U fu n’est n’est fumee.
oo fuh nay nay few-MAY. To hear this pronounced, click below.
Where there’s no fire, there’s no smoke.
Yes, I know, we talked about this proverb, on May 17, 2010. Here’s the link. But this time, we’re doing it in Old French, which is defined as the French language as it looked between the 9th century and the 14th century. It’s from a collection of French proverbs that predated the 14th century, or the 1300s.
And why would we want to do that? Well, some of us have a passion for where words and expressions come from, and how languages grow!
So here, to help you make sense of today’s post, are a handful of facts about Old French:
- Punctuation was minimal. You’d take shortcuts too, if every copy of every document had to be written by hand with a quill on parchment. So start by putting a comma between the first n’est and the second n’est.
- Spelling wasn’t standardized. Essentially, people wrote things the way they heard them. So the same document might spell the word for where as u in one place and ou in another. Accents weren’t used either, so you’ll have to add in the accent over où to get to the modern word.
- Syntax wasn’t standardized. As in Latin, word order was changeable. Notice how today’s proverb reverses the word order in the second half (after the imaginary comma you added), to create a balance and symmetry to the sentence. That’s called chiastic structure, after the Greek letter X, pronounced chi, where the two lines forming the letter cross. (Aren’t you glad you asked? Oh, wait, you didn’t.)
- Pronunciation wasn’t standardized either. So we have a single spelling for two different sounds–or at least, we presume they were different sounds at the time: fu spells both the sound of feu (fire) and the sound of the first syllable of fumee (fumée, smoke). Since we have no definitive sense of how the language really sounded (we do have hints), I’ve recorded the audio file as if the words were in modern French.
- The grammar wasn’t standardized, either! There were many ways of expressing the concept of there is/there are (il y a in modern French): i a, a, est, to name a few.
- And negation? Not standardized either! You could use ne alone, as this writer did, or you could use a second word that more clearly defined and emphasized the negative. Pas, used in modern French, is only one of them. Tune in tomorrow for more about this intriguing point!
So a literal translation of this Old French proverb would be Where fire is not, is not smoke.
Now wasn’t that fun?