Fifty Million Frenchies Kissing a Lot of Frogs: Why French Rhyming Matters

On different message boards, you can find many posts where English-speaking people complain about some uninventive lyric with worn out rhymes like “love” and “glove” or even worse, with “dove.” All I have to answer is: putting some love and a glove in the same sentence need at least some context, some thought, some thinking… Can you imagine how many uninventive lyrics could be written in a language where “love” would rhyme with “forever”? How horrible that would be! A lyricist’s nightmare.

Oh wait, that’s French. (I’ve heard that those words also rhyme in Norwegian, but I’ve never asked a Norwegian-speaking person to confirm it.)

As you may already understand, I will use this post as a rant post about the oh-so-MT subject that is rhyming – in particular, French rhyming – and about one thing that annoys me terribly in a lot of lyrics written in the French language. This post might be quite technical, but to put you in the right mood, I’ll give you a very nice song that has nothing to do with the subject:

Watch this video on YouTube.

You may already know all about lyric flaws: when the lyrics don’t make sense, when they don’t fit with the character, when they don’t rhyme or when worn-out rhymes are used. But here’s a really French flaw: Let’s call it “the diabolic E.”

So the first thing to know about French lyric-writing is: French words don’t have a specific accentuation on a specific syllable like English ones. The accentuation depends on the sentence (consult a linguist for more details). So we don’t have to worry about that while rhyming. As long as the last vocal and every sound after that are the same (and as many sounds before that one as the lyricist wants), it rhymes. No problem thinking about perfect rhymes, false rhymes or whatever!

The second thing to know: when a French word finishes with an “E,” this “E” is not pronounced (except when you need it to avoid having a thousand consonants to pronounce at the same time). However, and this is where the fun begins, this silent letter used to matter tremendously for former poets. I have no idea whether people really used to pronounce it all the time, or just in verses. Anyway, before the 20th century, poets used to always alternate rhymes with words that ended with an “E” (feminine rhymes) and rhymes using words without an “E” at the end (masculine rhymes). Which meant: some words that modern French people consider rhyming like “boire” (to drink) and “soir” (evening) used not to rhyme since once ends with an “E” and the other doesn’t.

But now, very few people care about that rule, or even know about it. And why should we? It’s not like this “E” at the end is pronounced. So it’s all perfect in the best of all possible worlds, isn’t it?

Well, some people still write lyrics that force the singer to pronounce that diabolic “E” when there is no reason to. So a lot of songs include some lines (and not even in a regular pattern) that end on a sound that doesn’t actually exist in the sentence. For example, this is the French version of “On My Own,” sung beautifully by Candice Parise. Notice how the song forces the singer to pronounce those “E”s at the end of a lot of words even though it sounds weird and awkward: “commenceeeee,” “enfaaanceee.”

Watch this video on YouTube.

Well, if the writing was at least following the former rule of feminine and masculine rhyme, it would be fine (I think one of the French versions of “I Dreamed a Dream” follows those rules and it sounds fine). Except that some “E”s at the end of a verse are still not pronounced, like in “histoire,” or in “pluie” or “ombre.”

If you don’t speak French, I hope discovering the specificities of foreign-language poetry interested you. If you do speak French, hear my plea: I beg you, stop putting those “E”s at the end of a verse. If the “e” really must be there, please make it as small as possible. Unless you’re writing a song for an upset five year old. Or a person imitating an upset five year old. Eponine is not a person imitating an upset five year old.

Oh and please, think twice, or even more, next time you want to rhyme “love” with “forever.”

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