There are many ways into a culture, the food, architecture, customs being a few.

But if you really want to delve into the very bedrock on which our young, malleable psyches are formed, you should take a look at Nursery Rhymes.

Photo credit, Paige Cody from Unsplash.

These dinky ditties are recited to our children before they are old enough to really filter what they are unconsciously absorbing. As adults they don’t seem so strange to us, but that’s because we grew up with them.

One of the joys of looking at lyrics and linguistics with fresh eyes as we bring our adult judgement to the table.

We also see just how mad some of the things we’re singing to little people really are.

Une Souris Verte

Photo credit, from Pixabay.

At first glance ‘Une Souris Verte’ appears harmless enough, yet surreal. We imagine Dali on absinthe in Saint Germain writing this Nursery Rhyme.

Delve a little deeper and there is something strange afoot…

The lyrics read:

Une souris verte qui courait dans l’herbe
Je l’attrape par la queue
Je la montre à ces messieurs
Ces messieurs me disent :
trempez la dans l’huile,
trempez la dans l’eau
Ça fera un escargot tout chaud

Je la mets dans mon chapeau
Elle me dit qu’il fait trop chaud
Je la mets dans mon tiroir
Elle me dit qu’il fait trop noir
Je la mets dans ma culotte
Elle me fait trois petites crottes
Je la mets là dans ma main
Elle me dit qu’elle est très bien

Ok, so in line one we have a green mouse, fine if a little odd. The green mouse is running in the grass – ah, perhaps that explains why its green, perhaps grass-stained or an optical illusion?

Line two, our narrator catches it lifting it up by its tail. Hmm, animal rights red flag, but maybe to avoid being bitten..

In line three, “I show it to these gentlemen”. Hang on! Where did these ‘Messieurs’ suddenly crop up from? What are they doing there and why are they the authority on green mice?

From lines 4-7 things get decidedly out of hand. These strange men tell our young mouse catcher to dunk the mouse in oil and then water, to turn it into a snail.

Escargots. Photo credit, Reza1615 from Wikimedia Commons Media.

So far, so French.

Next our child turns magician putting the green mouse in his hat. The mouse promptly tells him that it’s too hot in there.

The green mouse gets put in a chest of drawers, but doesn’t like the dark.

In his pocket the green mouse produces three little droppings.

Finally, the child tries simply holding the mouse in his hand. The mouse amicably rules that this arrangement is ‘très bien’.

Alouette

Photo credit, Tayla Kohler from Unsplash.

Sticking with the animals, here is a Nursery Rhyme which is often used in French language lessons to learn the parts of the body. It’s a sort of bird based ‘Head, shoulders, knees and toes’.

So who is Alouette, kindly alouette?

Alouette is a lark. The song focuses on the different parts of the bird which are going to be plucked.

Not one for vegetarians, or those accustomed to buying their skinless chicken breasts film wrapped in supermarket packaging.

Could this be a good Nursery Rhyme to get all ‘back to the land’ and teach children where food comes from?

Photo credit, Wikimedia Commons Media.

Here are the lyrics. As there is a fair deal of repetition I have cut out the list of aforementioned body parts to be plucked from the following verses.

Alouette, gentille alouette
Alouette, je te plumerai
Aloutette, gentille alouette
Alouette, je te plumerai
Je te plumerai la tete
Je te plumerai la tete
Et la tete
Et la tete
Alouette
Alouette
Oh
Alouette, gentille alouette
Alouette, je te plumerai
Je te plumerai le bec
Je te plumerai le bec
Et le bec
Et le bec
(Et la tete .. x2) 
(Alouette  x2)
Oh

Photo credit, from Unsplash.

Alouette, gentille alouette
Alouette, je te plumerai
Je te plumerai le nez 
Je te plumerai le cou
 
Je te plumerai le dos
 
Alouette, gentille alouette
Alouette je te plumerai
Alouette, gentille alouette
Alouette je te plumerai
The melody is undeniably perky and upbeat, which contrasts considerably with the darker dead bird plucking going on.

Vive le vent

Photo credit, Filip Bunkens from Unsplash.

This Nursery Rhyme is distinctly seasonal. It celebrates winter, more specifically invoking the winter wind.

“Vive le vent. Vive le vent d’hiver” – Long live the winter wind!

The alliteration in the lyrics is pretty as the wind goes past us whistling and blowing; “Qui s’en va sifflant soufflant”.

Christmas trees, snowballs, candles, Christmas with family and New Year all get evoked in the first verse.

Photo credit, Marcelo Cidrack from Unsplash.

In the second verse the Nursery Rhyme turns nostalgic:

Vive le temps d’hiver
Qui rapporte aux vieux enfants
Leurs souvenirs d’hier.
Sur le long chemin
Tout blanc de neige blanche
Un vieux monsieur s’avance
Avec sa canne dans la main
Et tout là haut le vent
Qui siffle dans les branches
Lui souffle la romance
Qu’il chantait petit enfant.

 

Singing: Long live the Winter Time, bringing back to grown up children their memories of yesteryear. On the long, white snowy road an old man is walking, stick in hand. Above him the wind which whistles through the branches breathily singing a romance he sang as a young boy.

Photo credit, by Bahram Bayat from Unsplash.

The romantic refrain comes back singing to the wind and the happy winter memories, then we pick up our protagonist again in the third verse:

Et le vieux monsieur
Descend vers le village
C’est l’heure où tout est sage
Et l’ombre danse au coin du feu.
Mais dans chaque maison
Il flotte un air de fête
Partout la table est prête
Et l’on entend la même chanson.

And the old man,

Heading down towards the village,

It’s that hour when all is calm,

And shadows dance in the corner of the fireplace,

But in each and every house,

There’s an atmosphere of celebration in the air,

Everywhere the tables are set,

And we listen to the same song.

Au Clair de la Lune

Photo Credit, Rezaulislamrezaa from Pixabay.

This French Nursery Rhyme is one of my favourite and is perhaps especially well known worldwide.

The melody is often used in beginner music exams. It is gentle and has a lullaby like quality which makes it ideal for calming younger children.

Here it is performed on Youtube.

Although the creators, neither the composer or the lyricist, of this beloved song are unknown, the 18th century folk song inspired musicians and the general public alike.

The lyrics of the most popular version go like this:

Au clair de la lune,
Mon ami Pierrot
Prête moi ta plume
Pour écrire un mot
Ma chandelle est morte
Je n’ai plus de feu
Ouvre-moi ta porte
Pour l’amour de Dieu !

This first verse recounts the tale of a neighbour knocking on his friend’s door to borrow a feather quill pen, as his candle has just gone out at home.

In the light of the moon, Pierrot, my friend
Loan me your pen to write something down
My candle’s dead, I’ve got no flame to light it
Open your door, for the love of God!

Photo credit, Free Photos 9093 photos from Pixabay.

In the second verse comes our reply to the request. We get the impression that this demand is coming fairly late at night, or perhaps Pierrot just likes to hit the hay early!

Au clair de la lune
Pierrot répondit
Je n’ai pas de plume,
Je suis dans mon lit
Va chez la voisine
Je crois qu’elle y est
Car dans la cuisine
On bat le briquet.

His reply verse translating as:

In the light of the moon, Pierrot replied
I don’t have a pen, I’m in bed
Go to the neighbor’s, I think she’s in
Because someone just lit a match in the kitchen.

Incidentally, it’s interesting that Pierrot sends his friend round to their female neighbour’s in the middle of the night. Especially as the phrase « battre le briquet » was widely used in the 17th century to imply sexual connotations. We wonder if it’s rather more than a light to scribble down a quick note our protagonist’s after..

Photo credit, Comfreak from Pixabay.

So off he goes as instructed to try his luck next door, leaving Pierrot in peace and we sing:

Au clair de la lune
L’aimable Lubin
Frappe chez la brune
Ell’ répond soudain
Qui frapp’ de la sorte ?
Il dit à son tour
Ouvrez votre porte
Pour le Dieu d’amour

In the light of the moon, loveable Lubin
Knocked on the brunette neighbour’s door, and she answered at once
Who’s knocking like that? And he replied
Open your door, for the God of Love!

What is a Lubin? We ask ourselves.

Looking to the song Ballade de frère Lubin, by Clément Marot, a 16th century poet; we meet Lubin, a monk with behaviour that deviates somewhat from the Catholic vows of celibacy that he has taken –

this seems to explain matters more or less.

Photo credit, Geralt from Pixabay.

And so we come to the climax of our mildly inappropriate nursery rhyme. The dramatic tension centers around whether the pretty brunette neighbour will open the door in the middle of the night, or send him packing.

In this final verse we sing:

Au clair de la lune
On n’y voit qu’un peu
On chercha la plume
On chercha du feu
En cherchant d’la sorte
Je n’sais c’qu’on trouva
Mais j’sais que la porte
Sur eux se ferma.

Translating as:

In the light of the moon, you can barely see anything
Someone looked for a pen, someone looked for a flame
With all of that looking, I don’t know what was found
But I do know that those two shut the door behind them.

Ahem, well yes. I’m sure we can imagine the rest with Lubin the libertine.

So there you have it: The hidden meaning behind a well loved French nursery rhyme which has been innocently sung to millions of children.

Un petit Cochon

Photo credit, Roy Buri from Pixabay.

This little ditty is pretty short to qualify as a Nursery Rhyme, but I like it for several reasons:

Firstly, it can be used with children as young as two and is terribly easy to learn and remember. It can easily be chanted or set to music, depending on what you’re feeling.

It’s another animal based number. In French Nursery Rhymes, especially the traditional ones, animals get us away from a pre-secular society of misbehaving monks:

Lascivious Lubin, who we’ve just seen at work as a ‘grand seducteur’ feigning an urgent need for a candle in the middle of the night, then of course the famous Frère Jacques who has rather bad luck with his alarm, unable to rely on a Siri reminder and ever mounting volume ringtone.. I suppose in the modern world he would have hit the snooze button more than a few times.

Photo credit, Wild One from Pixabay.

If animals keep us in a simple infant-led land of make believe (presumably, since often the animals talk or have other unlikely attributes), the all the better.

In ‘Un Petit Cochon’, a little pig, we also have humour:

 

Un petit cochon pendu au plafond

tirez lui la queue il pondra des oeufs

tirez lui plus fort il pondra de l’or

 

This dinky ditty translates to:

 

A little pig, hanging from the ceiling

Pull his tail and he’ll lay some eggs

Pull a bit harder and you’ll get some gold!

Photo credit, Steve Bidmead from Pixabay.

 

I like the wildly optimistic outlook for porcine money making.

The sheer misinformation and confusing of female hens and male pigs (presumably previously slaughtered if hanging from the ceiling), is startling.

Let’s hope toddlers aren’t absorbing rudimentary biology lessons from these lyrics!

But still, all quite good fun, if taken with the most enormous pinch of salt.

 

So what have we learnt about French Nursery Rhymes and the possible effect they have on children and adults alike?

We know that Nursery Rhymes and fairy tales go into our unconscious minds and stubbornly set up shop and put down deep roots. Even the elderly in retirement homes, who may well have forgotten much of what they did that Monday can be jolted back to lucidity with the well known melody of one of these little ditties.

Perhaps they stick stronger as they are set to catchy music.

Photo credit, Kari Shea from Unsplash.

So when we’re thinking about Nursery Rhymes to nurture and treasure, let us tread carefully and try to choose positively.

Or, of course, you could always pick up a guitar and write your own!

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