Combination | Characteristic of speech that moves forward by recomposing and reorganizing its constituent elements. Both a form of repetition and variation, of resumption and declension, a scheme and a combinatorics, combination is as much a poetic resource as it is a rhetorical one. 

A classic example of combination is given to us by Molière, in this famous scene from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Monsieur Jourdain wants to write the words “beautiful Marchioness, your lovely eyes make me die of love” in a letter, but “turned stylishly, well-arranged as necessary”. He asks the master of philosophy to “tell me, just to see, the diverse ways they could be put”, all while insisting that he wants “only those words in the note”: the finite and exclusive aspect of the terms available gives the master of philosophy no other choice but to recombine them in (almost) every way possible. 

Ontological Combinations

Language is combinatorial by essence: at heart, speaking consists of combining a finite number of elements, especially the vocabulary available at any given moment. It is only when, for various reasons, this set of elements finds itself limited to a small number that the phenomenon of combination becomes apparent. For example, when a person addresses a dog using only the instructions “lie down”, “sit”, and “stand up”.

But one can combine other elements than words. In this recording, two babies dialogue exclusively using the syllable “da”, which is affected by various rising and descending combined intonations. This intonative combination is what allows them to mimic the form of conversation.

In this other excerpt, a French child does not combine words, strictly speaking, but sounds inspired by what she imagines the English language to be: the combination of these sounds allows her to invent an original kind of gibberish, in almost the same way as the dadaist poet Raoul Hausmann in his day. 

Closed Combinations

The most striking examples of combination are those in which speech takes shape exclusively through the permutation of a very small number of elements. 

The most mathematical combinatory strategy consists of systematically exhausting every arrangement possible. This is what the poet Brion Gysin does, three centuries after Molière, in his Permutation poems, the first of which, “I am that I am”, is the most well-known: he combines the five words of this phrase from the Bible in every way possible, resulting in a poem of 5x4x3x2x1=120 lines (note that Gysin does not deduct the duplicates produced by the fact that the elements “I” and “am” are repeated in the initial phrase). 

The combination of a very small number of elements is sometimes used as a conceptual technique. It can be heard in this press conference by Donald Rumsfeld, during which the then-Secretary of Defense opposes the terms “known” and “unknown” to draft something like a personal epistemology: there is what we know we know; there is what we know we don’t know; and there is what we don’t know we don’t know (Rumsfeld does not run through the entire combination, as he neglects its fourth term, namely that which we know we know). 

Our collection contains other examples of this kind of closed permutation, though these show no will to exhaust every possibility; for reasons linked to the activity they are engaged in, the speaker in cases like these has access to a limited number of words whose usage depends on an external activity (see the entry on Indexations). Such is the case when having fun naming colors that appear onscreen in the game Guitar Hero; when playing the TV game Les Chiffres et les lettres, or when commenting a soccer game by naming the players, one by one, whenever they have the ball. 

Open Combinations

The most common combinations, however, are those in which a finite number of elements are redistributed while being mixed in with other suitable terms. The more the recurrence of identical terms is spaced out, the more open the combination will be. 

Among open yet tightly bound combinations, one can find situations in which the speaker’s discourse is primarily based on a small number of words or phrases that emerge regularly and in disorder: such is the case of these two people (Cherche chève, Allez poulette) who are once again addressing a dog (addressing animals is decidedly conducive to combinations). The same is true of this man having a panic attack in an airplane

In documents like Mer agitée des pluies, Nine seventy five, Calculer une intégrale, or I dupli u stranu, the speaker’s professional occupation (respectively: a shipping forecast presenter, an auctioneer, a mathematics professor, a gym coach) involves necessary recourse to a certain number of specialized terms that regularly return to delineate, punctuate, and pace their discourse. Natural language serves to unbind (in the culinary sense of the term) the necessary repetition of these terms. 

The combinatory effects mentioned in the examples above appear to be purely coincidental. But combinatorics can also serve as an intentional rhetorical resource. Such is the case of the documents Tapiner dans le 9.2, Des démons, Filles et femmes du monde entier, in which one can hear how the recurrence and combination of a small number of words allows for insistence, reformulation, conviction, or intimidation. An even more spectacular example can be found in Catalan soccer commentator Josep Maria Puyal celebrating a goal by Messi, improvising as if in a modernist poem. 

As noted regarding Brion Gysin, permutation is a technique commonly used in poetry by the avant-garde, especially in constructivism. Gertrude Stein is likely the poet to have most employed it, and most systematically. It can also be heard, even without speaking Arabic, in this poem recited by Mahmoud Darwich, or with Christophe Tarkos

These same effects and strategies are often used by hypnotists, whether in French or in English. The rhetorics of hypnotic induction are indeed primarily based on the rhythmic play of repetition-variation that allows for both dulling the patient’s vigilance and imperceptibly pushing the discourse forward. 

In certain special cases, combination takes place at the level of phonemes, syllables, vowels, and consonants, rather than words: such is the case of Raymond Devos with the syllables “sou” and “su”, of this tongue-twister which combines alliterations in “b”, of Gherasim Luca in his famous poem “Passionnément”, and of Raoul Hausmann

Orbital Combinations

In a certain number of open combinations, speech revolves around a single element that is repeated, declined, or conjugated with other terms. It functions as the point of reference around which all sorts of variations are combined. 

This often serves to insist upon something. Such is the case of this interview with Louis-Ferdinand Céline; the repetition of the terms “heavy” and “heaviness” occurs in a new arrangement each time, to boost it and give it new weight. In a similar way, this German personal development coach hinges his entire discourse on the term “problem”, making it by turns subject and predicate of his utterances. The same is true of the word “clochard” (bum) in this enlightened monologue on the metro.

A phenomenon specific to these orbital combinations: speech is built around a single term that is modulated across its grammatical forms (called “polyptotons” in rhetorics). For example, this telephone message, in which the utterances “he called me”, “I’m going to call him back”, “I called him”, “I have to call him back”, “to call him back”, “thanks for having called me back” are combined. A similar use of polyptotons can be heard in this other poem by Christophe Tarkos, or with Allen Ginsberg.

Accidental Combinations

Sometimes involuntary combinations are produced by the lack of understanding or repeated errors of a participant. 

This can happen in the context of a dialogue. Such is the case of Fernand Raynaud, who, in this record released for his friends, takes a malicious pleasure in a certain Jacky Bernard’s inability to present his piece. We encounter almost exactly the same situation in this phone conversation in Estonia (minus the malice). 

In the style of Donald Rumsfeld’s aforementioned “political conceptualization”, though with less logical rigor, we have this excerpt of a speech by Nicolas Sarkozy.

That said, the comedian Pierre Repp remains the master and genius of this (false) clumsiness, vertiginously mixing and combining words, expressions, sounds, and syllables.

  • 'Ana min huna

    Mahmoud Darwich reading a poem, excerpt from the documentary “Mahmoud Darwich et la terre comme langue” from Simone Bitton, 1998.

  • Allez poulette

    Excerpt of a training session, YouTube video, 2012.

  • Attention d'vant là-bas les gars

    Poitou farmer’s call, excerpt of the recording Voix du Monde : une anthologie des expressions orales, 1986.

  • Au-delà de la langue

    Jean-Luc Godard, excerpt from an Intagram live, 2020.

  • Basket of biscuits

    Radio test, excerpt of a recording for the film Tongue Twisters by Érik Bullot, 2007.

  • Bloquez-moi ce port

    Message posted on Youtube, 2019.

  • C'est bizarre

    Yves, excerpt of the film Le Moindre Geste by Fernand Deligny, 1962-1971.

  • Calculer une intégrale

    Leçon de mathématiques, excerpt of a YouTube video, 2008.

  • Che belle patate

    Market scene, 2019

  • Cherche chèves

    Noëlle Obscarskas, YouTube video, 2012.

  • Cheval-mouvement

    Olivier Cadiot, excerpt of the text Mr Solo, personal recording, 1980s.

  • Consonne, voyelle

    Excerpt of the television game show Des chiffres et des lettres, Antenne 2, 1972.

  • Couché, assis, debout

    Training session, excerpt of a YouTube video.

  • Dadada dadada da

    Baby dialogue, YouTube video, 2012.

  • Deeper to sleep

    Excerpt of a hypnosis recording, unknown date.

  • Des démons

    Scène from the subway, recording by Martin Juvanon du Vachat, 2016.

  • Double Rainbow

    Guy "Bear" Vasquez, YouTube video, 2010.

  • Dubh-bhlian

    Annie Johnston, excerpt of a recording by Alan Lomax Bird Imitations, Barra island (Scotland), 1951


  • Est-ce qu'on bullshit exprès ?

    Sebastian Dieguez, Florian Delorme, excerpt of L'invité de Matins, France Culture, 2018.

  • Everybody must be loved

    Idi Amin Dada, excerpt from a Council of Ministers, 1970s.

  • F.O.U.T.R.E.

    Message left on Martin Juvanon de Vachat's voicemail, 2017.

  • Gagner la scène

    Jacques Martin, excerpt of the show L'École des fans, France 2, 1990s.

  • Help me shoot me

    Scene from a panicked airplane, YouTube video, 2009.

  • I am that I am

    Brion Gysin, excerpt from the compilation Mektoub: Recordings 1960-81, 1996

  • I hear a sound of victory

    Paula White, excerpt from a preaching in support of the recount during the U.S. presidential election, 2020. 

  • I'm not a threat

    Man protesting as he is threatened by police, YouTube, 2014.

  • Ideas are beautiful

    David Lynch, excerpt from an interview with Hikari Takano, 2006

  • Ils étaient lourds

    Louis-Ferdinand Céline, excerpt of the show Lectures pour tous, ORTF, 1957.

  • J'espère vraiment qu'ça va s'arrêter

    Jérôme, excerpt from the show Radio Tisto, l’émission des jeunes de l’hôpital de jour d’Antony, Radio Libertaire, 2020.

  • Ja sam magnet za novac

    Video session of Emotional Freedom Technique, YouTube, 2013

  • Jauuuuuuune

    Guys playing Guitar Hero, video posted on YouTube, 2012.

  • Je me peigne

    Christophe Tarkos, poem recorded for the review Boxon, 1999

  • Je vais le rappeler

    Voicemail message, 2011. 

  • Kili kili kili kolum

    Raoul Hausmann, excerpt of Phonèmes, 1956-1957.

  • L'argument de Saint Anselme

    Tristan Garcia, excerpt of the lecture Laisser être et rendre puissant, 2017.

  • La fête au pain d'épices

    Pierre Repp, excerpt of the comedy sketch “Les Crêpes,” 1960s.

  • Le rossignol d'Aznavour

    Jacky Bernard and Fernand Raynaud, excerpt of the recording Les secrets du music-hall dévoilés par Jacky Bernard published by Fernand Raynaud, 1965.

  • Loupiote

    Scene from Paris at night, personal recording, 2013.

  • Mer agitée, des pluies

    Marie-Pierre Planchon, excerpt from La météo marine, France Inter, 2009. 

  • Messi, Messi, Messi

    Josep Maria Puyal, excerpt from a soccer commentary, Catalunya Ràdio, 2007.

  • Minez vos nations mi mais do

    Gherasim Luca, reading of the poem “Passionnément”, 1986. 

  • Moses supposes

    Excerpt from the film Singin’ in the Rain by Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1952. 

  • Nine seventy-five

    John Korrey, excerpt of an auction, excerpt from the DVD Chant of a Champion, 2007.

  • No, you didn't

    The Monty Python, excerpt of The Monty Python's Flying Circus, 1972.

  • Partagez un max

    Street scene, extract from a livestream on Periscope, 2018.


  • Petit pot de beurre

    French pronunciation exercises, recording by Joris Lacoste, 2013.

  • Probleme sind Geschenke

    Excerpt of a self-development seminar, Germany, 2014.

  • Satan est un clochard

    Soliloquy on a subway platform, personal recording, 2016.

  • Tapiner dans le 9.2

    Morsay Truand 2 la Galère, video posted on YouTube, 2008.

  • The sundance kid is beautiful

    Christopher Knowles, excerpt of the performance A Letter to Queen Victoria: The Sundance Kid is Beautiful, 1975.

  • Tu es à moi et je suis à toi

    Redjep Mitrovitsa, excerpt of the performance Le Journal de Nijinski recorded for France Culture, 1996.

  • Üks kuus üks üks viis

    Elion's company customer service, year unknown.

  • Una especie de tinta negra

    Excerpt of a ASMR meditation sound session, YouTube, 2014.

  • Unknown unknowns

    Donald Rumsfeld, excerpt from a press conference, circa 2003

  • Veu wreu rah n'importe quoi

    Excerpt of a personal recording by Gauthier Tassart, 2007.

  • We bomb

    Allen Ginsberg, excerpt of a reading of the poem “Hum Bom!”, 1994.

  • What is compromise ?

    Eartha Kitt, excerpt of the documentary All by Myself: The Eartha Kitt Story, 1982.

  • Would he like it ?

    Gertrude Stein, reading of the poem “If I Told Him, A Completed Portrait of Picasso,” 1934-1935.

I hear a sound of victory

Paula White, excerpt from a preaching in support of the recount during the U.S. presidential election, 2020. 

Partagez un max

Street scene, extract from a livestream on Periscope, 2018.