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For example:

"What is it?" she said. "Do zey want us back in ze Hall?"

What is zey, and what is ze? Are they French phoentic alphabets or what?

  • 68
    It’s a phonetic representation of a French accent. Rowling is rather fond of this writing style: she does it with all kinds of accents, even British ones. – Adamant Oct 27 '16 at 2:55
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    Because it's easier than continually reminding the reader that she's got an accent. – Valorum Oct 27 '16 at 8:15
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    @Valorum: or rather, it is reminding the reader that she’s got an accent, but with the “show, don’t tell” approach. – PLL Oct 27 '16 at 9:38
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    Because I am French! Why else would I have zees outrageous accent?? (C'mon people! I can't believe there's no Monty Python references yet) – djm Oct 27 '16 at 13:09
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    @NKCampbell Nobody said it was hilarious. But it is — in this case — accurate. It’s a great written representation of a typical French accent and it fits Fleur to a T. – Konrad Rudolph Oct 27 '16 at 15:12
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Rowling is using alternate spelling to bring across Fleur's accent. In English-speaking popular culture, it's common to stereotype French people speaking English as replacing voiced dental fricatives (the "th" in words like "this" and "the") with voiced alveolar sibilants ("z", as in "zoo")1. So "zey" and "ze" are meant to be understood as "they" and "the", respectively.

Using text to convey character accents and dialects is a common writer's trick that Rowling uses in other places, for example with Hagrid's thick West Country accent:

"S-s-sorry," sobbed Hagrid, taking out a large, spotted handkerchief and burying his face in it. "But I c-c-can't stand it - Lily an' James dead - an' poor little Harry off ter live with Muggles -"

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone Chapter 1: "The Boy Who Lived"


1 As multiple French-speakers have noted in assorted comments, this stereotype isn't baseless; French people generally do have trouble with the voiced dental fricative, as noted in Graham's answer

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    smbc-comics.com/comic/phonemes – FuzzyBoots Oct 27 '16 at 12:53
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    Fun fact: Transcription of atypical pronunciation is called "eye dialect." – MissMonicaE Oct 27 '16 at 14:55
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    In English-speaking popular culture, it's common to stereotype French people [...] => As a French, I would say the alternate spelling is spot on. I am sorry but that "th" sound just isn't coming out of my mouth :( – Matthieu M. Oct 27 '16 at 15:56
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    @MatthieuM. As an English-speaker who hasn't looked at French in ten years, I thought it was more politic to be charitable. In my (admittedly weak) defense, stereotypes usually develop for a reason – Jason Baker Oct 27 '16 at 16:13
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    @MissMonicaE: That's true, but some caution is warranted, since for some reason, the term "eye dialect" is often specifically understood as referring to cases where the pronunciation is not atypical -- but merely rendered as if it were. (For example, a line of dialogue might have "wuz" rather than "was" in order to convey the speaker's hickishness or lack of education or whatnot, even though /wʌz/ is actually the standard pronunciation.) – ruakh Oct 27 '16 at 20:43
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The phoneme "th" is not a regular part of the French language. Since French speakers never use that phoneme, they are generally unable to say it. Losing phonemes starts at a pre-verbal level of childhood development, so this is common to everyone who speaks French.

For a similar example in English, many English speakers are unable to pronounce a French rolled "r", because English does not use it; and distinguishing between the two different ways that Finnish uses a rolled "r" (depending on which part of the tongue produces the rolled effect) is even harder.

Of course it is possible to learn the correct pronunciation with a great deal of effort, just as it is possible to learn a new language as an adult with a great deal of effort.

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    And I thought Finnish grammar was hard enough :) – chepner Oct 27 '16 at 13:53
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    @chepner I only met Finnish briefly on a business trip, so I never got as far as grammar. The Finns had a lot of fun with me trying to read the menu! "No, you say it like that." "I did." "No, you didn't roll the R." "Like this?" "No, you need to use the sides of your tongue." "WTF...?" – Graham Oct 27 '16 at 14:15
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    I'm being too hard on the grammar. Lots of cases, but no gender differences to compound the issue. As someone who has only ever tried to read/write Finnish, I wasn't aware of multiple 'r' phonemes. Your experience mirrors the Russian class I took in college; I never could pronounce ы correctly. – chepner Oct 27 '16 at 14:19
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    I've found that if you want to improve your skill in pronouncing language X, listen to native speakers of that language when they are speaking your native tongue. Imitate that accent when speaking language X. – EvilSnack Oct 28 '16 at 13:29
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    There aren’t two different rolled /r/’s in Finnish. The rhotic situation in Finnish is essentially the same as in Spanish. Phonemically, /r/ can be long or short like any other consonant; phonetically, short /r/ (written ⟨r⟩) is a tapped [ɾ], while long /rː/ (written ⟨rr⟩) is a trilled [r]. In some positions (e.g., initially, before /h/ or a plosive), there is some vacillation between [ɾ] and [r]. Both allophones are produced with the same part of the tongue, though—the Finns who were having fun with your Finnish pronunciation were clearly not phoneticians. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 29 '16 at 10:45
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In addition to Jason Baker's excellent answer, I wanted to add that J.K. Rowling worked as a French instructor for several years prior to writing the Harry Potter series; Fleur's accent is, as noted, phonetic to a point, and I would imagine basically authentic, based on J.K. Rowling's knowledge of the French language. I will update this answer if I can find additional confirmation of my assertion.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat, where you can all continue discussing the English-speaking skills of French people for as long as you like. – Rand al'Thor Oct 28 '16 at 11:59

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