, although highly stereotypical and artificial, can tell us about the Parisian vernacular, and whether they had some kind of influence, keeping the vocabulary popularised at the time by Chevalier alive today.

For this study, I compiled a corpus of Maurice Chevalier's best known songs, recorded over almost three decades between the 1920s and 1950s, in order to analyse his use of non-standard vocabulary. Maurice Chevalier is the archetype of popular Parisian singers and his songs have become world-wide classics. In the first part of this analysis, after giving a brief outline of the phonetic features of Chevalier's songs, we will concentrate on the proportion of non-standard items in his songs and follow the evolution of his vocabulary diachronically. The main purpose of this research is to gauge the evolution of Chevalier's lexicon by taking into account the attitudes of lexicographers of Le Petit Larousse (2004) towards non-standard items and the perception of native French speakers towards their usage.

Maurice Chevalier was born in 1888 in Ménilmontant, a working-class district of Paris. His father, a house painter, was Parisian by adoption and his mother was of Belgian origin. After holding various jobs in Paris as a child, such as a circus acrobat and an impersonator of the French Comique-troupier Dranem, he became a "comic" singer in Paris café concerts and later in the Folies Bergères. An admirer of Fréhel and Mistinguett, he moved from a popular repertoire to that of a dandy, clad in a suit and wearing his famous boater. During the années folles, the French singer started a career as a Hollywood actor where he became an ambassador for French culture.

The popular songs of the music-hall made their way onto French radio as early as the 1920s with Aristide Bruant, Monthéus and Fragson. While the female singers (Damia, Fréhel and Marie Dubas) characteristically indulged in melodramatic songs, singing of the misfortunes of prostitutes, drug-addicts and abandoned lovers, the male singers (Mayol, Georgius, Milton) sang farcical songs, with an often purposefully idiotic vocabulary. Since they were masters of parody, manipulators of words, and virtuosos of phraseology, their songs were often mere exercises in elocution which consisted of pronouncing as many words as possible before taking breath. Ostentatiously rejecting grammatical rules, Comique-troupiers, like Chevalier deliberately perpetrated in their songs grammatical and pronunciation errors, the French pronunciation of English words ("Liverpoole", "Novyorke") for example, and excelled in the art of innuendo. Recordings of their songs remain today as some of the oldest archives of Parisian vernacular:

C'est peut-être la chanson et les chansons, qui à travers les formes traditionnelles et les formes plus modernes nous apportent des images les plus fidèles du Langage Populaire. Avec le développement du Caf' Conc (Gaité-Rochechouard, Gaité-Montparnasse) et des cabarets (Lapin à Gill, Chat noir…) se répandent dans une forme de spectacle nouvelle les chansons de Bruant, de Mayol, d'Yvette Guilbert (François 1999: 309).

Apart from the 'cris de la rue' of street vendors and conversations recorded on sapphire disc available at the national sound archive of Paris (Antoine/Martin 1985: 298, note 8), recordings which provide information about this period are extremely rare. Therefore, 1930s songs, even if they offer us a pastiche of Parisian speech, are valuable evidence of vernacular speech.

There are two types of songs by Chevalier: some are written in highly literary style with hardly any colloquialisms, while others use colloquial items to create a humorous effect. As the heir of Comique-troupiers such as Ouvrard and Dranem, Chevalier indulged in the 1930s in rather coarse and light-hearted songs ("Le chapeau de zozo", "Prosper" "Valentine") which made him famous as "le p'tit gars de Ménilmuche", then he gradually shifted to a more serious repertoire ("Ça sent si bon la France", "Heure exquise", "Notre espoir") asserting the values of "famille, travail, patrie". Les années folles were a time of extravagance and the unbridled pleasure of intellectual emancipation and linguistic freedom. We find a type of verbal emancipation in les années folles, but "l'état de 'guerre froide' qui instaure sournoisement de nouvelles restrictions, voire de vraies censures par rapport à l'expression verbale de 1944-1955" (Colin 2000: 151) was very quick to establish itself. Like many Parisians at the end of the 19th century (Petitpas 2003), Chevalier favours the abbreviated and resuffixed forms "Pantruche" (1835) for Paris, "Boul' Mich'" (1878) for Boulevard St Michel, "Ménilmuche" (1881) for Ménilmontant and "Lap" for la Rue de la Paix.


2 The evidential value of the data

It goes without saying that songs are not a direct reflection of spontaneous language and are conditioned to a great extent by conventional expectations and stereotyping [1]. Here we make no strong claims about the representativity of this data, since they are a product of a stabilised tradition and a collective creation partly of the lyric writer and partly of the singer. However, though this recorded material is not spontaneous speech, it remains a document of the 1930s-1950s period and is anchored in the linguistic realities of the day. Chevalier's songs give us a subjective view of the objective linguistic reality of that period.

The linguistic analysis of this type of song poses many methodological problems and one has to make some ad hoc choices when compiling a corpus. It is often difficult for instance to establish which singer was the first interpreter of a song. Chevalier commonly sang Trénet's "Y'a d'la joie" and although the lyrics are exactly the same in both versions, Chevalier's interpretation (his tone of voice, the stress and intonation) is very different from Trénet's. We have included a version of Chevalier's "Y'a d'la joie" in the corpus, although the lyrics were not originally written for him. Besides, it can be argued that each interpretation of a song offers a different version of the lyrics. In the version we used of "Valentine", the famous line "elle avait de jolis petits tétons…" becomes "elle avait un si joli piton…". This corpus of texts can consequently be said to be, like the performance of a play, a one-off, stylised representation of the Parisian vernacular at a particular moment in time.


3 The corpus

Our corpus of Chevalier's songs comprises the following 41 songs presented here in alphabetical rather than chronological order, as some dates are unknown. The dates refer to when the songs were recorded, rather than to when they were composed. The total number of words for each song is indicated in parentheses.

Song 1: Ah ! Si vous connaissiez pas poule 1938 (297 words)

Song 2: App'lez ça comme vous voulez 1939 (390 words)

Song 3: Arthur, fox à poils durs 1939 (353 words)

Song 4: Ça fait d'excellent français 1939 (328 words)

Song 5: Ça sent si bon la France 1941 (302 words)

Song 6: Ça s'est passé un dimanche 1939 (345 words)

Song 7: Dans la vie faut pas s'en faire 1922 (163 words)

Song 8: Dites-moi ma mère 1941 (391 words)

Song 9: Donnez-moi la main mamzelle 1935 (301 words)

Song 10: Fleur de Paris 1944 (175 words)

Song 11: Heure exquise ? (135 words)

Song 12: J'ai peur de coucher seul 1930 (358 words)

Song 13: La chanson du maçon 1941 (296 words)

Song 14: La choupeta ? (230 words)

Song 15: L'amour est passé près de chez vous 1937 (257 words)

Song 16: La Polka des barbus 1942 (250 words)

Song 17: Le chapeau de zozo 1936 (356 words)

Song 18: Ma pomme 1936 (209 words)

Song 19: Marche de Ménilmontant 1942 (186 words)

Song 20: Ma régulière 1927 (218 words)

Song 21: Marguerite ? (283 words)

Song 22: Mimi 1930 (196 words)

Song 23: Mimile 1936 (457 words)

Song 24: Mon cocktail d'amour 1932 (147 words)

Song 25: Mon vieux Paris 1936 (156 words)

Song 26: Notre espoir 1941 (204 words)

Song 27: Oh Maurice 1920 (297 words)

Song 28: On est comme on est 1938 (385 words)

Song 29: Paris je t'aime d'amour 1932 (136 words)

Song 30: Paris sera toujours Paris 1939 (281 words)

Song 31: Pour les amants c'est tous les jours dimanche 1947 (177 words)

Song 32: Prosper (Yop la boum) 1935 (296 words)

Song 33: Quai de Bercy 1946 (370 words)

Song 34: Quand on revient ? (219 words)

Song 35: Quand un vicomte 1935 (172 words)

Song 36: Sur un air américain 1920 (321 words)

Song 37: Une brune, une blonde ? (303 words)

Song 38: Un p'tit air 1938 (248 words)

Song 39: Valentine 1928 (175 words)

Song 40: Y'a d'la joie 1937 (344 words)

Song 41: Y'a du bonheur pour tout le monde 1936 (185 words)


4 Phonetic features

In this section, a brief picture will be given of firstly the suprasegmental features recurrent in the corpus and secondly of the segmental features. Maurice Chevalier's songs show a reinforcement and a lengthening of the penultimate syllable. Carton notices that in music-hall songs by Mistinguett or Maurice Chevalier "l'avant dernière syllabe de groupe est longue, intense et monte souvent 'en creux' " (Antoine & Martin 1995: 55). "Monter en creux" means a melodic concave ascent and is the opposite of "en bosse". In French, rising intonations on the accentuated syllable are generally concave. Concavity gives an impression of dawdling (Carton, personal communication, 2000). The example of Chevalier's "ma pômme/ c'est moi" is, as Carton asserts, stereotypical Parisian vernacular with the stress on the penultimate long open vowel . The is lengthened to make the voice tremor (ibid.).

The trilled uvular /r/ is another salient feature of Chevalier's songs (Tranel 1987: 141). As Carton has indicated, Maurice Chevalier's /r/ was not a lower-class feature of Ménilmontant, but belonged to the singing tradition and can still be found today in opera singing. Chevalier imitated Georgius "qui avait des /r/ systématiquement 'd'avant' " (Carton 2003, personal communication). The following table presents the various pronunciations of /r/ in a sample of Maurice Chevalier's songs recorded in 1955.

Le chapeau de Zozo
apico-dental : flap (léger battement), surtout à l'initiale ('rigolo') après consonne ('cri'), même devant consonne (n'importe qui), rarement en finale
Folies Bergères
flap léger
Ma pomme
parler faubourien  exagéré: plusieurs R d'arrière sourds (voix d'ivrogne).
La Chanson du maçon
flap apical et uvulaire doux mélangés
Marche de Ménilmontant
pas pharyngal mais dorso-uvulaire sonore et léger, avec traces de flaps: remontant, redescendant: (expressivité?)
Mimile
flap léger
Prosper
dorso-uvulaire doux, pharyngalisé dans l'emphase ('carrément')
Quand un vicomte
surtout flap (= un seul battement) initial

Table 1: Representation of the phoneme /r/ in a 1955 recording (Carton 2003, personal communication)


In this corpus of Chevalier's songs, other salient features are the elision of the schwa in "je" as well as the use of the reduced form "y'a" for "il y a", but we will focus here on non-standard lexical items. In numerous films from the 1930s to 1960s (Fric-frac 1939, Touchez pas au grisbi 1954, Du Rififi chez les hommes 1955, Les Tontons flingueurs 1963) which play upon the attractive and mysterious language of criminals in the collective imagination; it is the lexical characteristics which most clearly give speech a slang 'colour' [2]. The same is true of the popular songs of the period.


5 Use of non-standard items in Maurice Chevalier's French songs

By "non-standard", we refer to lexical items which have been labelled fam., pop., arg. etc. by Le Petit Larousse (2004) or which have been excluded from it. The latter words would appear in the following statistics as absent.

In these statistics, 'items' include phrases as well as as individual words. The use of colloquial proper nouns ("Momo", "Mimi" and "Mimile") is very frequent in Chevalier's songs and such examples have been included. We will make no distinction between words and idioms. An idiom like "s'en mettre plein les trous de nez" will count as one item. Further, we have left out onomatopoeic expressions such as "tra la la la", "dzim pa poum pa la" or "ton ton tontaine" which are one-off onomatopoeic creations.

We use Le Petit Larousse's latest edition (2004) as a yardstick, to evaluate the percentage of non-standard items in the corpus. The purpose of this analysis is to investigate lexicographers' perception of these items and their evolution from 1920 to today.

We count tokens rather than types, taking into account several occurrences of a lexical item. Lexical items which appear in a chorus appear in the quantification as many times as they occur, as the lyrics often vary from one chorus to the other and new vocabulary is introduced.

The total of non-standard words in the Chevalier corpus, when one averages the percentage for each individual song, amounts to only 3%. Lexical variables are highly self-conscious and highly salient. Few are needed to create the 'slang effect'. The percentages of non-standard words in each individual song shown below (Figure 1) indicate that the proportion rarely exceeds 20%. The song "Appelez ça comme vous voulez", where Chevalier accumulates instances of colloquial words and expressions, obtains the highest score with 21%, which is a large proportion of the 3% overall figure quoted earlier. Taking into account that there is a predominant percentage of function words (prepositions, conjunctions, articles and interjections for instance), this percentage of non-standard lexical items represents quite a high ratio.

In the following statistics, we have grouped percentages for individual songs in a chronological order and intend to show the progression of slang as Chevalier moves from pre-war to Occupation and to Collaboration. We have classified our sample of Chevalier's songs into three chronological periods: 1920-9, 1930-9, 1940-9. Some of these songs Chevalier sang throughout his career, but by looking at different time periods, we hope to bring out a trend in Chevalier's career.

1920-9
1930-9
1940-9
5%
4%
2%

Table 2: Use of non-standard items in Chevalier's songs from the 1920s to 1940s

 

Figure 1: Percentages of non-standard items in Chevalier's songs

The results show a slight decline in the use of non-standard items in Chevalier's songs from the 1920s to the 1940s, as he moves from a popular register to a more literary and poetic repertoire.


6 Variety of lexical items

In this section, we examine at the Chevalier song "App'lez ça comme vous voulez" which has the highest number of non-standard words. We have divided the song into its different word-classes (verbs, nouns, adjectives and auxiliaries), grouping together articles, particles, prepositions, conjunctions, clitics and interjections as 'tool-words'. In this quantification, we will consider lexical items as tokens rather than types. If the adjective "petit" occurs twice, this will count as two occurrences.

By means of comparison, we present here results from Müller's 1985 study and show the categories of vocabulary items, with their respective proportions, that can be found in three different corpora:

a) the corpus of a dictionary (Le Petit Larousse), presumably 'potential' of the language

b) the written corpus of articles drawn from one issue of Le Monde

c) the corpus of spoken French from Le Vocabulaire du français fondamental (1er degré)

Categories
Le Petit Larousse
date unspecified (44,500 lexical items in total)
Le Monde
Date unspecified
(4,800 lexical items in total)
Le français fondamental
1964
(1,475 lexical items in total)
nouns
62.5%
55%
46.9%
adjectives
19%
16%
6.6%
verbs
15%
22%
22.9%
adverbs
3%
4%
5.6%
grammatical words
(articles, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions)
0.5%
3%
17.1%
(with 0.9% of interjections etc.)

Table 3: Categories of vocabulary items (adapted from Müller 1985: 127)

According to Müller's findings, nouns and verbs are the most frequent word-classes in the three corpora investigated. The percentage of adjectives is high, but only relatively high in Le français fondamental. The number of tool-words only accounts for a small percentage except in statistics for the oral corpus of Le français fondamental where they amount to 17.1%.

 
verbs
nouns
adjectives
auxiliaries
Tool-words
Percentage of lexical items
11%
13%
2%
1%
73%

Table 4: Proportion of constituents in song 2


Chevalier's songs are, unlike the literary style of Le Monde, quite poor lexically. Some features of spoken French are present such as short and loose constructions and phrasal repetitions. Adjectives are quite basic ("beau", "joli", "rigolo") and their proportion relatively small, and the high frequency of key-words, the majority of which are articles, interjections and onomatopoeic items, also contribute to the spontaneity and musicality of Chevalier's songs. Non-standard nouns build up, like an exercise in style or an elocution lesson, as in Vincent Scotto's song, sung by Ouvrard:

"J'ai la rate

Qui s'dilate

J'ai le foie

Qu'est pas droit

J'ai le ventre

Qui se rentre

J'ai l'pylore

Qui s'colore

J'ai l'gésier anémié" (1932 "Je ne suis pas bien portant").

In this way, Ouvrard, through a succession of nouns and verbs, builds up the anatomical and medical references. We can note that the words generally used in Chevalier's choruses are usually of three syllables or less:

"Avez-vous vu le chapeau de zozo,
C'est un chapeau, un papeau rigolo" Le Chapeau de zozo

Alliterations using /v/, /p/ and /o/ in Le Chapeau de zozo serve to add to the onomatopoeic and speech-like character of the chorus. The nouns give a basic picture and provide a sketch of the characters involved. In Y'a d'la joie, the lexemes "joie", "toit" and "hirondelles", "soleil", "ruelles", "demoiselles" provide the framework and bring out the spirit of the song whose main character is the singing "moi", "je", or "Maurice". The verbs make the nouns dynamic ("bat", "chavire" and "chancelle").


7 Vitality of non-standard items found in Chevalier's songs in today's French

In this section, we investigate attitudes towards the non-standard items used by Maurice Chevalier implicit in Le Petit Larousse's (2004) treatment of these words (see glossary) and in judgments expressed by a sample of Parisian speakers in 2004. In the study I conducted on non-standard vocabulary in the 1930s film corpus (Abecassis 2000), I pointed out that many social markers have gradually become stylistic markers and have merged into French speakers' linguistic passive repertoires (Posner 1997: 74): even though socio-stylistic variation operates concurrently, the lexis which constitutes the "doublet parasite du standard" (Gadet 2003: 110) has lost part of its sociological dimension. Our findings indicated that non-standard words found in 1930s dialogues were still commonly used, regardless of social status. From these statistics, we evaluate the extent to which items in the Chevalier corpus have disappeared. There seems to be in the language of French youngsters a resurgence of colloquial words through the media and most particularly in songs:

Des émissions grand public à la radio et à la télévision contribuent à la diffusion de tout un vocabulaire, d'intonations particulières, de l'accent des cités (Goudaillier 2000)

If we agree that television and the media in general have contributed to the increase in formulae and linguistic traits (Bernet 2000: 191), it would not be surprising if songs have been the source of lexical innovations or have spread out-dated popular formulae. It is noticeable that archaic lexical items originating from traditional argot often emerge among the young (Gadet and Conein 1998: 115-116). The singer Renaud, in his 1975 album, reintroduces the terms "Paname" (argot for Paris), "aminche" and "gavroche". Words like "maille", "flouze" and "poteau" are also frequently found in lyrics of rap songs popular in the 21st century. The surveys conducted by Walter between 1987 and 1989 (Walter 1991) show that more than half of the argot words originate from the specialised texts investigated and date back to before 1945 (Colin 2000: 168). As for the non-standard lexical items in the Chevalier corpus, we do not see them as items which have died out and which youth has recently resuscitated, but as items which have always been in the passive linguistic repertoire, absent from public notice and then brought back into fashion by an influential song or film. The verlan 'ripoux', for instance, re-emerged in the public arena when popularised by Claude Zidi's film in the 1980s and its numerous sequels.

7.1 Speaker variables

Informants were asked firstly whether they were familiar with a list of non-standard words extracted from the Chevalier corpus and secondly whether they would use these words themselves. The left-hand column in table 3 shows the percentage of items unknown to the informants, the second presents the percentage actually used and the third the percentage of lexemes the informants are familiar with but do not think that they use. Most of the informants were contacted by e-mail and were unknown to the interviewer, which restricted the sample to those who were computer literate. The informants fall into five broad age categories: a) 15-20, b) 21-30, c) 31-40, d) 41-50 and e) 50+. Considering a sample of twenty educated Parisian speakers in each age bracket is a satisfactory number and should be expected to produce representative results. Moreover, by focusing on informants selected according to the sociolinguistic axes along which language variation operates (age, sex and class), we have tried to establish whether these items have become less stigmatised and become part of their everyday natural speech. Armstrong and Hogg (2000) have conducted a similar study on the use of non-standard lexis which they corroborated by basic statistic tests like ANOVA to see whether the groups are in fact behaving like groups.

Table 5 shows differentiation between the male and female speakers' use of these non-standard items. Only an average 53% of traditional slang found in the Chevalier corpus is recognised by the informants to be part of their general vocabulary. The remaining 47% is either unknown or unused by them. Table 6 and Figure 2 show considerable variation in the perceived use of the vocabulary according to age and gender parameters.

 
ercentage of lexical items unknown
Percentage of lexical items used
Percentage of lexical items known but not used
Female speakers (15-19)
41.5%
41%
17.5%
Male speakers (15-19)
42%
52%
6%
Female speakers (20-29)
36%
49%
15%
Male speakers (20-29)
28%
56%
16%
Female speakers (30-39)
29%
59%
12%
Male speakers (30-39)
5%
60%
35%
Female speakers (40-49)
21%
37%
42%
Male speakers (40-49)
39%
41%
20%
Female speakers (50+)
32.5%
53%
14.5%
Male speakers (50+)
15%
84%
1%
AVERAGE
29%
53%
18%

Table 5: Percentage of lexical items per gender

 
15-19
20-29
30-39
40-49
50+
Female speakers
41%
49%
59%
37%
53%
Male speakers
52%
56%
60%
41%
84%

Table 6: Percentage of use of non-standard items

 

Figure 2: Percentage of use of non-standard items

When we compare the type of slang used by Maurice Chevalier with that found in 1930s gangster films (Abecassis 2000), fewer lexical items in Chevalier's songs have survived in common usage. Column 2 of Table 5 shows that percentages of unknown items vary between 5% to 42%.

Column 3 shows clear sex differences in all age groups where the percentage of use of non-standard forms by male speakers is relatively higher than that of the female informants. Female informants still achieve quite high scores. These results comply with the "sociolinguistic gender pattern" illustrated by Milroy (1987) and Armstrong/Hogg (2000). The results in the 15-19 age-group indicate quite a high percentage of use of non-standard items among the youth. The questionnaire results also testify that the percentage of use of non-standard lexis increases with the age of the informants reaching its peak among the 50+ cohort. However, over the whole range, the 40-49 cohort was born between the mid-50s and 60s, at a time when popular French music experienced some major changes and was largely influenced by America.

Column 4 shows that on the whole, the female informants present through these results a more conservative image, as the figures demonstrate that they know a higher number of the investigated items but would not use them. This indicates a high degree of awareness on the stylistic value attached to this sample of Chevalier's lexis.

The fact that older informants rather than the younger generations were exposed to some of the cryptic slang of Chevalier ("calter", "un bibi", "un zozo", "un piton") is rather unsurprising. Chevalier's heyday, both as singer and actor, was between the 1930s and the 1960s. In 1958, he made the film Gigi and that year received an Oscar. In the 1970s, in spite of singing the title song of Walt Disney's Aristocats, he became less well-known among adolescents and fell out of fashion in favour of other chansonniers (Brel, Brassens, and Bécaud among others). Another related factor should be taken into account: the disappearance of some lexical items popularised by Chevalier. Young people's culture, concerns and topics of conversation have shifted, and traditional slang associated with drinking, love and the milieu of gangsters are no longer representative of the social persona of the youngsters of the time. The class structures of the 1930s have been superseded by new ones. Nonetheless, the percentage of use by teenagers is still relatively high, showing a resurgence of some of these words. Quite interestingly, the percentage of lexical items they claim to know but do not use is extremely high. Is it mere boastfulness from the younger informants to argue so or is this vocabulary really spreading in the language of young people? The sample presented is not sufficiently representative to confirm the exact tendencies of youth behaviour in this regard. From 50+ speakers to 15-19 informants there is clearly, as shown in table 6, a progressive decline in the use of slang.

The high frequency of non-standard items in female speech in the data can be interpreted in various ways. Chevalier's songs have always been particularly popular among women. His accent and charisma made him the epitome of the French lover in France as in America. It could also be that the males questioned use a different colloquial vocabulary, drawing on other sources such as verlan, thereby appearing to diverge strongly from Chevalier's findings. This would mean that, contrary to the results, the languages of females may be a lot more conservative than that of their male counterparts. However, as Holmes (1997) remarks "no satisfactory explanation has emerged of why women should orient more readily than men to a prestige norm" (Quoted in Milroy and Gordon, p. 101) and we suggest that we might be dealing here with a process of "social re-valuation" (Ibid.: 103). Female speakers favour stigmatised varieties and subvert traditional female roles by means of a familiar usage, enabling a more cohesive mentality, marked by solidarity and group identity, in a society which is increasingly liberal. The real innovation in youth language is the emancipation of female language both among educated speakers, such as those in our survey, and in less privileged groups. Popular features and cheeky humour have often been stereotypically associated with young men who frequent public places like bistros (Gadet 2003: 206), whereas women are considered more likely to remain within the home, and, under parental authority, conform linguistically to prestige varieties. In the 21st century, the use of a non-standard lexis is no longer prompted by the desire to appear "male", as connections between men and women become more and more subtle, owing to equality between sexes and shared vocabulary.


7.2 Stylistic variables

In a second stage of this survey, we asked our informants to rate the non-standard items of the Chevalier corpus to establish whether their views differ from those of lexicographers. The following table shows the proportions of items in the song corpus rated as fam., arg. and abs. by our reference dictionary (Le Petit Larousse 2004).

anglicism
vx
vieilli
enf.
fam.
très fam.
arg.
vulg.
abs.
1%
1.5%
8%
1.25%
53%
1%
6%
1.25%
27%

Table 7: Proportion of non-standard items according to style-labels of Le Petit Larousse (2004)

The majority of the items investigated are labelled by Le Petit Larousse as fam. There is a small number of argot words, but none is rated as populaire. This suggests that formerly pop. words have gradually become fam. in the eyes of lexicographers. 27% of these items are exluded from the dictionary, which either implies that they have not survived in modern French or that they are still heavily stigmatised.

To obtain the following statistics, we asked our informants to rate each lexical item using the labels fam., standard or archaic. We are aware that this is a simplification of the stylistic continuum used by lexicographers and other labels could be attributed to the items of our corpus such as pop., arg. or both fam. and archaic. However, for the purpose of this quantification, this enables us to gauge whether the people questioned thought that these items have merged into the average French person's linguistic repertoire and have become standard or whether they are considered to be obsolete.

standard fam. arch. Don't know
Informants perception (2004)
24% 47% 20% 9%

Table 8: Proportion of non-standard items according to people's perceptions today (2004)


As one can see, the informants rate a large percentage (47%) of these items as fam., which is very close to the attitude of lexicographers. However, their view is less stigmatising as they consider that 24% of these items have become standard and 20% are now obsolete.

Linguists have attempted to identify the reasons why argot words should remain current in French, and the growing number of dictionaries of argot (Bernet 2000: 174) shows the French interest in these curiosities which have almost reached the status of national cultural heritage. We only have to think of clichés and other quirky lexical features which have been collected together. There is indeed an oral tradition which passes from generation to generation and which sometimes goes underground for a generation, to become current again much later, as in Renaud's songs. Slang is an identity marker and the more it is generalized, the less useful it is, but if in today's French it has a tendency to spread through all levels of society, this is as Colin (2000: 160) has shown, because of a number of factors. Our language is becoming increasingly technical and the intrusion of information technology and types of jargons associated with technical specialized professions has a tendency to crop up in everyday language (e.g. "CD ROM", "digitaliser", "startup"). There is not simply the ludic pleasure of playing with words demonstrated by "bons mots", irony and self-mockery, puns and other rhetorical devices used by many French humorists (Pierre Desproges, Karl Zéro, Vincent Roca, Guy Carlier), heirs to cabaret singers, who find the mark of a group identity in the use of argot, and in this way confine themselves to the outskirts of society, because it is primarily the desire to upset, provoke or shock which keeps argot active. Roca's witticism for his satirical TV programme 'Sur le fil dérisoire' (2004) is only one example of this continual seach for a play on words combining spirituality and double-entendre. Some radio stations (NRJ, Fun Radio) and the cable television channel Canal +, in seeking to convey a young, lively image, use a subversive vocabulary. This desire to veil the message is a form of rejection of all forms of authority, both the symbolic rejection of the constraints of parental authority and good linguistic manners imposed by the norm, and the refusal to conform to rules. The overuse of the adjective "cool" by the youth today pinpoints a state of mind and the need to project an image of protest against the propriety imposed by society. According to Calvet's formulation, argot "est une façon de se situer […] une façon de revendiquer son appartenance à un groupe social, à un lieu ou à une classe d'âge" (1994: 115). In the 1930s, the effect sought by Maurice Chevalier was the same. He frequently used popular expressions for humorous effect and increased his notoriety with risqué and politically incorrect words.

What will become of Maurice Chevalier's argot? It seems, contrary to the suggestion of Colin (2000: 155), that classical argot is not dead. Indeed, it appears that one does not speak of argot anymore but of argots in the plural. Both a small death and a renaissance are going on simultaneously. Verlan for example is a social and geographical marker (commonly heard in the Parisian suburbs, but only very rare in the South of France). Certain frequent words however ("keuf", "meuf" etc.) are integrated into the language and used by various social groups. As the statistics have shown, Chevalier's argot is still in use despite strong competition: it is putting up a strong defence against verlan and forms from all sides, from English to Arabic, and Antillais and Romany languages (Gadet 2003: 2004) which young people pick up and which are disseminated by the media through television. Our survey indicates, fairly unsurprisingly, clear sex differences with male informants using proportionately more non-standard items and shows that 42% of the non-standard terms in the Chevalier's corpus are still used by the informants. The informants' judgements on the stylistic appropriacy of these items demonstrate they are becoming more uniform, although around 20% are considered to be archaic or outdated. The currency of non-standard lexis can ebb and flow in an unpredictable way, probably as a result of the media. For Bernet, "le lexique évolue de manière imprévisible à long terme et rien ne permet de dégager avec certitude des tendances qui pourraient préfigurer l'avenir" (Bernet 2000: 194). Recently, the singer Patrick Bruel revitalised the songs of 1930s with his album "Entre-deux" (2003) and it would not take much for the 1930s vocabulary to come back into fashion.


Glossary

The following glossary gives a representative sample of non-standard items in the Chevalier corpus with their translation in English and their acceptance in Le Petit Larousse (2004).

Vocabulary
Songs in which it is found
Label in Le Petit Larousse (2004)
Meaning
être un as
Oh Maurice!, Mimile
Fam.
To be ace
un aminche
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
A mate
de l'aubère
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
Lolly
avaler
Ça s'est passé un dimanche
Fam.
To swallow, to take
badour
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
Attractive
une balade
Y'a d'la joie
Fam.
A stroll
une baraque
Ça s'est passé un dimanche
Fam.
A dump
se barrer
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam.
To clear off
un bécot
Ça s'est passé un dimanche
Fam.
A peck
becqueter
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
To nosh
avoir le béguin
Quai de Bercy, Sur un air américain
Fam., vieilli
To have a thing on
un bibi
Le chapeau de zozo
Fam., vieilli
A small woman's hat
Ma pomme, App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam.
A local
un bizness
Prosper, Mimile
Fam.
A job
blaguer
Mimile
Fam.
To joke
du blé
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam.
Dosh
bosser
Mimile
Fam.
To slog away
la bouille
Une brune, une blonde
Fam.
The mug
la boule
Ah si vous connaissiez ma poule
Fam.
The head
de la braise
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Arg., vieilli
Dosh
la bricole
Quai de Bercy
Fam.
Odd jobs
briffer
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Arg.
To pig oneself
un caboulot
Ça s'est passé un dimanche
Vieilli, litt.
A dive
calter
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam.
To run away
carguer la voile
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
To clear off
casé
Sur un air américain
Fam.
Fixed up
un cave
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam ou arg..
A mug
la cervelle
Mimi, Dans la vie faut pas s'en faire
Fam.
The brain
chambouler
Paris sera toujours Paris
Fam.
To turn upside down
chic
Mimile
Fam., vieilli
Stylish
chiper
Ah si vous connaissiez ma poule, App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam.
To pinch
du chiqué
Ma pomme
Fam.
Sham
la chose
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
Sex
chouette
App'lez ça comme vous voulez , Ma régulière, Mimile
Fam.
Smashing
une cocotte
Quai de Bercy
Fam.
A bird
se cogner de trop
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
To pig out
un coq
Mimile
Abs.
A bit of a casanova
la coqueluche
Mimile
Fam.
The darling of
coller
Dans la vie faut pas s'en faire
Fam.
To foist sth to someone
comme un clou (mince)
Oh Maurice !
Abs.
As thin as a rake
un copain
Ça s'est passé un dimanche
Fam.
A mate
le coquillard
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam., vieilli
The eye
la croûte
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam.
grub
se crêper le chignon
Prosper
Fam.
To tear each other's hair out
débiner
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam.
To make off
se démancher
Ma pomme
Fam.
To put oneself out to get sth
discuter le bout de gras
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam.
To have a good old natter
dodo
Sur un air américain
Enf.
Sleep
un doublard
ma régulière
Abs.
A pimp's second wife
un drink
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam.
A drink
un dur
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam.
A tough nut
s'embêter
Y'a d'la joie
Fam.
To get bored
s'empiffrer le cornet
S'empiffrer le cornet
Abs.
To pig out
s'esquinter
App'lez ça comme vous voulez, Valentine
Abs.
To wear oneself out
esquintant
Oh Maurice
Fam.
Exhausting
extra dry
Quai de Bercy
Anglic.
Extra dry
être à la page
Prosper, Marche de Ménilmontant
Fam.
To be up to date
fauché
Quai de Bercy
Fam.
Broke
en ficher un coup
Ça s'est passé un dimanche
Fam.
To clout someone
se ficher
Quai de Bercy
Fam.
Not to give a darn about
fichu
Oh Maurice !
Fam.
To be done for
se ficher à l'eau
Dans la vie faut pas s'en faire
Abs.
To throw oneself into the water
flancher
Ça s'est passé un dimanche
Fam.
To fail
un flic
Mimile
Fam.
A cop
le figne
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
The ass
une fouille
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
arg.
A pocket
du flouse
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Arg.
Dosh
(se) foutre
App'lez ça comme vous voulez, Prosper, Quand un vicomte
Très fam.
Not to give a damn
bien foutu
Ah si vous connaissiez ma poule
Fam.
A nice bit of stuff
le fric
App'lez ça comme vous voulez, ma régulière
Fam.
Dosh
fringues
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam.
Clothes
un galurin
Le chapeau de zozo
Fam.
A lid
un gamin
Valentine
Fam.
A kid
une gapette
Mimile
Fam., vieilli
A cap
un gars
Marche de Ménilmontant , L'amour est passé près de chez vous , Mimile
Fam.
A bloke
un gavroche
Mimile
Vieilli
A street urchin
un glass
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
A drink
un gnon
Prosper
Fam.
A blow
un godet
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
A drink
une gonzesse
Prosper, App’lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam.
A hen
une gosse
ma régulière
Fam.
A young girl
gouaille
Ça s'est passé un dimanche
Fam.
Cocky humour
gueuler
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam.
To bawl
hisser le grand foc
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
To clear off
une jaquette
Y'a d'la joie
Abs.
A jacket
un jeunot
Marche de Ménilmontant
Fam.
A young lad
Lap'
Ah si vous connaissiez ma poule
Abs.
La rue de la Paix in Paris
mon loup
Valentine
Abs.
My darling
en lousdoc
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
On the quiet
un macadam
Mimile, Prosper
Abs.
To walk the streets
un machin
Quai de Bercy
Fam.
A thingummy
un malabar
Prosper, App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam.
A muscle man
un marle
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
A pimp
se marrer
Prosper
Fam.
To laugh
un mastroquet
Mimile
Fam., vieilli
A publican
un mec
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam.
A guy
Ménilmuche
Ah si vous connaissiez ma poule, Marche de Ménilmontant, Mimile
Abs.
Ménilmontant
(district of Paris)
s'en mettre plein les trous de nez
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
To pig out
mézigue
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Arg.
Me
une miss
Le chapeau de zozo
Fam.
A young girl
une môme
Mimi, Ah si vous connaissiez ma poule, Quai de Bercy
Fam.
A young girl
monter au cerveau
Quai de Bercy
Abs.
To go to somebody's brain
un morlingue
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
A purse or wallet
de la mousse (se faire)
Ma pomme
Abs.
To worry oneself sick
un moutard
Ça s'est passé un dimanche
Fam.
A brat
une musaraigne
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
A bird
une nénesse
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
A bird
nib
Ah si vous connaissiez ma poule
Arg.
Nothing
un pain
Ma régulère
Fam.
A blow
un pajot
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Arg.
A bed
un palace
Ma pomme
Angl.
A first-rate hotel
Pantruche
Ah si vous connaissiez ma poule
Abs.
Pantin (district of Paris)
un papeau
Le chapeau de zozo
Abs.
A lid
un parigot
App'lez ça comme vous voulez, Mimile
Fam.
A Parisian
un patelin
Une brune, une blonde
Fam.
A dump
peinard
Ma pomme
Fam.
Jammy
un peton
Valentine
Fam.
A tiny foot
le pèze
Ma pomme, App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Arg.
Dosh
piailler
ma régulière
Fam.
To screech
piauler
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam.
To whine
des picaillons
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam.
Dosh
le pinard
Quai de Bercy
Fam.
plonk
en pincer
Ma pomme
Fam.
To have a crush on
un piton
Valentine
Abs.
A nose
plein les poches
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam.
Loaded with money
plier boutique
Y'a d'la joie
Abs.
To clear off
un plume
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
A bed
une pomme
Ma pomme
Fam.
Me
pompé
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam.
nackered
un portrait
Ma pomme
Fam.
A face
un pot
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam.
A drink
un poteau
Ma pomme, App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam.
A mate
une poularde
Mimi
Abs.
A bird
une poule
Ah si vous connaissiez ma poule, App'lez ça comme vous voulez, ma régulière, Mimile
Fam.
A bird
une profonde
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
Pocket
le prose
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
The ass
un prout prout
Prosper
Abs.
A fart
un pucier
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Arg.
A fleabag
un radis
Quai de Bercy, Dans la vie faut pas s'en faire
Fam.
A penny
ramener sa fraise
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam.
To show up
une régulière
App'lez ça comme vous voulez, ma régulière
Abs.
A missus
remettre ça
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam.
To have another go
renifler (du vin)
Quai de Bercy
Abs.
To drink
rien dans les poches
Quai de Bercy
Fam.
Broke
roucouler
Ah si vous connaissiez ma poule
Fam.
To coo
un roussin
Prosper
Arg., vx
A cop
un roudoudou
Mimi
Abs.
A sweetheart
un salop
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Vulg, injur.
A bastard
sauter jusqu'au plafond
Ah si vous connaissiez ma poule
Abs.
To jump for joy
un schnok
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam.
An old geeser
un snobard
Ma pomme
Abs.
A snob
un sou
Mimi
Fam.
A penny
des sous sous
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
Dosh
une souris
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
A bird
sucer des clous
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
To eat nothing
sympa
Mimile
Fam.
Nice
se taper le chou
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
Not to overtax oneself
le tapin
ma régulière
Très fam.
To walk the streets
une tatane
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam.
A shoe
un titi
Ça sent si bon la France, Mimile
Fam.
A Parisian street urchin
le trac
L'amour est passé près de chez vous
Fam.
To have butterflies in one's stomach
le trimard
Quai de Bercy, ma régulière
Arg., vx
The road
un triplard
Ma régulière
Abs.
A pimp's third wife
trisser
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Fam.
To run away
un trottin
Sur un air américain
Fam., vx
An errand girl
le turbin
Quai de Bercy
Fam..
Grind
le vase
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
The arse
veinard
Ah si vous connaissiez ma poule
Fam.
Jammy
un verjot
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
A jammy chap
viser
Valentine
Abs.
To take a dekko
vouloir la peau de
Oh Maurice!
Fam.
To wish to get someone
un zigomar
App'lez ça comme vous voulez
Abs.
A weirdo
un zouave
Paris sera toujours Paris
Fam.
A fool
un zozo
Le chapeau de zozo
Fam.
A mug

Table 9: Glossary of non-standard items in Chevalier's corpus

Notes

* I am very grateful to Professor Lodge for his numerous comments and Dr W. J. Anderson for her help in proofreading. [back]

1 Stereotypes are highly stigmatised variables recognised by a particular group as mistakes or affected manners of speech (adapted from Baylon 1991: 91-2 and Wardhaugh, 1986: 142). Note that "stereotypes" could be understood in the Labovian sense, as defined above, or in a broader sense as "value judgments about what [the lay-person] think[s] is and is not correct" (Lodge et al. 1997: 3) about a language as well as 'evaluations of speakers' (Wardhaugh 1986: 113). [back]

2 In Fric-Frac, the representation which scriptwriters and actors give of the Parisian vernacular is mostly phonetic and lexical. In films from the 1950s, the emphasis is on lexical features. In Du Rififi chez les hommes, for instance, the speech of gangsters is full with non-standard items. Les Tontons flingueurs is not so much peppered with argot words, as with one-off lexical creations ("Ton Antoine commence à me les briser menu"; "Moi quand on m'en fait trop, j'correctionne plus, je dynamite, je dépense, je ventile"). [back]

 

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