I didn’t realize the Weekly World News had moved into Onion territory (I thought their stories were, like professional wrestling matches, supposed to be taken as true by the hypothetical simple-minded consumer, rather than being obviously for laughs), but I much enjoyed FRENCH DIET SECRETS REVEALED: SWALLOW CONSONANTS, FEEL FULL ALL DAY by Elizabeth Morgan:

FLINT, Mich.–The French ability to remain slimmer than Americans despite a diet higher in fats and overall calorie density has puzzled nutritionists for decades. But a new study suggests that scientists are looking in the wrong place for the secret of Gallic leanness, and that staying svelte may have nothing to do with food at all.

“The answer is swallowed consonants,” said Dr. Eric Gross, professor of biology at Lester College in Flint. “We’re finding that the pronunciation of these sounds can induce a feeling of satiety in French speakers, and can lead, over the long-term, to lower body weight.”

In French phonology, nearly all terminal consonants tend to be ‘swallowed’—silenced via a complex sequence of mouth and throat movements. Researchers still debate the mechanism by which these movements result in feelings of fullness. Nevertheless, most scientists have focused their investigations on the flow and vibration of air in speakers’ nasal passages. The hypothalamus—which regulates hunger—sits directly above these passages, and may be affected by air movements beneath.

Regardless of the cause, the salutary effects of French phonology remain certain. Dr. Gross’ correlational study, soon to be published in the journal Nomos, reveals that university students enrolled in French language classes actually dropped four to six pounds during the course of a twelve-week semester.

“Obviously, the degree of weight-loss increases in language-immersion programs, like the Lester College Junior Year Abroad in Aix-en-Provence,” Dr. Gross said.

Some scientists have rejected the new data, citing smaller portion size in French culture, or the effects of increased wine consumption, as the real determinants of Gallic thinness. But Dr. Gross predicts that these researchers will abandon their theories when faced with the flood of data from a global swallowed-consonant craze.

“They’ll be eating their words, like everyone else,” Dr. Gross said.

Thanks to Ben Zimmer at the Log for bringing this to the attention of the linguistic world!


  1. “Everybody is trying to demystify everything. We’re trying to do the opposite, to mystify again. We’re in a constant battle against medicine, science and religion.”
    —Ed Clontz, editor, Weekly World News, quoted in Cleo Paskal, ‘Space Aliens Made Me Cynical’, Columbia Journalism Review (May/June 1992): p.19.

  2. I’m sure the writers and editors at WWN laugh themselves silly coming up with this stuff, but what makes you think that some large portion of readers won’t take this story seriously? What with all the impressive mumbo-jumbo about the hypothalamus sitting atop the nasal passages and so forth? As I suggested in my post, readers who are easily impressed by science-y claims might deem this one about as plausible as umlauts making Germans grumpy.

  3. Ben: I did think of that possibility, but surely the final “They’ll be eating their words, like everyone else” makes it clear the whole thing’s a joke… surely? If not, I’m not sure I want to know.

  4. My sense is that these WWN articles are supposed to work on two levels: one for the hip, ironic reader, for whom the “eating their words” kicker serves as a playful nudge-wink, and one for the simple-minded reader, who is cynically expected to believe any old claptrap about cave-dwelling bat children or what have you. According to the WWN Wikipedia entry, the editors have acknowledged this two-pronged approach: “while Reader A reads the tabloid for real news, Reader B will read it for laughs.”

  5. (And of course part of the appeal for the hip, ironic reader is that there are simple-minded readers out there somewhere who actually believe this stuff.)

  6. Hat: The last line is clearly intended to be humorous — a pun, if nothing else — but that doesn’t mean they’re not expecting anyone to believe the article as a whole. I mean, newspaper headlines contain puns all the time, but that’s not meant as a signal that the articles they head are fake.

  7. Serious or not, it’s rubbish and I’m the living proof. Three years of learning French and still at 2XX pounds. “feeling of satiety”, my (still) fat butt :o)

  8. And as for the serious or not debate, I’m not that familiar with US popular geography (which is how I refer to the set of geographically based prejudices and misconceptions), but shouldn’t the fact that this comes from Flint, Michigan be a huge tipoff?

  9. Bulbul, you aren’t still pronouncing words the way they’re spelled, are you?
    A friend of mine met a Catholic priest in Mexico once who’d learned English from books and pronounced the silent letters.

  10. I don’t care whether it’s a joke or not. I’ll be mystifying friends and relations alike with some unique pronunciation for a while, just in case it works. Anything’s worth a try.

  11. You know, it occurs to me that’s why Roland & Co. were such doughty Moor-fighting warriors: they still pronounced all the consonants back then. They had weight, heft, gravitas. It’s only since the consonants started dropping off that the French have become light in body and spirit. There’s a best-selling book in there, I just know it.

  12. As I understand, even Rabelais and his peers had heft.
    Class project: who to blame?
    Voltaire? Victor Hugo? Clement Marot?

  13. Siganus Sutor says

    It would be wise to have some kind of warning. Like: “Speaking too much French may be dangerous to your health”.
    Last night I watched TV. And I saw a report about young persons “du beau [censored*]” who, by trying to look like the slim top models displayed during fashion shows, sometimes starved themselves to the point of damaging their health. In the light of these worrisome observations, it becomes obvious that French-speaking persons shouldn’t be allowed to become mannequins.
    * Please, LH, teach your software that “une personne du beau s…” is not pornographic whatsoever!

  14. The jettisoning [jactation?] of several consonants overboard, and merger of others, from the sound inventories of early Polynesians they spread across the eastern Pacific seems not to have reduced their, uh, gravitas much.

  15. Joel,
    an excellent point. So what if the authors of the study have it all wrong and it’s the abundance of vowels that actually contributes to, as you so graciously refer to it, one’s gravitas? That would help explain my predicament – I speak Finnish which, so I’m told, has a high vowels-to-consonants ratio (100:96), much like Polynesian languages. Now there’s a matter worth investigating!

  16. It is rumored that the Czechs have the highest consonant-to-vowel ratio in Europe, though the Tsimshian and some of the Caucasian peoples supposedly have them beat. On the other hand, the Czechs cheat by eating lard with everything.

  17. And drinking cartloads of beer.

  18. The SF-writer Suzette Haden Elgin took the same idea quite seriously in the last volume of her trilogy ” Native Tongue”. Story, more or less: The women of some influential families organize as nuns to ban hunger from the known universe, when they discover that music can actually feed people. Nothing specific about French consonants, though, and Haden Elgin is in fact a linguist, so she should know.

  19. Methinks this is an attempt by the lean and keen Francophones to get the overweight Anglophones learning french! 😉

  20. It only makes sense that phonology is the root cause of modern France’s stunted geopolitical significance. After all, the Russians’ ambitions at Eurasian hegemony were doomed when they started dropping their jers.

  21. On a more serious note, BBC folks made themselves look unusually stupid by stating that “the two dots … give the German language three alternative vowel sounds”. I know most literate people on Earth do not see the difference between letters and sounds, but this is a bit too silly for a decent media.

  22. One feels that the Diet of Worms should be worked in here somewhere.

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