Amuse-Bouche: Nissarts and Ch’tis — Separated by Language –

The French tend to ridicule all regional accents but their own.
by Julia Frey
We are exploring PACA (Provence–Alpes du Sud–Côte d’Azur), our new neighborhood, and I discover that les Provençaux speak French so you can understand them! They pronounce all the letters, including some that aren’t in the word. And they’re volubiles. In Vallauris (pronounced valorisse), it’s no use being in a hurry with Jean-Marc, the boulanger, who makes wonderful pain (pronounced pang). He just taps his head and says: “Mais vous n’êtes pas bieng?” (“Is there something wrong with you?” Translation into normal French: “Ça ne va pas, la tête?” Implicitly: “Are you nuts? What’s the rush?”) When they don’t want a non-local to understand, Jean-Marc and his wife, both born in Nice, speak Nissart (the Nice dialect) to each other.

As elsewhere, non-local accents can provoke negative reactions, even if studies show most French speakers can’t accurately recognize regional accents. The French really only distinguish between le Nord and le Midi (south). But they tend to dislike the other guy’s accent.

When Brigitte noticed l’accent du Midi was replacing the parigot (Paris street slang) influence on my American accent, she fed me her stéréotypes about les gens du Midivoleurs (thieving), menteurs (prone to exaggeration), paresseux (lazy). She quoted a so-called Provençal proverb: “Si tu as une envie de travail, assieds-toi et attends que ça passe!” (If you feel like getting a job, sit down until you get over it.) Wanda, une Niçoise transplanted to Paris, laughed. “Julia, at least you’re bien placée (in the right place) to know if we deserve our bad reputation”.

In 1905, one of the first French B.D.s (bandes dessinées, i.e., comic strips) invented Bécassine (the word means “snipe,” as in the bird), a plouc (hick) who arrives in Paris wearing her coiffe bretonne (traditional Brittany lace cap). Comically highlighting the alienation between city and country, peasant and bourgeois, she became so popular that one of the definitions for bécassine in the Trésor de la Langue Française is “femme stupide ou ridicule”. Bretons were long offended by her image but now view Bécassine with nostalgia, as representing the unspoiled good-heartedness of France in times gone by. She was honored by a French stamp in 2005.

Astérix (a series of 50 French B.D.s and films) constantly parodies regional stereotypes, ridiculing preconceptions like Normands who never give you a straight answer, Gascons who never keep their word, cheapskate Auvergnats and, of course, Southerners who are always taking la sieste! The caricatural hostility between Paris and province (Provence is a French province), and the regional pride (and cuisine) of Corsica, Normandy, Brittany, Gascony or Auvergne become pretexts to get children—and adults—to laugh at their own prejudices while teaching them geography. (For some reason the French often claim to be hopeless in geography. Given that they think France is shaped like a hexagon, I’d say they’re more hopeless in geometry.)

The wildly successful comedy Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis—pronounced sh-tee—(Welcome to the Sticks), has sold more tickets than any French-made film in history, including France’s most expensive film to date, Astérix aux Jeux Olympiques. At this writing, approximately 25 percent of France had been to see this gentil (charming) farce about a postal clerk from sunny Provence forcibly relocated to a small town in France’s far north. Shot in Bergues (pronounced “berk”—which means “yuck”—pop. 4,200), not far from Lille, it uses gags about torrential rains starting at the border and hard-drinking, unemployed rednecks who eat bread slathered in stinky cheese dipped in chicory-flavored coffee, while speaking an incomprehensible dialect calledCh’timi. Nicknamed “les Ch’tis”, they replace “s” with “ch” (you know that singer Chtevie Wonder?), call their buddies “biloute” (regularly confused with biroute, slang for the male sex organ) and end every sentence with hein? (huh? pronounced a little like a duck quacking). All this slapstick has an underlying message: le Nord can be a wonderful place. “People arrive in tears”, someone says, “and leave in tears”. Although the humor, given the accents and dialect, is untranslatable, director and star Dany Boon figured out how to use the “fish out of water” plot for a future U.S. remake— simply transfer a disgraced New Yorkcadre (executive) to a small town in Texas.

© 2009 Julia Frey