Tuesday 8 December 2009

mo dœʁ gus ʁam

Many of you may already be familiar with Luis van Rooten’s little book Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames, subtitled The d’Antin Manuscript (Angus & Robertson, 1967). It is often given as a Christmas present.
It purports to be an annotated collection of little-known French poetry, illustrated with medieval woodcuts. But all is not as it seems.
To appreciate it you really need (i) to be familiar with French pronunciation and the text-to-speech reading rules for French, and (ii) to know English nursery rhymes.
Then you will be able to go from
Un petit d’un petit
S’étonne aux Halles
Un petit d’un petit
Ah! degrés te fallent
Indolent qui ne sort cesse
Indolent qui ne se mène
Qu’importe un petit
Tout Gai de Reguennes.
œ̃ pti dœ̃ pti
setɔn o al
œ̃ pti dœ̃ pti
a də ɡʁe t fal
ɛ̃dɔlɑ̃ ki n sɔʁ sɛs
ɛ̃dɔlɑ̃ ki n s mɛn
kɛ̃pɔʁt œ̃ pti
tu ɡɛ də ʁəɡɛn
to something immediately recognizable.
Hint: nursery rhymes are also known as Mother Goose Rhymes.

I have a very vague memory of a comparable German “poem” with the Wordsworthian first line
Mai hart lieb Zäpfchen Eibe hold…
or something of the sort, but I have not been able to track it down.


  1. Ernst Jandl:

    Mai hart lieb Zapfen Eibe hold
    Er renn bohr in Sees Kai
    So was sieht wenn Mai läuft begehen
    So iss sieht neu Ei Emma mähen
    So biet wenn Ärschel grollt
    Ohr leck mit Ei
    Seht steil dies fader Rosse Mähen
    So Ei Kurt wisch Mai desto Bier
    Baum Deutscher deutsch Bajonett Schur Alp Eiertier

  2. this "incredible" poem seems to be a kind of Dadaism (language created in switzerland). Even for a bilingual native speaker like me it is nearly imposible to fully understand this so called poem.

    Greetings from Switzerland. Yours Franklyn

  3. my heart leaps up when I behold
    = Mai hart lieb Zapfen Eibe hold
    a rainbow in the sky
    = Er renn bohr in Sees Kai

  4. Franklyn,

    Jandl was Austrian. In fact, "Ärschel" is Austro-Bavarian only, not Alemannic. Anyway, this text, as much of his poetry, is absurd, and the question of immediate meaning doesn't even apply.

  5. Lippo,

    – So Ei Kurt wisch Mai desto Bier

    Should be End Ei Kurt wisch Mai desto Bier, or to be as surrealistic as the rest, perhaps something like Ehen Ei Kurt wisch Mai desto Bier.

    Un petit d'un petit, on the other hand, imparts a sense of making sense. This seems genial, but then it's so much easier in French. I guess you know this rime riche:

    Galle, amant de la reine, alla – tour magnanime –
    Gallamment de l'Arène à la Tour Magne, à Nîmes.

    Is your espousal of the new spelling (iss for iß) because you have overcome the resistance to it I see everywhere, or because of established Austrian or Swiss practice?

    – "Ärschel" is Austro-Bavarian only, not Alemannic

    What does it mean? I was supposing a diminutive Arsch.

  6. That was 'génial', but fell foul of the spellchecker.

  7. Thank you Lipman for your kind explanation.
    Kind regards.


  8. Yes, diminutive of Arsch (E 'arse'). Concerning any mistakes or alternative spellings, I just copied-n-pasted it.

  9. I once asked our then Head of French (sadly no longer with us) to read another version of "Un petit d'un petit" (he was a good friend, so I wasn't taking liberties), but when he realised what he was saying, he seemed to become a little offended, even though only we two were present. I always remember the incident, probably because I failed to correctly predict his reaction.

  10. Your phonetic transcription is almost exact, only one detail is not true. Actually, in french, when we read poetry or sing a song, we do pronounce the so-called "silent e". So we wouldn't say [pti] but [peti] (sorry I cannot use the IPA characters). And I must tell you that I really appreciate your blog about english phonetics, very interesting.

    Vincent Grousset vincent.grousset@gmail.com

    Ankaŭ mi ie legis, ke vi estas esperantisto, mi ŝatus scii ĉu vi ankaŭ kreis blogon pri esperanta lingvoscienco.

  11. But it works better if you treat it as an e caduc. (The fellow who recorded it for the Guardian the other day made the mistake of pronouncing all the es, also liaised aux 'Halles.)

  12. @Vincent G: ne plu.
    Vidu http://www.vortaro-blogo.blogspot.com/

  13. There's a companion volume called "Mörder Guss Reims: Selected poems of Gustav Leberwurst" (there's even a photo of Professor Doktor Gustav Leberwurst as a frontispiece).
    The first one reads:
    Hol' mir der Hubert! Wenn Tuder kaputt,
    Zu Gitter ... Porto Gabun?
    Bat wenn sie Gott da, der kaputt Waschbär ...
    An Zoo-Depot doch hat Nonn'

    This short poem warrants four footnotes.

  14. So was it when my life began
    = So was sieht wenn Mai läuft begehen
    So is it now I am a man
    = So iss sieht neu Ei Emma mähen
    So be it when I shall grow old
    = So biet wenn Ärschel grollt
    Or let me die
    = Ohr leck mit Ei
    The child is father of the man
    = Seht steil dies fader Rosse Mähen
    And I could wish my days to be
    = So (?) Ei Kurt wisch Mai desto Bier
    Bound each to each by natural piety
    = Baum Deutscher deutsch Bajonett Schur Alp Eiertier.

    Since German is my mother tongue it was a nice exercise to take the German text and 'translate' it back into English.

  15. On second thought: I might give the German text to my German-speaking students of English and see what they make of it. It will be an eye-opener (and an ear-opener) to some of them.

  16. Just for comparison, I offer below the text of "Un petit d'un petit" as I knew it before seeing the version at the head of the article; it differs quite considerably from the version here, and although I fear that it is more-or-less complete nonsense as regards idiomatic French, I also feel that in some ways it better conveys the intended phonetics.

    Without further ado :

    Un petit, d'un petit
    Ça t'en aval;
    Un petit, d'un petit
    A deux crainte fol.
    Or de quinze, or seize,
    Or de quinze main
    Cœur d'un peu d'un petit
    Tu guerre deux a Cannes.

  17. Re my question mark:
    The line "and I could wish my days to be" is translated as "in teig kurt wisch mai desto bier" in Ernst Jandl's collected works, vol. 3 (1997)

  18. Oh but Vincent, it's not real poetry! Of course it must be e caduc. I'm appalled by Lipman's report that the fellow who recorded it for the Guardian the other day made the mistake of pronouncing all the es.

    And as for liaising aux Halles, that not only mucks it up, but is plain wrong. (Unless les haricots are taking over.)

    I do think it's a pity that Indolent qui ne sort cesse isn't Indolent qui ne sort seize. It would not only be more realistic, but also impart a bit more of a sense of making sense.

    I suspect it is Google's bliddy newfangled real-time search that is paralyzing everything. I have been trying to post this for over an hour!

    Now I see chaa has seize too, but JW's version makes more sense even as it is, and I prefer its phonetics too.

    Kraut's "in teig kurt wisch mai desto bier" is agreeably more surrealistic than my "Ehen Ei Kurt wisch Mai desto Bier".

    All we need now is a post-modern replacement for Caesar adsum jam forte.

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  20. I forgot to mention the title of the poem by Ernst Jandl: it's "Oberflächenübersetzung" (~ surface translation)

  21. A commentator on today's Language Log (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1944#more-1944) mentions the well-known saying Pas de lieu Rhône que nous.
    It must be synchronicity or morphic resonance or something.

  22. On the first day of my first Italian class (1975 or so) we were handed a pair of stories: Di Tri Berrese and Giecche enne Binnestocche. I practiced my brand-new Italian pronunciation on them....until I noticed that everyone else was laughing.

  23. David Marjanović12 December 2009 at 21:59

    I guess you know this rime riche:

    Temps de grève, tant de rêves...

    Seen written on a wall in the University of Paris 6.


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