A Creature of Habit… and phonemes

I always try to use the monotonous task of train travel to the best of my potential.  To the city… from the city… And the vicious cycle turns its own wheel.  Although, I don’t entirely view these episodes as negative experiences (depending on the mood swings of Metro).  Train travel is MY time.  Time to read up on beautiful English classics, intricate French classics, or to listen up on French or Italian music or podcasts, old and new.  Inspirational new words in different languages to start my day.

Reading in Train Compartment

Train travel allowed me to have the most wonderful (also possibly most insignificant) experience last week.  I was sitting, reading the short stories of Le Clezio, when as I turned my page to the right, I noticed the girl next to me, synchronising, turning her page to the left.  She was reading in Arabic.  Quite ‘romantic’ don’t you think?

Today, I sat down on the train to some French tunes.  During my journey, the song Le Poinçonneur de Lilas by Serge Gainsbourg appeared on my random selection, and as I stared out the window, I realised that the lyrics were speaking about all of ‘us’ train travellers.  The journey of life in our capitalist middle-class world, meeting the same challenges, and dreaming of what could be more, boh.  The song tells the tale of a ticket puncher at the Porte de Lilas Metro station in Paris, whose life passes by punching holes in tickets, in his ‘hole’ at the station.  The song is beautifully composed with a chorus line which repeats:

“J’fais des trous, des p’tits trous, encore des p’tits trous.  Des p’tits trous, des p’tits trous, toujours des p’tits trous…”

The fast tempo, the monotonous rhythm, and the repetitive words drum in the feeling of this poor man who spends his days thinking of a better world.  This sense, I realised, could only be portrayed through French.  And it is aligned to so much more than rhythm, but more to sound.  The first consonant in of the most repeated three words of ‘des p’tits trous’ are plosive phonemes, giving a harsh staccato sound to the repetitive chorus.  ‘I make some holes, some little holes, and again more holes’, just doesn’t have the same effect in English.  But the plosive sound of the chosen phonemes in French, added with shortness of the words, and the repetitious stanzas make you feel the same tiresome, toneless, and wearing life of the poinçonneurGénial.

Serge Gainsbourg – Le Poinçonneur de Lilas

It reminded me of the time I first read Le Chat by Baudelaire in his beautiful collection of poetry Les Fleurs du Mal.  The sound of a cat’s purr is the first essence that is draw from the poem when read it aloud.

Le Chat


Dans ma cervelle se promène,
Ainsi qu’en son appartement,
Un beau chat, fort, doux et charmant.
Quand il miaule, on l’entend à peine,

Tant son timbre est tendre et discret;
Mais que sa voix s’apaise ou gronde,
Elle est toujours riche et profonde.
C’est là son charme et son secret.

Cette voix, qui perle et qui filtre
Dans mon fonds le plus ténébreux,
Me remplit comme un vers nombreux
Et me réjouit comme un philtre.

Elle endort les plus cruels maux
Et contient toutes les extases;
Pour dire les plus longues phrases,
Elle n’a pas besoin de mots.

Non, il n’est pas d’archet qui morde
Sur mon coeur, parfait instrument,
Et fasse plus royalement
Chanter sa plus vibrante corde,

Que ta voix, chat mystérieux,
Chat séraphique, chat étrange,
En qui tout est, comme en un ange,
Aussi subtil qu’harmonieux!


De sa fourrure blonde et brune
Sort un parfum si doux, qu’un soir
J’en fus embaumé, pour l’avoir
Caressée une fois, rien qu’une.

C’est l’esprit familier du lieu;
Il juge, il préside, il inspire
Toutes choses dans son empire;
peut-être est-il fée, est-il dieu?

Quand mes yeux, vers ce chat que j’aime
Tirés comme par un aimant,
Se retournent docilement
Et que je regarde en moi-même,

Je vois avec étonnement
Le feu de ses prunelles pâles,
Clairs fanaux, vivantes opales
Qui me contemplent fixement.

— Charles Baudelaire

The sound of the French rhotic, the fricated ‘r’ phoneme and the uvular trill phoneme ronronnent throughout the whole poem.  It sounds as though the cat is purring (If you don’t speak French, you can read about French rhotics in my latest article.)

Here, you can see, that a language can influence your feelings, your thoughts, and your emotions on a level as unconscious and as humanly possible, as speech sounds.  Have you had a similar experience in your native tongue or second languages?


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