Songs to Learn French to: Le ours et la hirondelle, part 1


In May 2014 I passed my DALF C1 French exam. Of course, that makes me eminently qualified to teach. I intended to spend a bit more time on a lesson plan, but for the sake of holidailies I’m just going to dive right in. I’ve always found songs to be a good way to learn French. After listening to them enough times, I have a library of grammatically-correct (or at least idiomatically accepted) sentences and properly-pronounced words in my head which I can check whenever I need to remind myself how a particular rule works or what the gender of a given noun is. So here is the first of a series of songs to learn French to.

Each one will have a song, a note on what you can learn from the song, and usually an exercise, the answers to which I’ll put up in a later post. These lessons will assume you already know the basics of French, and can look up vocabulary yourself, but just need practice or ways to remember things. I’ll tend to link to other sites rather than explaining everything in detail. If you have any questions about the grammar or the meaning of the songs, though, feel free to ask in the comments, and I’ll answer in the comments and maybe in a later post.

The following, Le ours et la hirondelle, from the album Le ours by Jérémie Kisling, is not a good song to add to that library of grammatically-correct sentences, though it’s a good one for remembering the genders of nouns. I’d recommend buying the album, not just because it is good, but also because it contains another song I’ll be blogging about later.

It is, however, a good song to learn from. To quote Carrie Dahlby, what’s wrong with this song? Here are the lyrics, in case you missed some when listening.

Elle me hydrate,
ma hirondelle.
Si délicate,
si sûre de elle.

Quand je la vois, le homme de les cavernes
qui me habite
trébuche sur la ombre de lui-même
et tout mes plans se effritent.

Parfois, je la
épouse en rêve.
De le bout de les doigts,
je la enlève.

Mais quand mes mains sont proches de les siennes,
mes mains de ours,
je ai la allure de une baleine,
de une baleine de eau douce.

Jusque à la
fin de les jours,
à le creux de ses bras
je veux faire le amour.
Oui, je veux le amour.

Je ai le blues quand elle ne est pas là.
Que il est beau, le temps de les premiers émois!

Mais quand mes mains sont proches de les siennes,
mes mains de ours,
je ai la allure de une baleine,
de une baleine de eau douce.

Viens viens, suis moi
dans la eau douce,
et ne te effraie pas
si je te éclabousse.

« ne te en fais pas
Je te aime comme ça »

Have you figured out what it is yet? If you have, go ahead and write a corrected version of it for practice, and subscribe to this blog if you want to see when I post my version to compare. Otherwise, read on.

Elision

Essentially, the protagonist is a bear, and speaks like one. It’s like a French version of lolcat, which would probably be called mdrours. One big problem in bear French is that it does not have any obligatory elision. That’s when the unstressed vowel at the end of a word such as le, la, de, me, je or jusque is removed because the next word begins with a vowel. For example, you can say:

Le calembour et la colombe en rondelles

(though I don’t know why you would; it means ‘the pun and the sliced dove’, and is not a good example of either.) because the words calembour and colombe start with consonants. But you can’t say:

*Le ours et la hirondelle

(the bear and the swallow) because ours starts with a vowel, and hirondelle starts with an h muet (a silent h that French-speakers don’t even pretend to pronounce, as opposed to the h aspiré, which still isn’t pronounced but is nonetheless treated like a consonant for the purposes of elision.) So you have to say:

L’ours et l’hirondelle

You have to be careful with this, though; when a word starts with h, check a dictionary to see if it’s an h muet or an h aspiré. In the latter case, you shouldn’t do the elision. If you think you know which is which, see if you can do this exercise.

Now, as much as it might seem useless to remember the words of a grammatically incorrect song, the lack of elision does actually give learners an advantage: you could hear l’ours and l’ombre many times and still not necessarily know the genders of those nouns, unless you happen to remember lyrics where the gender is clear from other parts of the sentence. But with this song, you can tell from *le ours, *la ombre that ours is masculine and ombre is feminine. I think if it weren’t for this song, I wouldn’t know the gender of ombre.

Other Contractions

Bear French is also missing other contractions, such as des for de les, du for de le, au and aux for à le and à les respectively. There’s a great list of all these elisions and contractions over at about.com, so I won’t try to repeat that. For example, you can say:

Mais quand mes mains sont proches de tes veines…

(Though I’d be a little afraid of you if you did, since it means, ‘but when my hands are close to your veins’) because there is no contraction for de tes. Similarly, you could say:

Mais quand ma main est proche de la sienne…

(‘but when my hand is close to hers/his’) because there is no contraction of de la. But you can’t say:

*Mais quand mes mains sont proches de les siennes…

(‘but when my hands are close to hers/his’) because *de les is not allowed; it changes to des. You have to say:

Mais quand mes mains sont proches des siennes…

All of these contractions are obligatory; you should never use *de les or *à le when the le and les would be definite articles (as they always are in this song.) You will see de le, de les, à le, etc. when le and les are object pronouns, and in rare cases you can use these for names of people which start with the definite article, but none of those things are in this song.

Other Considerations

Another thing that’s weird in this song is this line:

…trébuche sur la ombre de lui-même…

Even if we elide *la ombre to l’ombre, it still translates to ‘trips over the shadow of himself’ which I think sounds as awkward in French as it does in English. What we really want to say is ‘trips over his own shadow’, which in French is:

…trébuche sur sa propre ombre…

So we end up not even needing the elision. Now, what if we just wanted to say, ‘trips over his shadow’? If you wanted to speak like a bear, you’d probably say it like this:

…*trébuche sur sa ombre…

But you’re not a bear, are you? There are two vowels with only a space between them in sa ombre, which is called a hiatus. The reason for elision above is that French speakers, like die-hard Da Vinci’s Notebook fans, do not like hiatus. There are even some adjectives with special forms for avoiding hiatus. When it comes to possessive pronouns such as sa, ma, and ta, to avoid hiatus they switch to the masculine possessive even if the noun is feminine, like ombre is. So that would be:

…trébuche sur son ombre…

You can’t tell the gender of ombre from this phrase any more than you could from l’ombre. It’s just as well you now know a song that mentions *la ombre, so you will always be able to remember the gender of the word ombre.

Exercise

Vindicate the well-educated bears of the world: go through the lyrics of Le ours et la hirondelle and fix all the problems you can find. I’ll post my fixed version in a few days and we can compare. For extra credit, figure out a way to sing the new version, or add some more words so that it can be sung to the original tune. For fun rather than credit, turn the original song into a series of lolcat-like memes featuring bears.

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  1. #1 by Owen on December 27, 2014 - 1:48 pm

    I have sadly forgotten the majority of my French. But you have given me impetus to begin practicing once more! 🙂

    Like

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