French language notes – November 2019

Use your loaf in Breton art of talking gibberish

30 October 2019
By Connexion journalist

There are certain French words which, despite having origins in local dialects, are used in everyday conversation all around the country – and many have charming etymological backstories.

Here we reveal the diverse and disputed provenance of a Connexion favourite.

Baragouiner is a much-loved verb with Breton origins that is used to describe the act of babbling, talking incomprehensibly, or gibberish, often in reference to how badly someone speaks a foreign language.

For example, if you want to tell someone you do not speak much French, say: “Je baragouine quelques mots de français” (“I can only say a few basic words in French”). Ironically, your vocabulary will impress!

There are several disputed sources of the word’s creation.

A popular belief is that the word emerged in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, when soldiers from around France mixed but could not communicate with each other very well, due to their diverse vocabularies or accents.

Baragouiner may come from one of two composites of Breton words: first, bara (bread) and gwin (wine) – muttered by ravenous soldiers much to the confusion of colleagues from elsewhere in France.

Secondly, bara and gwenn (white) – may have been conjoined when soldiers, unused to such refinement, were given white bread for the first time when housed with bourgeois families.

However, etymologists believe it goes much further back, dating perhaps from 1580 when Montaigne used it, or historian Du Cange’s 17th century use of barragouyn to infer crude or barbaric behaviour (from the Latin barbarus).

We prefer the bread and wine version, even if it is a little disparaging to the communication skills of our Breton friends!

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