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What Makes French Sound Sexy?

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There’s just something about French, a certain je ne sais quoi that makes it widely considered to be the sexiest language in the world. The sensuality of the language, however, is not limited to spoken French itself; the French accent, in English at least, is excessively charming. The sex-appeal of this language knows no boundaries. But what is so sexy about French?

It may be that French is sexy only because of its cultural appeal. Of course, Paris is generally viewed as the capital of culture, cuisine, and couture, and French people are famously beautiful, thin, and educated—all shared standards of beauty in the West. It does seem natural that our stereotypical views of France influence our views of the language and this probably plays a big part in the inherent sexiness of French.

But is that all there is to it? Are we such simple beings that we cannot separate a series of beautiful sounds from cultural stereotypes? I did a little speculating, followed by a little research, and found a few more explanations for why we go weak in the knees when confronted by the language of romance.  

Here are three specific aspects of French that could conceivably make it sound “sexy” to us.

SYLLABLE TIMING

French is a syllable-timed language which means that the duration of every syllable is perceived as being equal. English, on the other hand, is a stress-timed language. This means that as English speakers, we divide our stresses, and not our syllables, to be separated by equal amounts of time. Think of it as a machine gun versus Morse code. Formal English poetry differs from quotidian spoken English in this way. For example, iambic pentameter is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable in sets of five, ten syllables in all. A little poet called Shakespeare is pretty much known for his swoon-inducing iambic pentameter.

Shall I / comPARE/ thee TO / a SUM / mer's DAY? 
Thou ART / more LOVE / ly AND / more TEM / per ATE

When we don’t speak in iambic pentameter, we have to cram multiple syllables into the unstressed spaces in uneven ways. In the sentence "Did you NOTice how SHAKEspeare has a WAY with WORDS?" the unstressed spaces have one, two, or three syllables in them. In contrast, the syllable-timed iambic pentameter has a steady, lyrical sound, seducing its listener by its rhythm. French is somewhat similar to this form of poetry. In fact, one of the telltale signs of a French accent in spoken English is an inability to choose where a native speaker would put their stress, causing the speaker to produce that cadence that we find oh-so-charming. Other romantic language superstars Spanish and Italian share this quality with French.

HUSKY AND BREATHY

So if French and Italian and Spanish all share syllable-timing, what sets French apart from these other beautiful languages? According to a study out of the University College London, women find “husky” voices and men find “breathy” voices the most attractive. Some of the famous French fricatives, ‘zh’ as in je and ‘r’ as in rouge, mimic these qualities. The voiced alveolar fricative ‘zh’, like in the English word measure, relies on both a low, subtle voicing and the expulsion of a strong airstream. Comparable to a murmur and a whisper, these two things combine to create a husky and breathy quality, coming together in a perfect sexy unison. Perhaps the easiest sound to recognize as French is the uvular trill, the back of the throat French ‘r.’ Husky is a glamorous way of calling someone’s voice throaty and the uvular trill is the throaty sound all throaty sounds aspire to.

ROUNDED LIPS

Lastly, we have the French ‘u’, as in une. You too can create this wonderfully sexy vowel by simply saying eeeeee, rounding your lips, and voilà! This vowel approximates a face we're all familiar with: selfie face. It’s no accident that young co-eds make this face to make themselves look Internet-worthy; this face accentuates cheek bones and evokes images of kissing. And we all know the French wrote the book on kissing; why else would it be named after them?

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Big Questions
Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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