If you’re anything like me, about 20% of your waking hours are spent in goblin mode on TikTok going ham on weird pronunciation memes. Often made using the French language, the pronunciation meme is a type of video that has users crafting wacky sentences in English and asking Google Translate to work its magic by translating them into a language where they all magically collapse into words that all sound basically the same. This yields mostly nonsense in both languages from a meaning point-of-view 🤯, but the pronunciation is 🔥.
@mexemluv 😳😳😳😳🙁 WTF tho 🤣🤣🤣😭😭😭😭 #hidentalent #tunafishing #frenchlanguage #frenchlesson #frenchwords #frenchfries #paranormal #strange #whytho #wtf ♬ ton tonton tond ton thon by mexemluv - renflement brun ♥
These videos work so well because languages can have so many homophones—words that sound exactly the same, even if they are spelled differently and have different meanings. This is especially true in French where so many letters are silent!
Homophones are the result of natural sound changes over time or from languages borrowing words from different sources—and in some cases, both! Here's how centuries of language change have prepared French to be a major ✨TikTok star✨.
The TikTok that started it all
@Mexemluv, a Paris-based social media manager, hilariously trolls the French language in a series of artful taunts that point out many of its stylish homophones. The popular “Uncle Tuna” example is particularly hilarious because every single part of every single word in the sentence has the same exact pronunciation, even though they are all spelled differently. 🤩
All the words in Ton tonton tond ton thon (Your uncle mows your tuna) are pronounced as [tɔ̃]—that's the International Phonetic Alphabet notation for a pronunciation like English "tone" but without fully pronouncing the final "n" and instead blowing the air through your nose like you are impersonating someone speaking French!
The French sentence Ton tonton tond ton thon includes four different words (ton “your” appears twice) that all came from different languages and underwent different sound changes over time:
|French word||English translation||Origin|
|ton||your||From a Proto-Indo-European word *towos (chord, fiber, something stretched), which became Latin TUUS "your"|
|tonton||uncle||From a child version of the French word oncle|
|tond||mows||From the Latin word *tondĕre (to clip, cut, shear, rob)|
|thon||tuna||From the Ancient Greek word θύνω (thúnō, "tuna"), which became Latin THUNNUS|
And while that may work as a TL;DR of where these words came from, it still doesn't explain how *towos, oncle, TONDEO, and θύνω (thúnō, “tuna”) all ended up identical sound-wise.
Here's how that happened:
This ton (your) is the OG, dating all the way back to Proto-Indo-European—a language spoken millennia ago in Central Asia that evolved into many of the languages spoken in Europe and South Asia today. Latin was one of the languages that evolved from Proto-Indo-European, and later the Romance languages (including French!) developed from Latin. The grammar of these languages was constantly changing, and one big change from Latin to Old French was a simplification of Latin's 6 noun cases. Latin had 6 versions of the word TU ("you," when referring to one person), including TUUS (your). However, Old French reduced this to just 2: tos (for subjects) and ton (for all the different object cases). One of those forms became more popular than the other, and this is how we got ton "your" in Modern French!
This is what a kid might use for "uncle." In tonton, the on comes from the beginning of oncle, the French word meaning "uncle." The t, though, shows up through analogy: French kids hear "t" a lot at the beginning of words, especially words that start with vowels, like in Vont-ils ? (are they going?). The French word for "aunt" also starts with a "t" (tante is the regular word, and tantine is the child version), so it would make sense for kids to extend it to the word for "uncle"!
But why isn't it just ton? This short word gets reduplicated, or said twice, which is another common feature of child language. And not just in French! Think of "moo-moo" in English for "cow," and 貓貓 (mao1mao1, "cat") in Mandarin.
The verb for "mows," tond, comes from a Latin form *tondĕre, which evolved into tond and then tont in Middle French for "he/she mows" or "they mow." At the time, the "d/t" were still pronounced at the ends of words, but in the late 17th century, as the language became what we call Early Modern French, the final "t" (and most other consonants in that position!) stopped being pronounced.
Thon (tuna) has Ancient Greek beginnings, but that "h" is there just for show. Latin got the word THUNNUS (tuna) from Ancient Greek, but it started with the Greek letter θ, pronounced like the "th" in English "thick," and Latin didn't have this sound. It ended up associated with the next closest Latin sound, "t," and that silent "h" lives on in the spelling as an homage to the Greek θ.
At the end of the Uncle Tuna TikTok, @Mexemluv backgrounds the Eiffel tower and gives a comical live reading of the one-syllable sentence masterpiece. Magnifique ! 🏆
That's why French has 💅 big TikTok energy 💅
Ultimately, the longer it’s been since a language has been standardized, the more time it's had to keep evolving—even if spellings don't change to keep up! The result can be a large number of homophones. French was standardized in 1635, so there have been about 400 years for things to come, go, and move around. English was also standardized a long time ago–in the late 15th century–which explains its overabundance of homophones in current varieties, too.
As learners of language, we can see these little gems as a challenge–thorns that get in the way of our quest for rapid learning. But we might also pause to reflect on how much less hilarious languages would be without them, given that a large part of humor involves punny wordplay and willful substitutions of one phonetic twinsie for another. 👯 Like 'em or not, they’re here to stay. And now, they have their own meme! 😄🎬