Zipf’s Law and the French alphabet

french-alphabetAt no point in my college French 101 class did we learn the alphabet.  This turned out to be a problem when I got to France and needed to spell things (like, say, my name).

There are a number of French alphabet songs available on YouTube.  This one, from, is my current favorite.  The words go some thing like “I want the X, the X, the X of Y,” where “X” is a letter and “Y” is a noun or phrase that starts with that letter—“I want the A, the A, the A of ananas (pineapple).”  I learned some things from this song—like, in France I learned by necessity that K is “ka,” but I had no clue that J is “zhee.”

The song is an interesting example of how much phonology and orthographic variability we have to get kids to ignore in order for them to learn to read.  (That’s equally true in English, of course.)  For example: the name of the letter E in French is not even spellable in English.  We don’t have the sound at all (and I struggle with it constantly, both in terms of producing it and in terms of hearing it).  However, in the song, it’s illustrated with éléphant (elephant), in which it’s pronounced completely differently (like the “long” A in English).  The name of G is “zhey,” but the word illustrating G is grenouille (frog), in which the G is pronounced like the G in “green.”  You get the picture.

Of course, Zipf’s Law strikes in the alphabet song as much as anywhere else—there is nothing simple about children’s language.  (As my French tutor once pointed out, the passé simple, which we’re not even taught in French class as it’s pretty obscure and not used (that I know of) in the spoken language any more, is indeed used in French children’s books, with the result that my French tutor can’t use children’s books in the high school French classes that she teaches.)  Here are words that I either didn’t know, or didn’t know the gender of:

  • un ananas: pineapple.
  • la banane: banana.
  • le crocodile: crocodile.  (Are you noticing a pattern here?  Zipf’s Law strikes three times before I get past A, B, and C!)
  • le dauphin: dolphin.  (You probably know this word from history class as “heir apparent,” as did I—I had no idea that it also meant “dolphin.”)
  • la grenouille: frog.
  • un hippopotame: hippopotamus.
  • le kangourou: kangaroo.
  • le nounours: teddy bear.
  • le rigolo/la rigolote: joker, funny person; clown (pejorative); also an adjective—funny, amusing, bizarre, weird.
  • le serpent: snake.
  • le/la trompette: this is an interesting one, as the meaning varies by gender.  La trompette (feminine) is a trumpet.  Le trompette (masculine) is a trumpeter.
  • le zoo: zoo (but, it’s pronounced completely differently, of course).

That’s twelve new words, just to learn the alphabet.  Zipf’s Law will get you every time.

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