The Meaning Behind “Alouette” and “Frère Jacques”

Music plays a critical role in both culture and childhood, and the great thing about it is that it can transcend cultural boundaries. On the downside, lyrics might get lost in translation, like in the popular French children songs “Alouette” and “Frère Jacques.”

Translating “Alouette” Lyrics

We all remember playing sing-song games like “Ring Around the Rosy” as children or crooning “Hush Little Baby” to a newborn sibling—songs like these help color those rosy memories of being young and innocent. And the funny thing about being young is you don’t care about what the words behind the song are saying. It’s just fun to sing along with the bouncy rhythms and dance to the cheerful tune.

Perhaps you remember singing the popular French children song “Alouette.” It is a playful melody that consists of several rounds of repetition and rhyming. Traditionally, the song is sung as a group, and children point to the body parts that correspond with the lyrics. It’s a great learning tool for young ones who are just beginning to develop their vocabulary, and it’s fun! But you may be surprised to learn what “Alouette” is really about—plucking a bird in preparation for cooking!

Alouette by Henri Dès on Grooveshark

Translating “Frère Jacques” Lyrics

Then there’s “Frère Jacques,” a song that’s typically accompanied by kids pressing their hands together and placing them to the side of their tilted heads in order to symbolize sleeping. The song tells the story of a sleeping monk who needs to wake up in order to ring the church bells for morning mass. In the US, a slightly different version called “Brother John” was created as inspiration from the original French song. Changes were made in order to maintain the rhyming:

Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping?
Brother John, Brother John,
Morning bells are ringing, Morning bells are ringing.
Ding, dang, dong, Ding, dang, dong.

So what did the original French children’s song sound like? Check it out:

So now that you know the meaning behind these children’s classics, go out there and impress your French friends (or their children)!

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