Last year I went a little crazy at the Paris Ukulele Festival and bought an adorable, mint-green ukulele. I played both clarinet and percussion in my student days, but I had zero idea how to play any stringed instruments. So I started out by watching YouTube videos, until I got stuck. Then I asked for help from my French friend Fred, who has been playing guitar since the 1980s.
So he picks up my ukulele and plays around with it a bit, trying not to laugh at how tiny it is in his hands, and gives me a few tips. Then he tells me to play the song I know best, which happens to be Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy“, with just four notes. I whistle along until he tells me to sing it. And trying to be a good sport, I do. Or rather, I try best I can with my rusty vocal chords.
The Vocabulary Lesson
“Pas mal,” he says en français. Fred doesn’t speak much English, so I’m learning a bunch of new vocabulary words after 21 years in France. One of them is “chantonner“. According to Fred, I’m in tune, but I’m not really singing. “Tu chantonnes“, he says, which means I’m “humming, crooning, or singing softly” according to Larousse’s definition of chantonner.
I should tell you that Fred sings whenever there’s no one around to stop him. Which I think is great, because I won’t even do karaoke, no matter how much I drink. He has a booming baritone voice that’s not really prone to “chantonnage“. And of course he sings in English, usually old rock and soul songs, even though he doesn’t always know what he’s actually singing. So the words aren’t just wrong, per se. They’re not words at all. They’re just “American sounds”.
The French-Singing-in-English Phenomenon is Real(ly amusing)
This is actually quite a common phenomenon in France that I’ve noticed over the years with much amusement. It could be a busker in the metro, an open mic night in a locals’ bar, an enthusiastic garage band during fête de la musique, or even a paid entertainer in a restaurant trying to wow (what I’m sure he or she thought was entirely) a French audience with some classic American or British hits. They usually know a few main words which they sing strongly, and the rest are simply English sounds — like the “ow” or “yeah” you don’t get in French — strung together more or less convincingly. To a French audience, at least.
I smile when Fred does this because I can’t help it. It’s always funny to hear what we sound like to others, but I also find it kinda cute. But, much like the way I’m annoyed that my American accent is still “cute” to them (I’d rather not have an accent), Fred gets a bit sheepish when he knows he’s been busted “chantant en yaourt” in front of an actual native English speaker.
Trust the French to Find a Food Metaphor
Yep, the French actually have a phrase for this phenomenon, which translates to “yogurt singing”, or basically singing in gibberish. Here is the well-known French comedian Gad Elmaleh singing Chanson en Anglais (you might recognize him as the French detective in Midnight in Paris). Basically he’s singing a song he hasn’t written the words for yet, “So I’m going to sing it in English,” he tells the audience. “Je ne sais pas pourquoi, mais les chansons en anglais passent toujours,” which loosely translates to ,”Not sure why, but songs always seem to work in English”.
Once You Start Looking…
Finding non-parodied versions of people singing “en yaourt” on the internet is actually harder than you’d think, possibly because no one wants to admit they’re actually doing it! But the examples you do find are hilarious. Here’s a little French boy competing in the “France has Talent” show, rapping in English gibberish with such convincing style you almost think you can understand the words. Mais non (he didn’t make it to the finals).
Sometimes there are actual recognizable words, they just don’t mean anything the way they’re put together. Here’s an example someone made on Soundcloud demonstrating this in both English and French versions of “chantage en yaourt“. Not too many Americans I know try to fake French singing, but more than a few of us joke around about how to “sound like you’re speaking French” when you actually have no clue. Here’s a YouTube video by Sam Tucker demonstrating this in a very methodical way How to Speak French, Without Knowing How! A bit goofy, but not altogether wrong!
Language differences are always a fascinating way to get to know people of other nationalities, and of course many of us make total fools of ourselves when trying to imitate the sounds that our mouths aren’t used to making…a bit like my fingers refusing to bend in the way my ukulele demands to play actual songs! Being able to laugh at one’s self is always a good quality (along with patience and an open-mind) to pack when traveling.