28 December 2010

More than you want to know about...

Yesterday I wrote about Les Halles in Paris. I was inspired to do so by an article that Walt found and in which the writer seemed to misstate the relationship between, and history of, the old central Paris marketplace and the newer, ex-urban market complex in the suburb of Rungis that replaced it.

I've often wondered where the term « halles » came from. Did it come into being in the 19th century, when the architect Baltard designed and oversaw the building of the market pavilions, or halls, in the area now known as Les Halles? Was it a recent linguistic borrowing from English, with its word "hall"?

After all, the word « hall » exists in French, borrowed presumably from English, which got it from German. It was borrowed fairly late, I think, and is pronounced [OL] or [AWL] and is used in the expressions hall de gare (lobby, concourse) or hall d'entrée (entry hall, lobby, foyer), for example. It doesn't mean "corridor" which is couloir.

The title page of the old dictionary I found on the web here.

So I've been reading about the word halles. The term is much older than the 19th century, and it probably came from German. French, after all, is half German and half Latin in origin, with a lot of English thrown in over the past several decades and generations. The Franks were Germans.

One quote I found dates from the time of French King Philippe Auguste, who was a contemporary of Richard the Lionhearted — the two men were born just two years apart in the 1150s. A writer of the time wrote about « Duas magnas domos, quas vulgus halas vocat... » in which merchandise was sold. That's "two big buildings, which the people call halls," I think. The term halles or its older equivalent was used currently in the late 12th century, which is when the central market place that came to be known as Les Halles was originally set up (between 1110 and 1180).

Voilà. Some have tried to find a Latin root for the term halle, but one etymologist says (and I translate): "I don't see how one can doubt that the word halles comes from the German word hall, signifying a covered space, a house, a portico, a palace, and exactly what we call une halle in French. There is no need to search for any other derivation."

This is a sample of the text I've been trying to read.

The singular form halle is really not used much any more, except historically, as when it is the name of a specific building, or in the name of some of today's stores (La Halle au Chaussures, for example). There's a beautiful old halle in the town of Bracieux, near Chambord, and another in Montrésor, not far south of Saint-Aignan, near Loches. I also remember such a covered marketplace in the town of Luynes, just west of Tours on the Loire, from a trip last summer.

In Tours, the central market, which is really just a single market pavilion, is called Les Halles. It's a newer building, but maybe it replaced two or three old market halls, hence the name in the plural. In Paris, the central city market came to be called Les Halles as well, and there of course there were many market halls or pavilions, so the plural made sense.

One of the main things to know about the word halle is that the initial H is what is called an « H aspiré ». The French H is never "aspirated" in the way the English H is, however. The aspirated French H simply prevents any kind of elision of preceding articles or any liaisons of the final consonants of preceding words.

In other words, Les Halles is pronounced [lay-AHL] and not *[lay-ZAHL]. And it's la halle [la-AHL], not *l'halle in writing and in pronunciation. That's the most important thing to know about the word if you are learning French. If you're going to the covered marketplace or to the Paris district called Les Halles, vous allez aux halles [voo-zah-ley-oh-AHL], not [oh-ZAHL]. There will be a test tomorrow.

The aspirated H of halles and other French words (le hangar, la Hollande, la haie, la honte, le hall, and so on) is a good sign that those words are derived or were borrowed from German or Germanic languages like English and Dutch, in which the H is physically, not just virtually, aspirated. That confirms the etymologist's statement. Latin words that begin with an H, like l'homme (from Latin homo, hominem) don't have the same kind of H, just a vestigial or historical H.

This is the kind of stuff I'm interested in, along with food and cooking.


  1. This is thoroughly interesting to me, too. I was just going to guess that maybe the aspirated-h words were ones that came from Germanic or English derivation, when BAM... there it was in the next paragraph :)) Very interesting.

    So, about the confusion about the physical place, Les Halles... the link that someone provided yesterday to a page describing the tearing down of someplace... was that incorrectly referring to to the Paris mall that used to be the market? I just skimmed through it and didn't have the time to read carefully what the photos were all about.


  2. Thanks for this. Most interesting; I like knowing the origin of these exceptions as it makes them easier to remember. I knew that Les Halles was pronounced with the H "intact," but only because I've heard it that way. I did not know the WHY. But I'm certain that I've incorrectly merged it with the preceding word when used in a sentence.

    I've also heard that a circonflexe means the letter "s" was removed from the original latin word.

  3. This is fascinating to me too. I always enjoy your discussions of the French language.

  4. I didn't comment on yesterday's post, but loved it and todays! We both were in Paris at age 20. I was there only for a short summer, but that summer will always be special in my memories.

    I went to Les Halles (have been pronouncing that wrong;( late one Saturday night for onion soup at Au Pied du Couchon. Miam, miam. The atmosphere was like your description. I saw lots of beef being put in trucks, etc.

    I remember that my dad's poultry business wasn't far from Louisville's Stockyard which smelled of dead cow. The Stockyards were near an open market which was called "The Haymarket". I remember my dad buying bushells of apples there every fall.

    Ah memories...thanks for these interesting posts, Ken.

  5. Very interesting indeed. I had not the faintest idea that halle had a Germanic root. And mostly that words with an aspirated H were from Saxon origin. However, what about héro and héroïne, where the h is aspirated in the former and it is not in the later? Exceptions qui confirment la règle?

    Halle was used in the singular just to mean market, generally covered, like la Halle aux Vins or la Halle aux Grains. Was it because when in singular it meant only one item was sold, like vin or grains, and in the plural in meant many different things were offered and sold to the public as in Les Halles?

  6. French Wikipedia has an article listing all the words that have an H aspiré : <a href="http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/H_aspir%C3%A9>Wiki article</a> Some are of Greek origin.

    I was always told that <i>héros</i> was pronounced with an <i>H aspiré</i> at least in part because you wouldn't want to confuse the plural, <i>les|héros</i>, with <i>les zéros</i>. Otherwise, why would it be <i>le héros</i> but <i>l'héroïne<i>/? It appears that the word <i>zéro</i> came into French around 1500 and the pronunciation of <i>héros</i> changed after that point.

  7. That's fascinating Ken... I now know [I think] to pronounce Les Halles et Champs [the new food market at Perrusson]
    The WV is 'girsh'... as in Girsh! That's how to say it.

  8. The Haymarket in Louisville wasn't open- it was covered and looked a lot like permanent market places I've seen in France.

    I don't know why I wrote the word "open" in the first place. Must be my advanced age;)

  9. I just read the Wikipédia article on the h aspiré and it says le h as if the h was aspiré there. I don't see any reason why it should be in this case. They should say l'h aspiré and à l'h muet, instead au h muet.
    Also un h should be pronounced as un nache and not as un ache.
    What do you think?

  10. Hi CHM, I think it should be [un-NAHSH] and not [un|AHSH]. Grevisse writes: « Ont l'h aspiré les mots suivants et leurs dérivés... » and then gives the list of words that have an initial aspirated H (in Le Bon Usage).

    Judy, the market halls (les pavillons Baltard) at Les Halles were torn down in the early 1970s. One or two were saved, and one is used as a concert hall out in the eastern suburbs of Paris. I went there once to see Ry Cooder perform, and the young Francis Cabrel sat in the same row just a few seats down from me. He had already had a couple of hit songs by then. Do you know him?

    By the way, here's the text of my previous comment. For some reason, when I posted it Blogger was not recognizing the HTML codes I had embedded in the text. Let's see if it recognized them this time or if I made some kind of mistake that persists.

  11. Oops, forgot to copy the text in. Here it is:

    French Wikipedia has an article listing all the words that have an H aspiré : Wiki article Some are of Greek origin.

    I was always told that héros was pronounced with an H aspiré at least in part because you wouldn't want to confuse the plural, les|héros, with les zéros. Otherwise, why would it be le héros but l'héroïne? It appears that the word zéro came into French around 1500 and the pronunciation of héros changed after that point.

  12. It turns out that I had two HTML coding errors in that message and they prevented it from posting correctly. I found them and now it works.

  13. Judy, the whole Quartier des Halles is undergoing a major re-build that started this year. They're going to update the forum, and rebuild the above ground buildings and cover the whole thing with a huge glass canopy. They're also going to improve the train hub below ground and re-make the above ground gardens to tie it all back into the city better. It's an amazing project.

  14. It isn't more than I want to know. Because it's a little story I will now remember the pronunciation. It's something I have been told before, but forgot.

  15. I'm constantly looking up word origins. It can be fascinating.


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