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French Language – Three Wise Monkeys Posted by on Oct 8, 2019 in Culture, Vocabulary

A random line in one of my favorite French podcasts 1You can also find Christophe Hondelatte and his great récits / accounts on YouTube grace à / thanks to Europe1. sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole to explore a variety of expressions … and from rabbits I was soon at des singes (monkeys)!

Il n’y a pas pire aveugle …

A few years back, I wrote a blog on the senses in French. What I didn’t think to talk about was how to talk about the absence of the senses.

A person who cannot see (qui ne peut pas voir/qui ne voit pas) est aveugle (is blind).

A person who cannot hear (qui n’entend pas) est sourd(e) (is deaf).

A person who cannot speak (qui ne parle pas) est muet(te) (is mute).

While we would find it sexist today, Montaigne wrote in the early 1800’s that Un bon mariage serait celui d’une femme aveugle avec un mari sourd. (A good marriage would be one of a blind woman with a deaf man. !!!

Anyway … The phrase that got me thinking about all this was Il n’y a pire aveugle que celui qui ne veut pas voir (None is more blind than the person who doesn’t want to see). This expression – which can also be found as Il n’est pas … – has its echo in Il n’y a/Il n’est pire sourd que celui qui ne veut pas entendre (None is more dear/harder of hearing than the person who doesn’t want to hear).

Monkey business

And when it comes to not seeing, not hearing, and not speaking, nuls ne sont plus connus que les trois singes sages (none are more well-known than the three wise monkeys, also known as les singes de la sagesse).

In my journey down the rabbit hole I found two different ways of saying their “See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil.” maxim. The first – Ne pas voir le Mal, ne pas entendre le Mal, ne pas dire le Mal. – is closest to the English, and to the original meaning of trying to avoid bad things (evil) in one’s life by not looking for it, not listening to it, and not speaking about it.

The alternative – Ne rien voir. Ne rien entendre. Ne rien dire. – which means more See nothing. Hear nothing. Say nothing. seems to me less true to the original meaning, but truer to the modern-day usage of ignoring what we hear and see and not pointing out the bad that we see.

Qu’en pensez-vous? What do you think ?

Which French version resonates with you? For some inspiration, check out this amazing photo blog featuring people from around Asia posing as les fameux singes. 

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Photo by George Becker from Pexels
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About the Author: Tim Hildreth

Lise: Maybe not always. Paris has ways of making people forget. / Jerry: Paris? No, not this city. It's too real and too beautiful. It never lets you forget anything. It reaches in and opens you wide, and you stay that way. / An American in Paris