17 December 2010

The French pucker

Last night I watched the news/interview program called Le Grand Journal on the French Canal+ TV station. The guest was the ministre des Finances, a woman named Christine Lagarde. She was born in Paris and educated in France, but she also graduated from a high school in the Washington DC area and spent many years as a member of a big law firm in Chicago and some years in a DC think tank (pronounced [teenk-tawnk] in French, LOL).

Madame Lagarde was cool, glib, earnest, and well informed, as always. What I noticed about her, however, was her French pucker. To speak French like a native, you have to purse your lips rather tightly when you say a lot of vowels and words. French is spoken sur le bout des lèvres — with your lips in a round pucker. American English is pronounced in a slack-jawed — or at least relaxed-lipped — kind of way in comparison.

Christine Lagarde showing us her vertical lip lines.

One phenomenon I've noticed and that I've attributed to this puckered-lips posture that speaking French requires has to do with lip wrinkles. French as it is spoke in France, I mean. Often when you look at French women, especially, as they are talking, you'll see that they have vertical wrinkles or lines on their upper lip, in in the space between the nose and the lip itself. I haven't noticed it as much in men.

A recent photo of Brigitte Bardot that I found here.
Same lines, if you look closely.

My take on it is that it's the pucker that causes the vertical upper-lip lines. I wondered for a long time if anybody else had ever noticed or thought about this phenomenon. Then one day a few weeks ago, another American expatriate mentioned it to me. Her analysis of the causes of the lip wrinkles differed from mine, though. She said: it's from years of smoking — holding the cigarette between your puckered lips and sucking in the smoke. It's true that that could be a contributing factor.

I don't think Mme Lagarde was trying to hide her upper lip...

I have no idea whether or not Mme Lagarde smokes or used to smoke cigarettes.

But she does have the lip lines and the pucker. The pucker is not optional for speaking French, really. You have to hold your lips very tight and not be afraid to exaggerate the rounding of them to pronounce certain common vowels. Just take the pronouns tu, nous, and vous. Pronouncing them correctly requires what can seem like labial gymnastics to Americans (and probably other speakers of English).

Here's a much younger woman talking
on the TéléMatin show this morning.

As for the weather, we seem to have gotten a dusting of snow overnight. I have peered out into the darkness to see what I can see, and there's definitely some white stuff out there. It was raining heavily when I went to bed at about 10 p.m. At least it sounded like rain. It must have snowed later. At the same time, the temperature is slightly above freezing.

Walt and I have talked about it and we are convinced that MétéoFrance, the French national weather forecasting service, is now exaggerating its forecasts to make sure it doesn't get blamed again for failing to predict significant snowfall. That's despite the fact that the service did predict last week's four to six inches of snow in the Paris region. Because the prime minister criticized weather forecasters on that one, they are covering their derrière very carefully now.

Looking out the kitchen window a few minutes ago...

P.S. 10:30 a.m. — it started snowing again and it's coming down pretty heavily. Walt had an appointment to get his hair cut and he decided to keep it. I went out and inspected the front tires on the Peugeot and I have to say they are not nearly as worn as the CT guy said. They are far from bald or slick. I'm biased (but the tires aren't — they're radials LOL) but I don't think they're too bad. Of course, if this kind of snowy weather continues through the winter it will be better to have new tires now rather than waiting until next summer.


  1. You are not the only person to have noticed. Continental European language speakers in general use their facial muscles more (or at least quite differently)to English speakers. It shows even when they are at rest, not speaking - continental Europeans tend to hold their mouths more taut.

    En revanche, there are some words in French - like the word France itself, that is said with quite a slack jaw. I find I have to consciously drop my jaw and push it forward to pronounce it correctly, to produce a resonating chamber in my palette. In my natural accent to say France in English my lips draw back - less round, more like a tiny fleeting grin.

  2. I've noticed that, too. Some of my French friends even have pucker lines, and they're not even smokers.

  3. Hi Meredith, I don't think smoking has a lot to do with it. It's the language.

    Susan, I notice that more and more people on TV — Parisians? — tend to pronounce the name of the country as if it were written "Fronce". That's a more rounded vowel. They also shift the nasal in vin up a notch, so it starts to sound like vent. There's one weather forecaster on France2 TV whose pronunciation gives very clear indications of this kind of vowel shift.

  4. maybe the lip lines r from so many kisses on cheeks

  5. How very ungalant of you! Very anglo saxon to comment like this.

  6. Ken

    Christine Lagarde was closer to the decision makers inside the beltway. She worked as an intern on Capitol Hill as one of William Cohen's Congressional Assistants.
    I guess that "after the Old Europe" remark from Rumsfeld, I don't believe that foreign students are accepted as interns these days .

  7. Christine Lagarde is interviewed in the new American documentary "Inside Job." The film is about the people, banks and policies that caused the financial crisis that started in 2008. It is nothing short of jaw-dropping. She is one of the few people that comes off well, stating that she warned "Hank" Paulson in 2005 that there was a housing bubble forming and that mortgage-backed securities and derivatives needed to be regulated by the government. Oh, and she puckers while saying this.

  8. I just said "soeur" into the mirror, and I too have those pucker lines above my lips. I've never been a smoker, and am a Yank, but I do have decent French pronunciation (and I am a woman). I bet it's a combination of the language and the age of the speaker (I'm 54; I'd warrant a teenage girl wouldn't produce as many lines).

  9. aha! This is the pronunciation I am mimicking. It works for me - at least, my friends don't correct it and they did correct my old pronunciation. It's not quite 'fronce' - it's almost like saying 'france' in a posh English accent. This is so not like my natural accent that I find I have to go into character to say certain words.

    BTW, the real reason a lot of women (not just French women) get these lines is as a side effect of the combination of taking the contraceptive pill and smoking.

  10. Sure it's not from all those dual-cheek air kisses? :-)

  11. Perhaps it's because the French talk so much!! They seem to use a lot more words to say the same thing than we Brits !!

  12. I guess I left "Fronce" at the right time as I do not have those lines (I am not a smoker) but I do get them when I speak French to my mirror. Maybe TV personalities, politicians, actors have those lines because they have to ARTICULATE words very clearly to make themselves understood?
    Very interesting post as I have never notice this fact before.
    (I used to work with an actress who would never smile (unless in front of the camera) because she didn't have to have lines around her eyes.)

  13. Sorry! My actress didn't WANT to
    have lines (crow's feet) around her eyes.

  14. Pucker lines or not, the look of a person's face speaking French is a nice one. Other languages don't make a person look as good somehow. This may be due to my francophile feelings however.

  15. I just love the "teenk-tawnk"! LOL

  16. During WW2, some in the Resistance who were posing as Germans were outed because of the muscles formed in their upper lips. Some had mustaches but were nevertheless found out.

  17. Bonsoir,

    Ouah, tu fais une fixation sur la prononciation du français, lol ! Look at these sites, developing "perioral wrinkles", that's unfortunately the lot of most ageing women, be they French or else... But it's true that women who smoke tend to have more of those perioral wrinkles, look :



    I'll give you "des bises" even if it makes me get more wrinkles :-) !!!

  18. Ya quelqu'un plus haut qui est pisse-vinaigre!

  19. Marie, En relisant le commentaire que je viens de mettre je me rends compte qu'il pourrait être mal interprété par vous. Loin de moi cette pensée. J'aurais dû écrire beaucoup plus haut. LOL

  20. You've probably never seen this video by Michelino in Paris (also known as Frog With A Blog): http://tiny.cc/95vzc

  21. Starman, thanks for that link to Frog with a Blog's video.Here it is live: French lip movements.

    Susan, don't go too far toward pronouncing France as Fronce. It sound affected. You were right in your first comment when you said the nasal A sound in French require an open mouth, not pursed lips. You have to be able to distinguish (listening and saying) sets of words like lin, lent, long. Or vin, vent, vont. Sain, sang, sont.

    Hello Françoise, I meant no offense to Madame Lagarde or French women in general. I am just observing. Those lip lines can be very attractive, in fact. I agree with Evelyn about the pleasure of watching and listening to French people talk. Thanks for your comment.

    Gabby, very interesting. I didn't know about that. My mustache hides my lip lines, I guess!

    John and Melinda, I hadn't thought of the cheek/air kisses. I'm sure that's a major factor.

    Hi Marie, most Americans would tell you that it's French people, not me, who have a pronunciation fixation! For us, French is very difficult to pronounce correctly and authentically. Thanks for the links (this one and this one. I also will take a wrinkle risk and send you some "air kisses".

    CHM, you are welcome (for the teenk-tawnk).

    Beav and Diog, on second reading I thought I was wrong to you the word "glib" in describing Lagarde on the interview show. I should have said "articulate"...

    Leslie, you much be pronouncing it right, then!

    Now let's all go back to our mirrors and practice puckering.

  22. I've seen the same wrinkles on American women who smoke so I'm inclined to think it's cigarettes myself.

  23. Hi CHM ! Pisse-vinaigre..., lol !!! I thought at first you meant me but I couldn't imagine you saying that to me... Bien amicalement :-) Mary/Marie


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