I was lucky enough to be in Paris recently and after hearing, or responding with, the affirmative French word for “yes” for a few days, I began to wonder about that little word, “Oui.”
“O-U-I” is pronounced something like “we;” however, to sound more French, you must purse your lips tightly, then say the word while keeping your tongue as close to your front upper teeth as possible. (This gives “oui” a sharper, slightly breathy, and somewhat more nasal sound than the English “we.”)
But again, why “oui”? In France’s neighboring Latin-language-based countries like Italy, Spain, and Portugal they say “si,” “si,” and “sim.” Is France’s reputation for being different rooted even in its ancient linguistic development?
It was the 12th century writer, Dante Alighieri (of “Inferno” fame) who first put France’s regional language variations into three groups, each group defined by the way they said, “Yes.” In the south, they spoke “the Langue d’Oc;” in the central and northern parts, “La Langue d’Oil,” and closer to Iberia (later Spain) and Italy, “La Langue de Si.” In his essay, “On Vernacular Speech,” Dante noted, “some say ‘oc,’ (awk) others say ‘si,’ (see) and others say ‘oil’” (oh-eel) – and his groups were each named some form of “The Language of “Yes.”
“Oc” comes from Latin’s “hoc,” or “that;” whereas “oil” is a combination of “hoc ille,” meaning “that is it.” “Si” came from the Latin, “sic” meaning “thus.” The “Si” group was relatively minor; the main choice was between “oc” or “oil.” With Paris being for centuries the main power seat and located in the Langue d’Oil region, it’s easy to see that the Oil group would win out over the Oc one (and “oil” eventually changed to the standard French oui). There was a brief period in the 1200’s when the Langue d’Oc, in southern France’s Provence region, was the mightier, with Provencal considered the language of literature and the roving “troubadours” or minstrels. (War and politics changed all that.) Still, the name Langue d’Oc lives on in the name of the famous Languedoc wine region, and also in the adjective “occitane” (meaning, from the “Oc” region); in fact, the French-based, international luxury body lotion and bath oil stores called “L’Occitane,” now have put Oc back on the map.
As for “Si,” the French did not dispose of it completely. Where the Spanish, Italians and Portuguese found “si” and “sim” fit to mean a resounding, “yes,” the French found it a useful word for contradicting a negative statement: “You’re not going to the meeting?” “Si*! I’m going, and you?” (*In this case, “si” means neither “yes” nor “no,” but something like “of course.”)
Having a special word like “si” is found in other languages too: The Germans do this with “Doch (Dok);” and the Norwegians use “Jo” (Yoo). Those of us whose language doesn’t have such a handy word must hobble along with more emphasis in our responses: “Don’t you like the food?” “Yes, of course I like the food, and in fact, I’ll have seconds” – just to clarify our position.)
Just why the French went for the Oc’s and Oil’s in the first place and rejected the Roman “Si” can be found (in my opinion – not documented) in any “Asterix” comic book. This French comic book series, started in1959 and now translated into 100 languages, takes place in Gaul in 100 B.C., when Julius Caesar invaded and occupied the land (now France). Gaul was named after the early Celtish tribe of Gauls living there. (The adjective and noun, Gaul, in French is “gallois”– thus the name of the popular French cigarette brand). The series’ main character is Asterix (whose name comes from the Latin/Greek “aster” meaning “star” + “rix,” Celtic for “king”), who is a funny little Gaul; along with his equally funny and oversized sidekick, Obelix, the two have adventures and exploits throughout the 33-book series in trying to outwit the never-as-clever Roman soldiers.
Though I doubt the real Gauls had as much fun as Asterix and Obelix, they most likely did resent the Roman intrusion: in fact, it took some 500 years for early French to replace Gaulish – and this included their refusal to adopt the Roman word for “yes.” True, the Celtic word for “yes” was lost (or, if Celtic Gaulish was like the Celtic Gaelic, an exact word for “yes” may have never existed); so if the Gauls were going to turn to Latin for an affirmative, then perhaps they thought it should at least be a different word than the “si” used by the obnoxious occupying Roman soldiers.
That the north of France would differ for centuries with the south of France on whether “Yes” would be Oc or Oil is mere sibling rivalry (like the English “yes” vs. “aye”); and leaving “si” for responding to negative questions almost seems like a French-style (and long-lost) in-joke. Tres funny, oui?