Feb 2, 2015

That's Funny Sheet, Beach: Pitchounet


Sitting in the stands, watching the girls warm up to the strains of pop music for their gymnastics competition, I cannot help but giggle. At the moment, the song playing is Lily Allen's "Hard Out Here". It's got a cheerful melody, a good beat. And the lyrics "It's hard out here for a bitch." Then voices chirpily echo "a bitch, hard for a bitch, for a bitch." I'm the only one laughing, but not because the other parents are too horrified to be amused. Rather, they're completely oblivious.

It could be the other parents in the stands don't speak English well enough to know the word "bitch", especially in the context of lyrics, which can be hard enough to understand in your own language. But even if they do know the word "bitch", they might not recognize it as the word being sung, since, to the French, there is no difference between the words "bitch" and "beach".

In a three minute 30 second song, the word "bitch" is sung 55 times (plus additional echoes). In one section, the word "bitch" accounts for 20 of 32 words, and the other 12 are simply the article "a". Here's the song by Lily Allen -- just so you know I'm not exaggerating. Now imagine this playing with a few dozen girls around 9-14 years old doing gymnastics in front of their parents. No matter what the lyrics mean (it's actually a pro-feminist song), all I hear is "bitch, bitch, bitch. It's hard out here for a bitch," and it is just so funny.

In a similar vein, my friend Mei volunteers in the English class at her daughters' school and sometimes needs to hand out worksheets to the 9 year olds. "Here's a sheet for you," she says, and some of the pseudo-English speakers titter -- because they hear no difference between "sheet" and "shit".

The letter "I" is one of the most difficult English sounds for a French person to identify and replicate, because in French, there is only the "ee" version of this, not the short "i" sound as in "pit".

When I was younger and spent a lot of time in Japan and with Japanese exchange students, I used to marvel at the fact that so many of them honestly couldn't tell the difference between an L and an R. I have one friend, virtually bilingual in most respects, who says "hiralious!" when she finds something really funny. I, of course, find this hiralious.

But I suddenly had sympathy for their L-R problem when I tried to study Russian. In Russian, there are two kinds of Ls -- a hard L and a soft L, made by putting the tongue in different parts of the mouth. When said at normal speed, in the middle of words, they both just sound like L to me.

I guess American Southerners might be able to sympathize, living in a place where "ten" and "tin" and "teen" are pronounced the same. But for the rest of us English speakers who actually differentiate between our short and long I and E sounds, there's a real difference between "Holy Shit!" and "Holy Sheet!"

So in France, this Lily Allen song isn't a bitch, a bitch, a bitch, but rather a wholesome beach, a beach, a beach.

THE CHEESE: Pitchounet

Pitchounet is a tiny tommette made from raw sheep milk in the heart of the Parc Naturel Régional des Grands Causses in Aveyron, in the Midi-Pyrénées in southwestern France. There, the milk is curdled and cut, mixed, and pour into molds by hand. After draining, it's rubbed and salted by hand, too, and placed in a cellar to age for 4-5 weeks.

For such a small cheese -- about the size of a tennis ball -- that's a fairly long aging process. The result is a tiny cheese with big flavor. It's creamy, floral, salty, buttery, and grassy, and really quite delicious.


When you're pronouncing the name of this cheese, don't think "pitch", think "peach". Peach-oo-NAY. Now you won't be confused if French people talk about "peaching" a ball or delicious "pitch" pie.


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