Why the French say non

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(HOST) Commentator Mike Martin has been thinking a lot lately about why the French say “no.”

(MARTIN) The French “no” is what linguists call a nasal.


If you’re doing it right, it should make your nose vibrate. For effect, it’s also good to drag it out like this:


Or, sometimes adding an empty conjunction can create a neat one-two punch like this:

Mais, non!

Repeat and trail off for lyricism or emphasis:

Mais, non, mais non, mais non, mais non, mais non, mais non…

The French love to say no. Recently, in a national referendum, they said no to the new European Constitution. Along with a negative Dutch vote, this French “no” stops European integration for now and questions what Europe should look like in the future.

Some of the French worry about losing their sovereignty and being swallowed up by Europe. They fear things will be run by Europe’s leaders in Brussels and that they will have little say. Others wanted to show their displeasure with President Jacques Chirac and put him in his place. Still others voted against the European Constitution because of its free-market economics. They voted no out of fear that globalization threatens the French way of life: six weeks paid vacation each year, free health care, a 35-hour work week, and free higher education.

Vermonters can identify with that. We are proud of our special way of life here, and we like to say no when we please, too. Like the French last month, we don’t always like to go along with the crowd. As political analysts tried to figure out why the French said no to the European Constitution, most Vermonters already under- stood why. Like them, we cherish our unique way of life, we have a strong, independent spirit, and sometimes…we like to do our own thing.

I love all things French, even their propensity to say, “Non…,” which they consider a matter of pride and culture. The legendary Charles De Gaulle, who stepped down as President of France when a referendum didn’t go his way, is said to have asked how anyone can possibly govern a country with more than 300 kinds of cheese.

The French are very proud of their individualism, and saying no is part of that. The French love to say no to their friends. They debate for hours in cafes. The French love to say no to the U. S. when they think we are too big for our britches. The French love to say no to exercise the liberty of their republic.

The French love to say no because it tickles your nose. Just try it some time: Nonnnnnn…

I’m Mike Martin of Burlington.

Mike Martin writes about issues of culture and education and teaches French at Champlain Valley Union High School.

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