The Power of Pursed Lips

The French language is a damn interesting animal. I guess it’s the same with all endeavors to educate ourselves: just when you’re ready to pat yourself on the back for what you know, you’re reminded of just how much there is still left to master. When you sign on to learn a language for real, you’re essentially committing to another relationship, with all the accompanying ups and downs. It’s like a celebrity marriage, and you never know from day to day if you’ll get the Brangelina or the Mel Gibson. It’s a sweet melted brown caramel that can scorch to bitter black in the blink of an eye if you’re not careful.

During a walk alone through Paris I stopped at a park bench for a goûter (you’re all now French enough to know what that means). On the way to my seat I overheard two women having a conversation, and while I only heard one sentence, I was beaming with pride to be able to pluck a random phrase off the street and know exactly what it meant. Yet two bites into my spongy madeleine I recited the line over again in my head, starting to highly doubt my supposedly water-tight translation. What do I think I heard?

“You know that it smelled good.”

Now I’m not sure what you women tend to talk about when two of you are alone, but there can’t be a whole lot of conversational paths that lead to this line during an average chat in the park. Nor do I really wish to delve deeper into it. Guess I’ll never know. Let’s just say I get points for trying on this one.

French is full of curveballs as well; words that sound bad but are actually great, others that sound gorgeous while meaning something gross. Case in point: they have the word terrible just like we do, problem is it means horrible or fantastic, depending on the context. I’m still getting acclimated to this one. Asking how the movie was, getting a response of ”C’était terrible!” could mean either one, you gotta read the body language. Sometimes this stuff freezes me like a biche in headlights.

Other words sound so pretty coming out of a Parisian mouth, like chantier, égout, or embouteillage, which in fact mean a construction site, sewer, and traffic jam respectively. Why does it all sound so seductive and alluring? I’ve figured that out I think. No offense to us all, but English-speaking mouths are lazy. French sounds need more exaggerated movements than we’re familiar with. A good example of this is the ou sound like in s’il vous plait. In books they’ll tell you to say an English “oo” which is fine, but the real sound requires making a distinct circle with the lips and pushing it further out into the world than normal. For those of you following along at home with your own lips, you’ll see it’s essentially a smooch you’re putting out there. It’s a language filled with lip action that for Americans suggests more bedroom cuddle than idle chit-chat. Sprinkle in some swishy whistly sounds like je suis and some rolling rrr’s, and you’ve got yourself one sexy language.

In fact sometimes at family dinners I get fatigued keeping up with all the conversation and I sort of zone out and just surf along the lovely wave of sounds coming out of mouths. This is not a great idea. Inevitably someone will turn to me for my reaction of what was just said, and there I am: a biche once again. If you didn’t catch it the first time biche = a female deer, although if any of you assumed it meant bitch, that would also work in this spot.

* * *

Hit it boys!

Biche, a deer, a female deer…rayon, a drop of golden sun…”

Sigh, I’m definitely my mother’s son.


  • I loved this post! It reminds me of some of the experiences I’ve had in Italy as the fiance of a Torinese! Thanks for commenting on my blog…I’ll be sure to check yours out often.

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