Using REMIND in my French classes:
Remind, formerly Remind, is a free text messaging app that helps teachers, students, and parents communicate quickly and efficiently. By connecting school communities, Remind makes it easy for everyone to succeed together. Remind is based in San Francisco, CA and is used by more than 35 million people in 3 out of 4 U.S. school districts.
- Instructions for Students and Parents….click=>
- Instructions for Students and Parents….click=>
- Instructions for Students and Parents….click=>
Students use it: “I use Remind for every aspect of my education. Academically, I get updates and reminders from my teachers. In my extracurriculars, it’s a great way to highlight upcoming meetings, activities, and events. And, as the cofounder of a nonprofit organization, Bark in the Park KTX, I use Remind to call for volunteers and keep them up to date.”
High school junior at Duluth High School, GA
Parents appreciate it: “I appreciate the short Remind texts about a lesson that was taught so that I can initiate a conversation about a specific moment from the school day. They’ve helped to change the conversation with my child at home from ‘Eh, my day was fine’ to one where they share details—and at times, excitement—about what they learned.”
Mom of 3 and PTO president, GA
Experiences of an English speaker
- What would it be like to speak French fluently?
- Section 1: Words and expressions
- The basics of spoken French
- Conversational tics
- Synonyms for good
- Inventing new words
- Everyday differences
- Common knowledge
- Tu versus vous
- Meeting and parting
- The newness of language
- Language change and “bad” grammar
- Learning new words
- Cute words and expressions
- Section 2: Comparisons with English
- French sounds more complicated
- French sounds simpler
- French sounds too categorical
- French gives a more negative impression
- Learning new words in English via French
- An explosion of words
- Nonexistent words in French or English
- Number of words for expressing a given concept
- Inversion in statements
- English-sounding French expressions
- False friends
- Phrasal verbs
- Noun-noun combinations
- Punctuation differences
- Common mistakes made by English speakers in French
- Section 3: Fine points
- Looking Back
- Further Reading
- Additional commonly-used words and phrases
What would it be like to speak French fluently?
I fell in love with the French language when I began studying it in high school. After visiting Paris for a week and living with a French family for three weeks, I loved it even more. I wondered what it would be like to learn to speak French fluently:
Is there a single moment when the language finally clicks and you understand it? When can you speak it? How long does it take? Once you can understand and speak it, does it feel as natural as English? Can you distinguish different dialects-both accents and vocabulary? In the same way as English dialects? How much are the differences between English and French cultural?
I didn’t know whether I would ever find out the answers to these questions. Then years later, I was given the opportunity by my employer to transfer to their Paris office. I lived in France for three years, during which I kept a record of words, expressions, and perceptions.
I have organized this into three major sections, each consisting of short chapters. The first section discusses various French words and expressions, the second concentrates on comparisons between French and English (though such comparisons are made in the other sections as well), and the third discusses some of the finer points of French. At the end, I will review the above questions and attempt to answer them.
It is assumed the reader knows some basic French, though translations will be provided. Examples will be given in Parisian French and American English-what I am familiar with. I have tried to provide translations which are as accurate and idiomatic as possible in my dialect of English. (Though some readers will undoubtedly find them “too American”.)
Section 1: Words and expressions
The basics of spoken French
When I first arrived in France while in high school, I was surprised to learn that ne is often omitted in spoken French:
written French spoken French English________________________ _____________________ ____________________________Il n’est pas trčs cher. Il est pas trčs cher. It’s not very expensive.Je ne sais pas. Je sais pas. I don’t know.Je ne vois plus Corinne. Je vois plus Corinne. I don’t see Corinne anymore.Cela ne sert ŕ rien. Ca sert ŕ rien. It’s of no use.Ne bouge pas! Bouge pas! Freeze!
ne is never deleted in written French.
In French before a vowel, le and la become l’, que becomes qu’, and so on. In spoken French there are even more contractions:
Je ne sais pas. J’sais pas. I don’t know.Tu es fou. T’es fou. You’re crazy.Il ne faut pas le dire. Faut pas le dire. You shouldn’t say it.tout ce qu’ils font tout ce qu’i’font everything they dopeut-ętre p’t’ęt’ maybe
J’sais pas is pronounced jsaispas. It is often contracted further to ché pas and in the extreme becomes simply chpas. To sound authentic, you must pronounce the ch sound twice, and say chché pas. Je suis is also shortened to chchuis.
Questions are formed without the inversion or est-ce que usually taught in French class:
written French spoken French English______________________ _________________________ ____________________Qui est-ce? C’est qui? or Qui c’est? Who is it?Oů vas-tu? Oů tu vas? Where are you going? or Tu vas oů?Comment t’appelles-tu? Tu t’appelles comment? What’s your name? or Comment tu t’appelles?Quel âge as-tu? T’as quel âge? How old are you? or Quel âge t’as?
A rising voice pitch or intonation is used in yes/no questions such as the following, to distinguish them from declarative sentences:
Ne trouves-tu pas? Tu trouves pas? Don’t you think?Est-elle sortie? Elle est sortie? Did she leave?
Extra pronouns at the beginning or end of the sentence are very often used for emphasis:
Ché pas, moi. I dunno.Moi, ché pas. I dunno.Moi, j’pense que… I think…C’est important, ça. That’s important.Ca, c’est important. That’s important.
There are some very common reflex-like phrases. To express agreement:
C’est ça. That’s right.Effectivement. Indeed.En effet. Right.Justement. Exactly./As a matter of fact, yes./That’s the thing.Tout ŕ fait. Absolutely.Absolument. Absolutely.Exactement. Exactly.Exact./C’est exact. That’s right./That’s correct.Voilŕ. Right./There you are.Bien sűr. Of course.Eh oui. I’m afraid so./You got it.Bon. Fine. (can also mean “fine!” as in not fine)D’accord. OK.
oui is pronounced a variety of ways. Listening to my coworkers talking on the phone, I noticed they would say oui (yes) at first and then ouais (yeah). The first oui was more of a “Yes, how may I help you?” or “Yes, got it” and the later ouais more of a “Yes, right.”
The ee sound in oui-for that matter all final ee and oo (as in tout) sounds in French-are often pronounced with an extra air hissing/blowing sound or constricted flow of air.
oui is often pronounced with what sounds to me like a “smiling” sound.
When interjecting ouais while the other person is speaking, to indicate you are following, it is often pronounced by inhaling air into the mouth instead of exhaling from the lungs as is normally the case.
Ways of saying what:
Comment? What?Quoi? (less formal) What?Hein? (even less formal) Huh?Pardon? (more formal) Pardon?Oui? What?Comment ça? What do you mean?C’est ŕ dire? What do you mean?C’est quoi, ça? What’s that?
Some other very frequent short phrases:
Ah bon? Really?Bien sűr. Yeah, right. (said ironically to express disbelief)Ca y est? So, are you ready?/Are you all set?/Got it?Ca y est. There we are./That’s it./I’m all set./Got it!Ca va. I’m OK.Ca se voit. It shows./You can tell.Ca va de soi. That goes without saying.Ca n’a rien ŕ voir. That has nothing to do with it./No comparison./ It’s like night and day.C’est ça? Is that it?C’est pas grave. That’s all right./It doesn’t matter.C’est evident. It’s obvious.C’est pas evident. It’s not so easy. (to do, to figure out)C’est pas vrai ! I can’t believe it!/You’ve got to be kidding!Je n’en sais rien. I have no idea.Je ne sais plus. I don’t know anymore.Je m’en fous. I couldn’t care less.Męme pas. Not even.On y va? Shall we go?Oů ça? Where?Qu’est-ce que tu racontes? What are you talking about?Vas-y ! Go ahead!
Synonyms for good
In English, every few years the word for good changes: Before I was born, things were jimdandy, hunky-dory, peachy-keen, nifty, the cat’s pajamas. In the 60’s, they were groovy, heavy, in, and neat. In the 70’s, cool, hip, the most, and out of this world. In the 80’s, awesome, killer, happening, hot, and totally rad. In the 90’s, rockin, slammin, huge, fat, strong, and to die for (with cool making a comeback). There are many such words and they vary regionally and from crowd to crowd. Life is (was?) wicked pisser in Boston, bitchen and tubular in California, brill, grand, smashing, and glitter in England.
The same is true in French. Besides bien and bon, the most frequent adjectives meaning good nowadays are génial, sympa, sublime, super, and cool. C’est génial ! C’est sympa ! Ta robe, elle est sublime ! Young kids say extra and géant. (There’s a cereal called Extra and the slogan for La Géode, a planetarium dome in Paris, is C’est géant ! Géant does also mean giant.)
The word extręme (extreme, total) is currently very popular in the mass media. There is a television series called Extręme Limite (Extreme Limit) and an ice cream called Extręme. Even insurance is advertised as being extręme.
Slightly older expressions still used are: chouette, épatant, fabuleux, formidable, formide, fumant, impeccable, impec. Using the prefixes hyper-, super-, méga-, archi-, and ultra-, more words can be formed: super-bon, super-bien, hyper-chouette, super-sympa, méga-génial.
terrible can mean good or bad depending on the context. Originally the word meant inspiring terror and it is still used with this meaning. Then around 1587 it acquired the meanings of dreadful and awful. And since 1664, the word also means tremendous, so that more recently one might hear c’est un type terrible (he’s a fantastic guy) or c’est pas terrible (it’s not so great). terrible is not so different from the English mean and bad, which can also mean either good or bad.
C’est le pied ! means It’s a blast! or It’s the most!
C’est le top ! or C’est top ! means It’s the best!
C’est classe ! means That’s classy!
More lasting and neutral words-similar to English fabulous, fantastic, great, incredible, marvelous, sensational, superb, wonderful, and so on-are: excellent, exceptionnel, extraordinaire, fabuleux, fantastique, incroyable, louable, magnifique, merveilleux, sensationnel, and superbe.
On a cereal box with a bear on it, it says C’est oursement bon ! inventing the new adverb oursement by analogy to vachement (slang for very)-vache means cow and ours means bear.
There are also many ways of saying bad. Ca craint is That’s no good or That’s worrying and craignos means scary/worrying. C’est chiant is That sucks, and Ca me fait chier means That pisses me off. C’est con is That’s stupid. (The French expressions in this paragraph are stronger than the English translations I have given. Use with discretion.)
English speakers punctuate their sentences with like, well, um, and you know. Words such as these might seem meaningless but there is a certain utility to them. French has similar words.
You very often hear quoi at the end of a sentence. It’s an exclamation and hedge word which doesn’t have a single equivalent in English:
Elle est jolie, quoi. She’s sort of pretty.La vie, quoi! Life, you know what I mean!Voilŕ quoi./Et puis voilŕ quoi. And that’s about it. (= no more to say)C’est une espčce de légume quoi. It’s kind of a vegetable thingy.
You often hear quoi at the end of a summarizing sentence after a long explanation-similar to in short and in other words in English.
espčce de, which means kind of or type of, is also very frequently used for insults:
Espčce de con! You stupid idiot! (stronger in French)Espčce d’imbécile! You fool!
Another very frequent expression is quand męme, which translates differently to English in different situations:
Je crois que les choses sont claires quand męme. I think that things are clear, aren’t they? Le pain c’était quand męme délicieux. The bread was actually quite delicious. C’est quand męme trčs trčs gęnant. This is still very very annoying. C’est quand męme extraordinaire! That’s really fantastic! Oui, mais quand męme! Yes, but still! Quand męme! Really!
A frequent expression is en fait, with the t pronounced:
Ce n’est pas mal, en fait. It’s actually not so bad.En fait, elle est assez sympa. Actually she’s quite nice.
Another frequent word is enfin:
Yves-et-Simone répondent ŕ une interview en anglais-enfin c’est Simone qui répond… Yves and Simone answer an interviewer’s questions in English-well actually it’s Simone who answers… Avec la Marquise, enfin la veuve du Duc, … With the marchioness-that is, the Duke’s widow- … Elle est blonde, enfin plutôt rousse. She’s a blond-mmm, more of a redhead. Mais enfin, arrętez! Come on already! Stop it! Enfin, je crois. At least I think so. Mais enfin. But really now. Mais enfin bon. But anyway.
The exact meaning of quand męme and enfin depends a lot on what tone of voice is used.
There is no exact equivalent to English like which can be inserted almost anywhere in a sentence, although comme is sometimes used in a similar way:
Il y a comme une similitude de situation …
There’s like a similarity in the situation … There is sort of a similarity in the situation … There’s a certain similarity in the situation …
In French you might also say:
Il y a une sorte de similitude de situation … Il y a une espčce de similitude de situation … Il y aurait comme une similitude de situation … On dirait qu’il y a une similitude de situation …
truc (thing, thingy) and machin have various meanings:
Ce n’est pas son truc. That’s not his thing.Elle a le truc. She’s got a knack for it.J’ai trouvé ce machin par terre. I found this thingy on the ground.J’ai un truc ŕ te dire. I have something to tell you.Il y a un truc. There’s a trick to it.Les prix sont-ils truqués? Are prices rigged?Machin/Machin-truc what’s-his-face/what’s-his-nameMachine what’s-her-face/what’s-her-nametrucage special effects (in a film)
disons (shall we say) is another hedge word:
Disons deux fois par semaine. About twice a week.
If you say oh lŕ lŕ in an annoyed tone, it means come on or give me a break. If you say it in a consoling tone, it means there there. If you say it in a positive tone, it means oh boy!
bof is an interjection expressing indifference or slight negativeness. This is similar to an interjection used by some English speakers on occasion and difficult to reproduce in print-something like eh or ieh. La bof génération is the Whatever generation.
You hear hop, et hop, and allez hop more often in French than you hear alley-oop in English (which comes from the French). The h is sometimes pronounced as in English.
Other common French interjections:
aďe ouchaďe aďe aďe uy uy uy/oh dear/oychiche ! I dare you!coucou peek-a-booet tac ! so there!eh ben tac ! so there!hélas alasmiaou meowooo ooo ! yoo-hoo!oups ! oops!/whoops!youpi ! yippie!/yay!
Inventing new words
Just as you can make up new words in English, you can do this in French.
One common way is to lop off the end of word. The words below are all commonly heard:
Clipped form Complete form English____________ ______________ __________________________________appart appartement apartmentbac baccalauréat baccalaureate (diploma, age 17-18)bénef bénéfice profit, advantagecata catastrophe disastercertif certificat certificate (various diplomas)chrono chronomčtre stopwatchcompil compilation compilation (CD)conf conférence conference, lectured’ac d’accord OKdémago démagogue popularity seeker, demagoguedispo disponible available, in stockfac faculté universityfrigo frigidaire (old trademark for) refrigeratorgaucho gauchiste leftistimpec impeccable perfect, greatimper imperméable raincoatintello intellectuel intellectuellabo laboratoire lab/laboratorymanif manifestation protestmanip manipulation manipulationmécano mécanicien mechanicmélo mélodrame melodramamob mobylette (trademark for) mopedpara parachutiste parachutistparano paranoďa paranoiapérif périphérique beltway (around Paris)petit-déj’ petit-déjeuner breakfastphilo philosophie philosophyproc procureur prosecutorpub publicité ad/advertisementrécré récréation recessrépčte répétition rehearsalresto restaurant restaurantsadomaso sadomasochiste sadomasochistscénar scénario scriptsympa sympatique great, nicesynthé synthétiseur synth/synthesizertoxico toxicomane drug addictvérif verification verification, check
fisc is commonly used as an abbreviation for administration fiscale (the French equivalent of the IRS). It sounds (even to native French speakers) as if it is a clipped form of fiscale, but it has a separate existence, having come directly from the Latin fiscus.
distinguo (fine distinction) is directly from Latin.
The linguist Henriette Walter points out that clipped words are not a 20th Century phenomenon-words such as rep (reputation) and incog (incognito) were very popular in 18th Century English.
In a restaurant, the waiter asks the cook for un jour (= plat du jour/today’s special).
Another way of creating new words is by adding suffixes. age is a very commonly used to form new masculine nouns out of nouns or verbs:
Original word Derived word____________________ ______________________________________bruit (noise) bruitage (sound effects)déraper (to skid) dérapage (skidding, loss of control)essorer (spin-dry) essorage (spin-dry cycle)redémarrer (restart) redémarrage (recovery, said of economy)
The installation instructions for a curtain rod said:
Pour scier la tringle, retirer le pouliage.
I couldn’t find pouliage in the dictionary, but I did find poulie which means pulley. So pouliage means something like pulley mechanism. This is a rare word-a search of the web using the French search engine éclia turned up only once use: pouliage Harken de contrôle de la trinquette.
collage, a word already very familiar to English speakers, comes from coller (to glue, stick).
There was a movie on TV having lots of fun with the word cocu (cuckold in English, a man whose wife has cheated on him). They used a number of derived words which are in the dictionary-cocuage, cocufier-but also one which wasn’t-cocuficateur.
At the same time I was learning French, I was also learning various little differences between the way things are done in France versus the U.S. They seem trivial in retrospect, but they were definitely noticeable at first. For example, when dining in France, you put the napkin in your lap right before the waiter sets down the dish or right before taking the first bite of food, while in the U.S., you put the napkin in your lap immediately after sitting down.
There is a kind of Melba toast I like which is available in any grocery store in France. The only problem is that the toasts are always breaking on me. I always wondered why such good toasts weren’t available in the U.S. and then one day I noticed on the package:
Le Truc Pour beurrer vos biscottes sans les briser, empilez en trois et tartinez celle du dessus avec un beurre pas trop ferme. The Trick To butter your Melba toasts without breaking them, stack them three-high and butter the top one with butter which is not too firm.
That’s when I understood that this product is just too user-unfriendly to survive in the American market.
At many places which sell food and have tables, with the exception of Quick and McDonalds (nicknamed MacDo, pronounced MagDo, analogous to the English Mickey D’s), you are expected to sit down and be waited upon. You only buy at the counter if you are taking out. No tip is generally expected at the counter.
In restaurants in France, a service charge is either added to the price of each dish (service compris), or added to the total bill (service non compris). So either way, a service charge is already included in the total. In addition to the service charge, you leave an additional 5-10% tip on the table for the waiter/waitress (serveur/serveuse). You are not supposed to tip the patron (owner).
You tip taxi drivers and hairdressers about the same way you would in the U.S.
In many shops and department stores in France, you don’t pay the salesperson, obtain the desired items, and leave. First the salesperson gives you a ticket for the items and you then go to a cashier (caisse) to pay. Then you bring the payment receipt back to the salesperson who gives you the purchased items. In a smaller shop the salesperson may bring the items to the cashier for you. (Since returning to the U.S. I have noticed that this model exists here as well: In Sam Ash music stores in Manhattan, you pay at the cashier and the salesperson brings you your merchandise. Or when ordering takeout at the Carnegie Deli, you order your sandwich at the counter, pay at the cashier, and bring back a ticket to get the sandwich.)
The cover story often appears at the beginning of a French magazine. In the U.S., the cover story is never at the front-the advertisers get to try to sell you a few products first. In French magazines the beginning of an article is often reused verbatim as the squib which appears in the table of contents. In the U.S. if it is reused it is more heavily edited.
Even in one of the more respected newspapers such as Le Monde, headlines are designed more to grab your attention than to give the key point of the article. Instead of a lead which elaborates on the headline, you may have to read all the way to the end of the article to find what the headline was referring to. Headlines in French are ordinary noun phrases or sentences, unlike headlines in English which are in an abbreviated, telegraphic style (obtained by removing articles and be).
In French newspapers, the journalist is permitted-perhaps even expected-to editorialize in every article, whereas in the U.S. articles are supposed to at least convey an impression of objectivity. In January 1995, Le Monde began a separate Op-Ed page patterned after those of Anglo-American newspapers, in a halfhearted attempt to separate editorial from informational articles.
There seem to be topics which come in waves in all the electronic and print media. One week incest was everywhere. The next week it was the origin of the human species in evolution. And the next it seemed everyone was debating the origin of the number zero. If you flip between two television news shows, you will often find they are on the same story at the same time. I’m not exaggerating-in fact Jean-François Kahn recently came out with a whole book on this copycat phenomenon called La Pensée Unique.
In France typewriter and computer keyboards have the A and Q keys reversed, Z and W reversed, and M moved to the right of L. I find it’s not that difficult to learn the new key locations. Even after years of typing on a qwerty keyboard, in a few days my fingers adapt to azerty. If I switch back to qwerty, I make mistakes but then re-adapt.
When I moved back to the United States, I noticed the various differences in reverse. One thing I had to unlearn was giving my last name first, instead of my first name first. (The last name is given first in French when filling out a form. Otherwise, the normal order in French is the same as English-first name followed by last name.) I also found myself starting to say What are we? analogous to On est le combien aujourd’hui ? instead of What’s today’s date?. (In English we also say What is it today? or even just What is it?.)
French TV show hosts say voici les publicités (here are the commercials) or we’ll be back aprčs les pubs (after the commercials)-an American host would never even think the word commercial. Only rarely is a euphemism such as pause (break) used.
Technical things are referred to more often than in American broadcasting:
Les Nationaux de Tennis continuent aprčs le générique. The French Open will continue after the titles. Ce journal est terminé. This news show is over.
On France 2 and France 3 commercials don’t usually interrupt a show-they are instead shown in several-minute blocks between shows. On TF1, commercials are shown within a show and between shows as in the U.S.
According to French government regulations, commercials must be clearly separated from programming. Before and after commercials a title saying Publicité (commercials) is always shown. Regulations specify how many commercials may be shown, when, and on what channel. The CSA (French FCC equivalent) pursues violations. When one channel crosses the line, another files a complaint, reminiscent of the way the phone companies are always battling it out in the U.S.
Prime time for sitcoms (sitcoms) on French TV is around 5 to 7 p.m. Some popular French sitcoms produced in video such as Le miracle d’amour (The Miracle of Love) and Premiers baisers (First Kisses) are in a serial format and shown every weekday, like soap operas in the States. Others such as Classe mannequin (Model class) are shown weekly. Quite a few French-made TV movies (téléfilms) and mini-series are shown, but very few French series are produced in film. The quality of French series is lower on average than American ones-to be expected since there is a smaller market over which to collect advertising revenue and amortize production costs.
Many American series such as Beverly Hills and Madame est servi (Who’s the Boss) are shown, dubbed in French (version française). Some series such as Seinfeld are shown in version originale (in the original language with French subtitles), but only on cable. Series from other countries such as Germany are also shown.
The equivalents of the American late-night talk show are on in France each evening from about 6:30 to 8 p.m. Coucou ! (Peek-a-boo!) and Nulle part ailleurs (Nowhere else) are the most popular ones. The talk shows shown later at night, such as Bouillon de culture (Culture Hotbed/Broth) or Le Cercle de minuit (The Midnight Club), are more serious discussions about books or theater, similar to Charlie Rose on PBS in the States.
It’s funny to see American stars appear on French talk shows. Usually they wear a tiny earphone giving a simultaneous English translation and the audience hears a simultaneous French translation of what they say (as in the case of Woody Allen). Other times the host asks questions in English and briefly summarizes their response in French (as in the case of Suzanne Vega, who disappeared during a commercial break, apparently upset about being ignored among the guests or being forced to sing her hit song Luca). Some American stars such as Jodie Foster speak fluent, flawless French, others such as Lauren Bacall speak passable French, while a few brave souls decide to struggle through with whatever little French they may know.
Local news (journal régional) is shown on France 3 at around 7 p.m. and national news (nicknamed le vingt heures) is shown at 8 p.m on TF1 and France 2.
Here are some expressions commonly used on TV or in advertising:
Audimat French Nielsen ratingsbanc d’essai product evaluation (actually test bed)bon de commande order blankcoffret jewel box (for CD or book)dans la limite des stocks disponibles while supplies lastdans un instant nexten direct, direct liveen duplex de Milan (satellite interview from/to Milan)envoi en nombre mass mailingfeuilleton serial, soap operafraîcheur freshness (for personal care products)grand public mass marketgrille (programming schedule of TV station)le deuxičme équivalent ŕ moitié prix buy one, get one for half priceonctueux creamy (for desserts)série, série télévisée series, TV seriestout en douceur with softness (for personal care products)Merci de votre confiance. Thank you for your trust.Merci de votre fidélité. Thank you for your loyalty.une page de publicité a commercial break
K7 is short for cassette: if you pronounce the letter k and number 7, it sounds like cassette-like EZ (easy) in American English.
Some product names are altered:
United States France_____________ ___________Calgonite CalgonitDannon DanoneOil of Olay Oil of OlazOvaltine Ovomaltine
In the U.S., Calgonite is a dishwasher powder, while in France, Calgonit gets rid of the calcaire (calcium deposits) in your sink caused by Parisian water.
Though a French person might know what SNL (Saturday Night Live) is, because old reruns are shown on French cable, few in the U.S. have heard of Patrick Poivre d’Arvor, the news anchor on TF1, much less his popular nickname PPDA. A parody of him named PPD is shown on the nightly Guignols de l’info (or Guignols for short) comedy puppet show on Canal +.
There is a satirical/investigative newspaper called Le Canard Enchaîné, literally The Chained Duck, though canard is also a slang word for newspaper and enchaîner la presse means to shackle the press, so actually The Shackled Rag. When Balladur was prime minister, this paper would refer to him as Ballamou (balle ŕ mou or ball of slack; also, mou means wimp). President Chirac is sometimes referred to as Chichi (fuss).
Some other common knowledge words and phrases in France:
2CV popular tinny car, pronounced deux chevaux (two horsepower) or deucheDST French FBI equivalent (Direction de la surveillance du territoire); also the DPSD, SGDN, DGSE, DRM, and COSCM2 cours moyen deuxičme année (fifth year of primary school)Formule 1 Grand Prix racingMr. Allgood nickname of Jacques Toubon (tout bon = all good), the minister who authored a law banning the use of foreign-language expressions in bills, contracts, user’s manuals, etc. when a French expression exists with the same meaningLa Une the front page of a newspaperLa Une a double-page spread in a magazineLa Une Channel 1 (TF1)La Deux Channel 2 (France 2)…énarque student of the École nationale de administration (very prestigious French graduate school which most high government officials have attended)Normale sup École normale supérieure (prestigious university-level school where Sartre studied)normalien student of the École normale supérieurepolytechnicien, X student of the École polytechnique (very prestigious university-level French school)L’X the École polytechnique
Tu versus vous
When a native French speaker says you in English, mentally it is either a translation of tu (the familiar and singular form) or vous (the formal and plural form). Some expressiveness is lost, but there is no major problem. For the native English speaker learning French, deciding whether to use tu or vous is a bit of a problem.
You might start by using vous, until the person you are speaking to lets you know you can use tu with (or tutoyer) them (though using vous with someone you should use tu with can be just as embarrassing). They will say on se tutoie? Adults always use tu with small children. In many younger circles (less than 25 years old) and when participating in certain sports (other than golf, squash, and tennis) it is natural to use tu right from the start. On Fun Radio, a station on which teenagers call in to discuss their problems, people of all ages tutoyer each other. On the other hand, using tu inappropriately can seem presumptuous-too intimate too soon.
One strategy is to wait until the other person uses tu or vous with you, and follow suit. The trouble is that native French speakers sometimes also do this and they are far more skilled at it.
One time someone who normally uses tu with me used vous and I wondered what was going on. Then I realized she was talking to me and the person next to me-it was the plural vous.
The tu–vous thing isn’t just an issue for English speakers. One of my French friends was complaining that when calling perfect strangers within her company they would use tu. She didn’t want “to have to use tu.” Recently there has been call for a law requiring policemen to use vous when apprehending someone.
Although tu–vous is sometimes a hassle, it can sometimes add an extra dimension of interest to a dramatic work: In the movie L’Effrontée, the 13-year old heroine visits with a virtuoso concert pianist the same age who uses vous with her, underscoring the difference in their worlds. A few seconds later, she uses tu which then seems close in a false way. In the play Le visiteur in which God visits Freud, the God character transitions between tu and vous resulting in a powerful schizophrenic effect: Is it an imposter? Is it really God (who uses tu with humans, as in tu ne tueras point/thou shalt not kill)?
Meeting and parting
There was more to meeting and parting than I had thought.
For hello you say bonjour during the day and bonsoir after sunset. bon matin (good morning) is not used. With close friends you use tu with, you say salut.
When greeting friends or friends of friends, men and women or women and women exchange bises-usually two but sometimes one, three, or four kisses on alternate cheeks. Men and men usually shake hands; good friends might also exchange bises. In business settings, men and women generally shake hands. If you are meeting someone for the first time, you say your name.
To say How are you? it’s Comment allez-vous? or for people you use tu with, Comment ça va? or Ca va? The response is Bien, et vous/toi? or sometimes even just Et toi?
The basic goodbye is au revoir or salut with someone you use tu with.
Various phrases depending on the time of day are also very commonly used:
Bon aprčs-midi. Have a nice afternoon.Bonne journée. Have a nice day. (not made fun of in French)Bonne soirée. Have a good night. (used after sundown)Bonne nuit. Good night. (used late at night)
At the end of the week, you would say bon week-end (have a nice weekend).
It is very frequent in French to say goodbye indicating when you are likely to see the person next:
Ŕ tout de suite. See you in a few minutes.Ŕ tout ŕ l’heure. See you shortly./See you in a bit.Ŕ t’ŕ l’heure. See you shortly./See you in a bit.Ŕ tout’. See you shortly./See you in a bit.Ŕ bientôt. See you soon.Ŕ plus/A+. See you later.Ŕ onze heures. See you at 11.Ŕ cet aprčs-midi. See you this afternoon.Ŕ ce soir. See you tonight.Ŕ demain matin. See you tomorrow morning.Ŕ demain. See you tomorrow.Ŕ la semaine prochaine. See you next week.Ŕ cette semaine. See you in the week.Ŕ lundi, mardi, … See you Monday, Tuesday, …Ŕ la prochaine. See you next time.Adieu. Farewell./Have a nice life.
(In a more formal English, until is substituted for see you.) The above may be combined with au revoir:
Au revoir et ŕ bientôt. Bye. See you soon.
Au revoir can be translated as goodbye in most cases, except:
… et au revoir peut-ętre. … and perhaps we’ll meet again.
A conversation with a friend might be closed this way:
Bon ben écoute, bon week-end et ŕ lundi. OK, have a good weekend and I’ll see you Monday.
ben is pronounced as if it were written bin. It was originally a variation of bien and is now a kind of interjection used in certain canned expressions such as bon ben (OK well), ben oui (well yes), ben non (well no), and eh ben (well).
Another common closing phrase is je te laisse or je vous laisse (similar to I have to go or I’ll let you go).
Allez, au revoir. All right, goodbye. Allez, salut. OK, see you.
Note that allez is used here even with people you use tu with. It is more of an interjection than a command. Allez ! means Come on!
As part of saying goodbye, you again exchange bises (see above) or handshakes.
Before leaving a store, as a rule you say Merci, au revoir. The shopkeeper will either say that or au revoir, merci for (slight) variety.
There are a number of very frequent formules de politesse (polite phrases) in French.
Ways of saying thank you:
Merci. Thanks./Thank you.Merci bien. Thank you very much.Merci beaucoup. Thank you very much.Merci les garçons. Thanks, guys.Je vous remercie beaucoup. Thank you very much.Je te remercie beaucoup. Thank you very much.Merci infiniment. Thank you very much.Mille mercis. Thanks a million. (not ironic)Merci mille fois. Thanks a million. (not ironic)Merci quand męme. Thanks anyway.Non, merci./Merci. No thanks.Oui, merci. Yes, thank you.
In the polite style, you must specify who you are addressing, as in Merci, monsieur and Merci, madame.
Ways of saying you’re welcome:
Je vous en prie. Don’t mention it.Je t’en prie. Don’t mention it.De rien. Not at all.Il n’y a pas de quoi. Not at all.C’est moi qui vous remercie. Thank you.C’est moi. Thank you. (A shopkeeper might say this.)Tout le plaisir est pour moi. The pleasure is mine.
The verb in je vous en prie is prier, literally to pray or to beg. I beg of you may seem excessively polite, but you have to realize the phrase is not perceived (sentie/felt) this way by a French speaker. Similarly in English you sometimes say I beg your pardon? without thinking about begging or pardons at all.
At first when I would say something like
Je vous propose d’aller voir un film.
it would seem too formal. The word propose in English is used mostly in business meetings or to refer to marriage proposals, but in French it is very common and simply means suggest.
Je vous en prie and je t’en prie are used in other situations: In response to a request for permission to do something it means please go ahead or please do. When asking someone to stop doing something it means please. It can also mean after you.
When making your way through a crowd or after bumping into someone, you say pardon, excusez-moi, or je m’excuse.
When asking for something it is standard to include s’il vous plaît or s’il te plaît (please). In written French there are a number of phrases for saying please:
Pričre de … Please … (used on signs)Veuillez … Please … (used on signs)Je vous prie de … Kindly … Je vous serais reconnaissant(e) de bien vouloir …/Je vous prie de bien vouloir … I would be grateful if you would … Nous vous saurions gré de …/Nous vous prions de bien vouloir … We would be grateful if you would … Vous ętes prié(e)(s) de … You are cordially invited to …
These phrases do tend to be longer in French-a simple please can become nous vous saurions gré de bien vouloir.
On signs the infinitive is generally used instead of the imperative:
Ne pas fumer. Do not smoke.Bien fermer la porte. Close door carefully.
Sometimes the third person singular is used:
Se boit trčs frais. Serve chilled.Peut ętre ouvert par le service postal. May be opened by the postal service.
At the end of a letter, where in English you use Sincerely or Sincerely yours, there are a number of longer phrases in French.
A man writing to a man uses:
Recevez, Monsieur, l’assurance de mes sentiments les meilleurs.Recevez, Monsieur, l’assurance de mes sentiments distingués.Recevez, Monsieur, l’assurance de mes sentiments cordiaux.
Veuillez agréer, Monsieur, l’assurance de mes sentiments lesmeilleurs.Je vous prie d’agréer, Monsieur, l’assurance de mes sentiments lesmeilleurs.Je vous prie de croire, Monsieur, en l’assurance de mes sentimentsrespectueux.
The classic formal version is:
Je vous prie d’agréer, Monsieur, l’expression de mes sentimentsdistingués.
A literal translation of these expressions would run something like please accept the assurance of my best feelings but really they are just a way of saying yours faithfully. They remind me of obsolete English phrases such as your obedient servant.
A woman writing to a woman uses formulas similar to the above, with Monsieur replaced with Madame of course.
Formal letters between men and women are not supposed to use the word sentiments. Instead you write:
Veuillez agréer, Madame, mes plus respectueux hommages.Veuillez agréer, Monsieur, l’expression de ma considérationdistinguée.
There are many slight variations of the above and vague rules about what to use in different situations. Only rarely will you see a more creative version:
Nous vous prions de croire ŕ notre envie de danser avec vous.Please accept our wish to dance with you.
This was the closing of an invitation to the Bal Moderne (Modern Ball)-a yearly event in Paris where established choreographers teach new dances to any interested amateur.
When writing to close friends, it’s je t’embrasse (literally I kiss you).
The largest elevators in France would be considered small in the States. Once I collided a woman as she was coming out of one and I said excusez-moi to which she responded décidément ! (decidedly!). This is yuppiespeak in French.
Some yuppie or related words:
arriviste carreeristbon chic bon genre, BCBG preppiecarriériste carreeristfou de boulot workaholicjeune cadre dynamique yuppieNAP preppie from Neuilly, Auteuil, or Passynouveau riche nouveau richeparvenu nouveau richerequin sharkyuppie yuppieyuppiste yuppie (adjective)
The information superhighway is l’autoroute de l’information or l’autoroute numérique or l’autoroute électronique or l’infoduc.
The Internet in French is Internet, usually without the definite article but sometimes with, depending on the speaker. It is also known as le Net (the net) or le Réseau (the net). Internet is not to be confused with internat, which can mean boarding school and internship.
The word for email in French is email, not to be confused with émail (enamel), though the more officially recognized term is courrier électronique (electronic mail).
Usenet news is les news de Usenet . A newsgroup is un forum, un groupe Usenet, un groupe, or un niouzegroupe. A résospectateur is a passive reader of net news or lurker in English, by analogy to téléspectateur (television viewer). réso is short for réseau (network). A FAQ (frequently asked questions) is a FAQ or foire aux questions.
A fax is un fax or une télécopie.
pas assez de garde-fous contre les fausses manoeuvres means insufficient idiot-proofing. Otherwise, garde-fous means railing.
Some other cyberterms:
bouché hosed (as in the system is hosed or wedged)enfilade thread (sequence of messages on same topic)envoi multiple crosspostmultipostage crosspostingProfesseur Nimbus mad scientistplantage a crashse planter to crashvisiophone videophone, picturephone
When discussing technology, native French speakers don’t always know the French term. A coworker said she would check ma mailbox instead of ma boîte ŕ lettres. (I asked her, Why ma mailbox and not mon mailbox? By analogy to la poste.) Another coworker knew the word bug in French, but not the officially recommended term bogue. Chine Lanzman writes in Univers >interactif (one French equivalent to Wired magazine):
Pour bug, il faut dire bug, et non bogue, parce que ce n’est au fondpas la męme chose… Qui a jamais marché sur un bogue? tandis queles bugs, les cafards, c’est vraiment commun et emmerdant. Il fautgarder les mots anglais, cela ajoute quelque chose au français… For bug, you should say “bug” and not “bogue” which really isn’t thesame thing. Who has ever worked on a “bogue”? Whereas “bugs”,cockroaches, are really common and annoying. We should keep Englishwords-they add something to French.
A zero-coupon bond known as a strip in English is often called un strip in French, instead of the more cumbersome, official obligation démembrée.
A VCR is called a magnétoscope in French, and magnétophone means tape deck.
Some objects referred to by abbreviations found in French are: TGV (high-speed train) which is short for train ŕ grande vitesse, and VMC (ventilation system in apartment) which is short for ventilation mécanique controlée.
The newness of language
Many words which seem new and unique have in fact been around for quite a while. to veg out in front of the TV seemed like an ultramodern expression to me, so I was surprised to read in Les liaisons dangereuses, published in 1782:
au moins, je parle ŕ quelqu’un qui m’entend, et non aux automatesprčs de qui je végčte depuis ce matin.at least that way I’m talking to someone who hears me-not thoseautomatons I have been vegetating alongside since this morning. je végčte depuis si longtemps !I have been vegetating so long!
The Oxford English Dictionary shows this meaning of vegetate to have existed in English since 1740. OK, the form veg out is probably more recent.
To say that something is just a little too precious is something said either by Chrissie Hynde or a yuppie, right? No, this use of the word was popularized by Moličre’s Précieuses ridicules in 1659.
pour sűr (for sure) is not Valley Talk, but literary French.
The French version of Mr. Clean is Mr. Propre. A recent English borrowing? Though the purists would prefer otherwise, Mr. has been used as in addition to M. as an abbreviation for Monsieur at least since the 1731 edition of Manon Lescaut.
Sometimes I would think a word corresponded to a more modern English word than it actually did: arričre-pensée is not hidden agenda (programme secret) but ulterior motive. clochard is not homeless person (sans-abri) but bum. patins ŕ roulettes is not rollerblades (des roller blades), but roller skates.
Language change and “bad” grammar
English grammarians such as Fowler consider It’s me (rather than It is I) to be technically wrong. But C’est moi has been considered correct in French since the 16th century, before which Ce sui je (sui = suis) was used.
Another case where “bad” English grammar is correct in French is this here watch, those there watches: cette montre-çi, ces montres-lŕ.
There is no progressive tense in French corresponding to the English I am running. Depending on the situation, you would say either Je cours or Je suis en train de courir (I am in the process of running). Until the 17th century, however, a progressive did exist in French and you could in fact say something like Je suis courant.
In English the verb do is heavily used and in French class one learns various do-less equivalents:
Do you speak French? Parlez-vous français ? You speak French, don’t you? Vous parlez français, n’est-ce pas ? You don’t speak French, do you? Vous ne parlez pas français, n’est-ce pas ? Yes, I do. Si, je parle français.
However when do is used to avoid repeating a previously mentioned verb in English, it is sometimes possible to use faire in French:
ŕ dormir, comme ils font … sleeping, the way they do … Il court moins bien que je ne le faisais ŕ son âge. He doesn’t run as well as I did when I was his age.
In informal English, words which are normally adjectives are employed as adverbs (good instead of well, slow instead of slowly, and so on). This also occurs in French: il faut parler clair aux français is literally it is necessary to speak clear to the French. travailler dur is to work hard and boursicoter sérieux is to trade stocks seriously.
Learning new words
Generally the first time I hear a new French word I don’t notice it. It’s only after hearing a new word several times that I start to take notice and finally decide to look it up in the dictionary. Then I usually forget it. But then I hear it or read it or need to use it again, go back to the dictionary, and at this point I start to retain it. I can sometimes figure out what words mean from context, but not always very precisely.
After force feeding lots of words and phrases into the brain, I find they start to come back out spontaneously.
At first I can’t keep straight similar sounding words such as
agrément/aménagement échéance/échec/échouer prudent/prude/pudeur/pudique tendu/tenu/tenue/tordu
When I saw the phrase le brevet du fil ŕ couper le beurre I skipped it at first because it seemed like some idiom I wouldn’t know. But it literally does mean the patent for the wire butter knife. Though the phrase Il n’a pas inventé le fil ŕ couper le beurre means he’s no genius.
As in your native language, after you’ve learned a new word you notice it everywhere and wonder how you ever did without it. This happened to me for:
ŕ plusieurs reprises several times atout asset, feature, strong point susciter give rise to, provoke, create
Occasionally when seeing a word such as or or but, I will first interpret it in the wrong language. So if I am reading a French text and I see or, I might think I am seeing English or instead of French or which means and yet or now. Or if I am reading an English text and I see but, I might think I am reading the French word for goal. This generally happens only in a text with frequent quotes in the other language, or if I start reading something without first thinking about what language it is in.
Cute words and expressions
An amuse-gueule (amuse the mouth) or amuse-bouche is a little sandwich or cracker served before dinner. The order of courses in a complete French meal (repas) is:
French English_______________________ ___________________________________________________apéritif + amuse-gueule before-dinner drink + hors d’oeuvrehors d’oeuvre starter/appetizerentrée starter/appetizer (also, entrée in British English)plat principal main course (also, entrée in American English)entremets dessertfromage cheesedessert(s) dessert(s)digestif after-dinner liqueur
The entremets (which usually involves creme) may also come after the cheeses.
Note the different distributions of entrée and hors d’oeuvre in French and English.
The expression entre la poire et le fromage refers to the time of the meal when the discussion becomes less serious. Yes, it’s true!
How would you like a tartine de pain complet? This is just (whole wheat) bread and butter. Actually, it is good.
And how about a hot dog nature? Wow, I didn’t know they came out with a new health-food hot dog. Sure, I’ll try it! Actually this just means a plain hot dog (without mustard or ketchup). And a café nature is a coffee black, without sugar.
Imagine my pleasure when I found out that my stove had a minuterie! Oh, it’s just the word for timer.
Other fun words and phrases:
Elle se sent bien dans sa peau (she feels good in her skin) translates roughly as she is at peace with herself or she is comfortable with herself. This is very common expression in French and it sometimes also occurs in English:
I’ve been learning about being happy in my skin, you know? -rock musician Flea in an interview. …comfortable in his own skin… -Oliver Stone in an interview They move as if they were comfortable inside their skin. -self-help book
métro, boulot, dodo (subway, job, sleep) was a slogan popularized in 1968 summarizing the situation of a routine uncreative life in Paris. Recently the Paris metro began an ad campaign using the slogan métro, boulot, expo, resto, disco, dodo, meaning if you buy the monthly Carte Orange pass, you will have convenient access to many museums, restaurants, and clubs.
recoller les morceaux is pick up the pieces (literally, stick the pieces back together).
pianoter means to tap at a computer keyboard as if playing the piano, or to drum on the table. You can also say tapoter.
nuancer means to express a thought taking into account the slightest nuances or to moderate one’s stance.
There’s no word which corresponds exactly to the English cute. Some approximations: mignon (cute–looking), craquant (irresistable), and chouette (wonderful ).
The adjective petit (little) is often used as a softener when making suggestions:
une petite signature a signatureun petit café a coffee
Some other random words and expressions which struck me as fun at the time:
fléché “arrowed”, signposted (road)coup de coeur special favorite, choice pickcoup de foudre love at first sight (literally, stroke of lightning)doudou security blanketmicmac scheming, messsans tamboures ni trompettes “with neither tambourines nor trumpets”, without fanfaretonton uncleVivement vendredi! I can’t wait till Friday!
Section 2: Comparisons with English
French sounds more complicated
Everyday French sounds more technical or intellectual than everyday English. On a cereal box, it says:
Ce produit a bénéficié de tous les soins apportés aux produits Kellogg’s.Si toutefois vous constatiez une anomalie, veuillez nous retourner cepaquet, nous vous l’échangerions. (Merci de nous indiquer l’adresse dumagasin oů vous vous l’ętes procuré et la date limite d’utilisationoptimale indiquée sur le dessus du paquet). Depuis toujours, notrepremier souci est de vous satisfaire.
My English ear hears:
This product has benefited from all cares brought to Kellogg’s products. Ifhowever you observe an anomaly, please return this package tous, we will exchange it. (Please indicate to us the address of the store whereyou procured it and the limit date of optimal utilizationindicated on the bottom of the package.) As always, ourfirst concern is to satisfy you.
A more natural English translation of the above, which is more like what the native French speaker actually perceives, would be something like:
SATISFACTION GUARANTEED.Kellogg’s has taken every attention to ensure the quality of this product. Ifyou are dissatisfied for any reason, please return the cereal box and we willreplace it. (Please include the name of the store where purchased and thebest-before date shown on the box bottom.)
(After coming back to the U.S. I see they use different phrases than the ones I came up with: not satisfied, adjustment of equal value, and dated box top. I was surprised to read Your continued satisfaction with NABISCO Shredded Wheat is our most important goal which has the overly formal ring of the French notre premier souci est de vous satisfaire.)
There’s an explanation for this psychological effect as shown by Otto Jespersen in his book The Growth and Structure of the English Language: After the conquest of England by the Normans (1066-69), many French words relating to government, law, the military, religion, cuisine, leisure, fashion, and art were adopted in English. Sometimes French words displaced existing Old English words, while in other cases-especially in the case of commonplace words-both types remain. Here are some of Jespersen’s examples:
native borrowedbegin commencehide concealfeed nourishlook for search forfriendship amityhelp aiddeep profoundlonely solitary
Jespersen shows that in general the colloquial-sounding words are the original Germanic ones, while the refined-sounding words were brought in by the upper class or educated from Latin, Greek, or French (which itself is derived from Vulgar Latin). So the technical sound of French results from all its Latin words, many also in English, but for which English also has more commonly used non-Latin equivalents.
In French and other Romance languages, two words are known as doublets if they both derive from a single Latin word, one having evolved in the spoken language, the other having been later borrowed directly from Classical Latin. Some examples given by linguist Henriette Walter:
Latin French via Vulgar Latin French via Classical Latin___________ _________________________ ____________________________ministerium métier (profession) ministčre (ministry)securitatem sűreté (security, safety) sécurité (security, safety)
In English we have artist and artiste, esteem and estimate (both estimer in French), and plastic and plastique (a type of explosive).
Some single words in French map to apparent doublets in English:
French English_________ ________________séminaire seminar/seminarygentil gentle/gentilenoeud * node/knotmode * mood/mode
Pairs preceded by an asterisk (“*”) are not actually doublets.
Some single English words map to French doublets:
English French_______ _____________palm paume/palmier
In some cases it may simply be an accident that one word sounds more technical than another. The word anomaly came into English and anomalie into French from Latin at roughly the same time (the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1571, the earliest in Le Petit Robert from 1570), yet the word seems to be more common in French.
Here are some other French words and expressions which sound technical to the English ear, but are really commonplace in French:
French English impression more accurate English translation___________________ ______________________ _____________________________________a priori a priori offhand, right now, on the face of itcoordonnées coordinates phone number (possibly plus address)demander une demand an augmentation ask for a raise augmentation fixation normale normal fixation regular hold (hair gel)in extremis in extremis at the last minutenul nil clueless, useless, worthless, lousypour la éničme fois for the nth time for the umpteenth timerépétition repetition rehearsal (also, repetition)vexer vex offend, hurtVous avez terminé ? Have you terminated? Are you done? (eating)libérer liberate free (disk space)impression impression printing (also, impression)
In dance class, the teacher told me to increase the amplitude of my movements-to make broader movements.
Of course, some English words may sound overly technical to the French ear: an ice cream cone is not usually a cône (of mathematics) in French, but a cornet (though there is now a brand called the Royal Cône).
French seems to have a number of seemingly redundant re verbs:
redoubler reduplicaterefroidir cool down (compare refrigerate)remercier thankretrouver meet again
But these also occur in English and there is usually a basis for the re.
French sounds simpler
Sometimes I would have the opposite impression-that French sounds simpler than English:
French English impression more accurate English translation_________________________ _______________________ _________________________________Le livre vient de sortir. The book has just left. The book was just released.Le soleil se couche. The sun goes to sleep. The sun sets.allumer le poste light the post turn on the TVéteindre le poste extinguish the post turn off the TVune société a society a companyune marque a mark a brand, brand name
I would think, How can sortir (to go out), one of the most common verbs in French, have such a specialized meaning as releasing a product?
Again, there’s a linguistic explanation: As a learner of a foreign language, I was simply not perceiving the polysemy-multiple meanings loaded on top of each and every word. What to the foreigner seems like a simplistic, awkward word in a given context is to the native that word’s specialized meaning in that context. To the native speaker different meanings of a word are perceived almost as different words.
French speakers learning English have a similar experience: After viewing the film Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in English with French subtitles, a French person commented that the simplistic spoken English was translated into a much richer French. I had the opposite impression-black-eyed peas became petits pois (green peas), for instance, but this may just be because they don’t have black-eyed peas in France.
You can imagine how words in English could seem simple if the learner doesn’t know their varied senses. Is turn on/turn off any less simplistic than allumer/éteindre? Not really. I can just hear a learner complaining, “Why do you English speakers say turning? You’re pressing the On/Off button on the remote, silly.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary turn on means “to induce a flow of (water, steam, gas, electric current) by turning a tap or stop-cock … or by opening a sluice …” Turning was once involved, just as lighting once was.
In English you can also say she turns me on or she turns me off-expressions using the same simple words but with distinct meanings.
In the book was released, in English just as in French, you could interpret this literally to mean that somebody let go of the book. You can also say the book just came out which is not much different than the French version.
The English word company can also mean a group of people, a sort of society. The noun raise can also be used as a verb, in which case it simply means to lift. English has the word trademark and the word brand once referred to a mark made with a hot iron. One tends to forget these things.
Some other words in English are kind of silly if you think about them:
We don’t carry it.Salad dressingWhat’s the matter?the horizontal sweep (of a TV set)
French sounds too categorical
French sometimes sounds overly categorical. One time I asked a vendor for a strawberry ice-cream bar and he said
Ca n’existe pas.
Gee, even if nobody’s ever made this kind of an ice cream bar, at least the idea of it exists! Telling me that this kind of ice cream doesn’t exist may seem a little extreme, but actually this expression simply means we don’t carry it or it is not available in that flavor. And this is not just a loose translation-Le Petit Robert actually mentions en stock (in stock) as one of the meanings of exister.
Once my mail stopped for a week, so I went to the post office to find out what was wrong. C’est normal, they said, since there was a strike. In addition to its usual meaning, normal can also mean to be expected given the circumstances.
In the introduction to a French synonym dictionary it says:
nous avons exclu les termes d’argot : car l’argot n’est pas du français…We have excluded slang terms since slang is not French.
What this really means is that slang is not considered proper French.
French gives a more negative impression
In the introduction to a book on sexism in language, it said:
Ce livre présente, sous une forme aussi vulgarisée que possible … (Initial impression: ) This book presents in the most vulgar way …
Bzzzt! Then I remembered the original meaning of vulgar-common to the great mass of people in general. An ouvrage de vulgarisation is the term for a popularized book on an academic topic.
Here are some other cases where the English ear receives a more negative or unintended impression:
French English impression more accurate English translation__________________ _____________________ _____________________________________égoďste egotistical selfishLimonade-pur sucre Lemon soda-pure sugar Spritesacs vomitoires vomit sacks air sickness bagsprolongation prolonged extended, carried over (exhibit, play)3615 CUM 3615 CUM http://www.with.com (online personals)
In English, quasi-religious organizations such as the Moonies are called cults but in French culte simply means religion. A cult is called a secte in French, which also means sect.
entrer en lice means enter the lists.
Learning new words in English via French
Learning French sometimes helps me brush up on infrequent English words:
French English_______________ ________________________________________________________________ avatar avatar (reincarnation; in French also mishap, change) bęler to bleat (to cry like a sheep, goat, or calf; to whine) émacié emaciated (very lean from starvation or disease)* embrouillé embroiled (confused, muddled) exaltation exaltation (elation, rapture, glorification) fléau scourge (cause of serious trouble or affliction) fontanelle fontanel (boneless areas in skull in baby or young animal) inculquer inculcate (impress upon the mind by frequent repetition)* interlocuteur interlocutor (the person one is talking to)* ludique ludic (having to do with play, playful, recreational) macadam Tarmac (after John L. McAdam, Scot engineer who invented a type of coal-tar used for pavements) paroxysme paroxysm (spasm, sudden attack of the symptoms of a disease)* polémique polemic (argument, controversial discussion)* phallocrate phallocrat (male chauvinist)
The words preceded by an asterisk (“*”) above are very common in French. Since returning to the U.S. I have noticed that the word interlocutor is used quite frequently in English-especially in magazines.
An explosion of words
Take the word pumpkin in English. How do you say this in French? Should be simple enough, right? The Robert & Collins dictionary lists citrouille and potiron (bigger). Which is the right word? I look in the Mémo Larousse encyclopedia and find out that citrouille and potiron are the fruit of different plants-citrouille from Cucurbita pepo and potiron from Cucurbita maxima. Then I notice in the Webster’s New World Dictionary that pumpkin in British English refers to these two types of plants as well as Cucurbita moschata. And then I see that the Hachette-Oxford dictionary claims a potiron is called a winter squash in American English. I guess the answer is citrouille?
The real problem here is that there is not just one meaning of the word pumpkin-there are in fact several species of pumpkin and quite possibly the pumpkins in France aren’t the same as the ones in the States anyway. (By the way, the English word pumpkin comes from the Middle French word pompon, unfortunately obsolete.)
You are not really aware of how many different meanings (or gradations of meaning) a favorite word has until you try to translate it. Each word in a given language only applies to certain situations and there are few words for which there is a word in the other language which applies to the exact same situations!
Some French words explode into many English words, none of which seems quite right: subir means to be subjected to or undergo an operation, to go through a change, to put up with something you don’t like, and to suffer or sustain an injury. Depending on the context, aménagement can mean adjustment/adjusting, building, construction, conversion, converting, creation, development/developing, equipping, fitting out, fixing up, improvement, laying out, making, planning, putting in, or working out.
Justement is translated by as a matter of fact, it just so happens, correctly, exactly, just, and justifiably depending on the context.
The lack of correspondence can be disconcerting at first. I want to say “my apartment is in a convenient location.” The correct word is pratique which seems wrong-it sounds more like practical than convenient. But in French, pratique really does mean convenient (for locations), handy (for devices), and practical (for training). I just have to learn all the overloadings of French words, to perceive the many meanings directly and in their full glory. (I wonder, is it easier to learn a language which has few words each with lots of meanings, or a language with lots of words each with few meanings? French sure seems to have more meanings per word than English.)
Here are some more common examples:
accuser accuse, acknowledge, emphasize agrément approval (of registered dealer), agreement, charm (of person), pleasure (of anything) baguette beading/casing (in construction), (French) bread, (conductor’s) baton, chopstick, clock (woven ornament on sock or stocking), drumstick (for percussion instrument), stick, (magic) wand chemise shirt, undershirt, folder coller adhere (rice), be “it” (in a children’s game), flunk/fail (a course), glue (paper), hang (wallpaper), paste (a poster, some text in word processor), press (nose against window), splice (film), stick (a stamp) comportement attitude, behavior, conduct, manner contrôle audit, check, check-up, control, monitoring, search, supervision, test équipe crew, shift, staff, team, unit (in film) étiquette label, sticker, tag exploitation exploitation, business concern, operation facteur postman, factor farouche bitter (enemy), driving (ambition), fierce (look, opposition), savage (warrior), shy (child), unsociable (person) fil cord, filament, fissure, floss, grain, lead, line, strand, string, thread, wire, yarn. gęner annoy, bother (a person), disrupt (an event), disturb (an object or a person), embarrass (a person), hamper (progress) manifestation appearance/symptom, demonstration/expression (of an emotion), large public event or gathering (art/music/sporting), protest/demonstration/rally, revelation parole speech, word, lyrics récuperer fetch/go get (an object), make up (days at work), recover/get back (an object), recover (from anything), recuperate (from an illness), salvage (an object) sage good/well-behaved (young child), sensible (adult), wise (person) témoignage story, account, evidence, testimony, token, expression tirage draw/drawing (in games), friction (disagreement), hard copy (from computer), printing run/impression, (in photography) print
Here are some examples going from English to French:
concrete béton, concret fat corps gras (in chemistry), graisses (of animals or vegetables), gras (of meat), lipides (technical term), matičres grasses (in diet) flavor flaveur/sapidité (literary or technical terms), parfum (for ice cream), saveur/goűt (general terms) hair cheveux (on head), poil (on body) room pičce, salle, chambre star étoile, star, vedette string ficelle, corde, fil test analyse (medical), devoir de contrôle/interrogation écrite (exam), épreuve (ability), essai (new technology), examen (driving), test (intelligence)
Even in a single context it’s sometimes hard to say what a word really means: funny (drôle, marrant) could mean amusing (amusant), witty, makes you laugh, makes you laugh at its expense, odd (bizarre), or eccentric. marrant also means fun (amusant)-another hard-to-translate word.
Trying to untangle the correspondences between French and English words can be mind-bending, but fun. For example, starting with the word accord, you can follow meanings in the dictionary until you get tired:
accord agreement (understanding)accord agreement (in linguistics)accord consentaccord understanding (agreement)accord harmonyaccord chord (in music)accord tuning (in music)compréhension understanding (comprehension)consentement consentcontrat agreement (contract)contrat contractengagement agreement (undertaking)entente understanding (arrangement)entendement (human) understandingharmonie harmony…
When I was in France it would sometimes bother me that there was no single, exact equivalent in French for a favorite English word. I felt that French speakers, in using several vaguely equivalent French words for an English word, were clearly missing something. But upon coming back to the U.S. I noticed French words which don’t have an exact equivalent in English. For example, revendiquer is expressed clumsily in English as either claim responsibility for or take credit for (a terrorist attack). English doesn’t have the standard word revendiquer so speakers are forced to invent various paraphrases. But English speakers don’t notice this and it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. Another example: Something that is payant in French is something for which you have to pay in English.
Nonexistent words in French or English
In a few instances a word just doesn’t exist in one of the languages and when translating you are forced to give an explanation. For example, these words don’t seem to exist in English:
cache-misčre good clothes worn to hide shabby clothes underneathdégustation dining and really savoring and appreciating itnormalement if all goes as plannedvedettisation pushing someone into the limelight
The French word promenade is a general term for an outing, where an English speaker would normally use a more specific word such as walk, bike ride, boat ride, cruise, drive, or ride.
amont and aval are much more common in French than their English translations:
en amont (de) upstream (from)en aval (de) downstream (from)
The following words don’t seem to exist in French:
serendipity trouvaille au hasardmiscast ne pas ętre fait(e) pour le rôle dename-drop citer des gens célčbres qu’on prétend connaîtreprocrastinator qui a tendance ŕ toujours remettre au lendemain
(though the word procrastination is used in literary French).
jetlag seems to have no short French equivalent. From Le Monde (November 1995):
Une hormone naturelle active contre le << jet-lag >>… la lutte contre les méfaits du décalage horaire, a laquellede nombreuses études ont été consacrées.
The English whatever, as in:
“Those aren’t pork dumplings, they’re Shao Mai.” “Whatever.” (= So what?/Call it what you want.) “Would you like the door open or closed?” “Whatever.” (= I’m easy./I don’t care either way.)
could be translated as Peu importe or Ca m’est égal, but these don’t feel the same.
Sometimes there is a more precise word in one language. For example, you could call a calepin a notebook in English, but more specifically it’s a pocket-sized notebook or pad used for recording information, ideas, or impressions.
Of course there are many cases where an exact translation doesn’t exist because the object in question isn’t known or isn’t common in the other culture:
raď type of modern popular music from Algeriacadre a certain level of executive/professional employeediabolo fraise lemon soda with strawberry syrupkir aperitif made of white wine and blackcurrant liqueurmuseau headcheese with vinaigrette saucepetit salé streaky salted pork with lentils(I could go on and on with the foods.)
And from English to French:
bagel petit pain en forme d’anneauWonder Bread pain de mie américain
Some words have a simple translation, but the translated word just doesn’t feel the same. According to the dictionary, the translation of flustered is énervé, but énervé means edgy, irritated, nervous, or overexcited-not quite right. plenty is translated as beaucoup de (a lot of) or suffisamment (enough)-and again neither is quite the same as English plenty.
The English words pattern and clue are difficult to translate into French.
Sometimes it’s difficult to translate an English sentence into a single French one. I dare you to translate:
Click on the name of the person whose calendar you want to insert theappointment into.
Number of words for expressing a given concept
In owner’s manuals printed in both French and English, the French usually takes up more space than the English.
Some things take longer to say in French: Footnote is note de bas de page. To volunteer is s’engager comme volontaire (in the army) or se proposer pour.
A cereal box which says ŕ consommer de préférence avant fin 0893 or la date limite de consommation in French merely says best before 0893 in English.
A native French speaker is a sujet parlant de langue maternelle française.
to lock is fermer ŕ clé (close by key), but there is also boucler, slang for lock, and verrouiller which means bolt shut, or simply fermer.
A sundial is a cadran solaire.
Some common phrases in French are best translated into a single word:
en colčre angry(il y a) beaucoup de monde (it is) crowdedmettre ŕ jour to updatemettre en oeuvre to implementlaisser tomber to drop
In the same way, there are a number of French words which translate to several in English:
actualité current events (also: news)actuellement now playing (also: currently)alliance wedding ringanglophone English speakeranimer bring to life (party)annuaire phone bookattentat assassination attempt, terrorist attack, bombingattention ! watch out!aveugle blind personchômeur unemployed personclimatiseur air conditionercohabiter live together (also, more technically: coexist)culpabiliser to make someone feel guiltydéfricher lay the groundworkdésormais from now on (also, more technically: henceforth)détartrage teeth cleaning (also, more technically: scaling)élu elected officialfonctionnaire government employeefrancophone French speakerglacier ice cream store, ice cream vendorguichet teller window, ATM window, ticket window/boothgyrophare rotating emergency lighthypercultivé extremely learnedinédit previously unreleased, previously unpublishedinfirmier male nurse (also: nurse)nouveauté new release, new productnuque nape of the neckpapeterie stationery storepupitre music stand (also music rest, control panel)rédaction editorial staff (also editing)récidiver do it again, commit a second offense (English has a noun recidivist, but no verb.)surenchčre higher bidsurtout above all (also: especially)
The 8-syllable it isn’t raining anymore only takes 3 or 4 in French: il (ne) pleut plus.
plus and rien are short in French, unlike anymore and anything in English, which allows a phrase such as je ne comprends plus rien to develop. This has a nice ring to it in French, unlike I don’t understand anything anymore in English, which you probably wouldn’t say. You would just say I’m clueless.
In English you can say things such as my roommate’s sister’s stereo instead of la chaîne hi-fi de la soeur de mon camarade de chambre (the stereo of the sister of my roommate).
Inversion in statements
Inversion of the verb and subject is normally used for questions in written French, but it is also used in statements:
Peut-ętre est-ce la solution. Maybe that’s the solution.Il travaille, aussi réussit-il. He works, and as a result he succeeds.
(In spoken French you avoid inversion by saying peut-ętre que c’est la solution or c’est peut-ętre la solution.)
This type of inversion may seem quaint, but English has the same thing:
Or so say the experts.and so is this bookNever in my life have I seen such a thing!Not since … did I …So speak purist intuitions.I don’t like tennis; nor do I like football.No sooner had I left than the ceiling caved in.No way am I going to …Only if I study it, will I truly understand.In none of my dictionaries is the word octothorpe mentioned.
In a more formal, older style of English writing, inversion is sometimes used in case of a long subject noun phrase (as is done frequently in current French):
I did not know what was the problem with this work (formal, old)I did not know what the problem with this work was (standard)
If English inverts the verb and subject in a given case, it doesn’t mean French does:
Jamais je n’ai vu … Never have I seen …Pas une fois il ne tourna. Not once did he turn.
English-sounding French expressions
Some words and phrases have such an English ring to them I have trouble believing they are really French:
Bienvenu au club. Welcome to the club. (figuratively)Pas de problčme./Aucun problčme. No problem.Tu peux compter sur moi. You can count on me.Cette idée n’est plus dans le vent. That idea is no longer in the wind/air.Tu es collé? Are you stumped/stuck?chute libre free fallenterrer la hache de guerre bury the hachetest digne de is worthy ofétoile montante rising starętre sur le point de faire be just at the point of doingondes de choc shock wavespayer cash pay cashsans rime ni raison without rhyme or reasonsur la bonne voie/piste on the right trackvaleur ajoutée value added
Je viens de manger is translated I just ate. The first time I heard someone say Je viens juste de manger (I just ate a second ago) I thought the just had wended its way to French from English. But juste comes from Latin and has been in French since 1120. English just came from Old French.
In English you can say Who are you speaking to? instead of To whom are you speaking? But in French you can’t say Qui est-ce que tu parles ŕ? Still, you can omit the object of the preposition in certain cases, so that the sentence ends with a preposition:
Il faut bien vivre avec. You have to live with her/him/it.inventer la vie qui va avec invent the life which goes along with itbrűler les arbres et leurs occupants avec burn the trees along with their occupantsVous vous demanderez comment vous You’ll wonder how you everavez pu vivre sans ! lived without it!C’est fait pour. That’s what it’s made for.
This is a slang construction which is only done with avec and sans.
Le camion lui a passé dessus (the truck ran him over) seemed like another example but dessus is an adverb, not a preposition. sauter dessus means to jump on someone (sexually).
Many proverbs such as pierre qui roule n’amasse pas mousse (a rolling stone gathers no moss) have been around since time immemorial, so it’s no wonder they occur in both English and French.
The expression tel que (such as) sounded very English to me, but this phrase has been in use since at least the 1700’s and tel comes from Latin.
The word krach in French (crash of a financial market) has been around since 1881 and came from German, not English!
I was surprised to hear the word trafic (traffic) since circulation is what I was taught in French class. But English traffic comes from the French trafic which in turn comes from Italian traffico. One meaning of trafic is the same as circulation (traffic, as in a lot of it), but it also has the more neutral meaning of the flow of vehicles, and also is used to refer to drug trafficking (trafic de drogue).
Speaking of Italian, primo (first of all), secundo (second of all), and recto verso (on both sides, said of photocopy) sounded Italian to me, but actually they are from Latin.
According to Le Petit Robert, planifier (to plan, make plans) appeared in 1949. It is derived from plan, which it turns out English borrowed from French.
choc entered French in 1521, derived from choquer which comes from Middle Dutch schokken. The English noun shock is said to come from the French choc.
hobby was borrowed from English in 1815. But English hobby originally came from Old French hobe. Other expressions for hobby in French are: Violon d’Ingres, passe-temps favori, and centres d’intéręt. For serious hobby the word passion is often used.
Other borrowings from English also originally came from Old French:
French borrowing from English English borrowing from Old French_____________________________ _________________________________budget (1764) bougettetest (1893) test, tętstressant (from stress, 1953) estresse
The following French words are from English, without having previously come from French:
black (1980) black (person)bluff (1840) bluffbluffer (1884) to bluffbluffeur (1895) blufferboss (1869) bossbuilding (1895) large office building or skyscraperbusiness (1876) businesshard (1975) hardcore (rock, pornography)job (1950) job, summer jobnon-stop (1932) non-stoprelax (1955) relaxed, relaxation (originally from Latin)slow (1925) slow dancestop! (1792) stop! (this is an interjection, so you say stop even to people you use vous with-not stoppez.stopper (1841) halt, stop (also arręter)squeezer (1964) to put the squeeze on (an adversary)
soft is often used, meaning the opposite of hard.
These words came directly from Latin in both languages:
selectionner (1899) to selectcollectionner (1840) to collectcontrée country (land)
Under the influence of English, the verb réaliser has been used in French to mean the same thing as se rendre compte (realize) since 1895. Though common, it is still a criticized usage. Similarly opportunité has been used to mean occasion (opportunity) since 1864.
Do native French speakers use English borrowings with me because they know I speak English and will understand? Or does any native French speaker understand them? Yes. Most of the borrowed expressions are now entirely French.
Once a French person asked me if I understood the expression profil bas. Of course I did. As documented in Le Petit Robert this expression is a translation of the English low profile which entered French in 1970. But one is not always aware that a given word or expression is a borrowing: few English speakers are aware, for example, that low profile was borrowed from the Japanese motto tei-shisei in 1964. High profile is also a Japanese borrowing.
For some French words and expressions it is clear an anglicism is involved:
bondage bondagebowling bowling alley, bowlingfair-play sportingflashback flashbacktalk-show talk showun fitness club a health club, a fitness club
There is a proliferation of English words now commonly used in French with apparently the same meaning as existing French words:
anglicism in French “pure” French word___________________ ___________________bug (in software) boguecool détendufax télécopiefeeling sentimenthard/soft dur/douxnetwork (in TV) réseaushopping coursesweekend fin de semaine
But ask French speakers whether feeling has the same meaning as sentiment and they will say, No, it has a different “feeling”. Borrowed words undergo a semantic shift so that they never have quite the same meaning as the original English word, nor the French word that the English word would normally translate to. faire du shopping in French is to go window shopping in English, whereas faire des courses is the more utilitarian to go shopping (for groceries, say).
So when the French government coins a new official term to replace an anglicism, instead of simplifying or standardizing the language, they are enriching it with more words able to take on various new meanings. For example, the official fin de semaine refers to the end of the week, as in Friday, whereas weekend refers to Saturday and Sunday.
When getting a free T-shirt, I was asked if I wanted L or XL-they just say the English size abbreviations (whereas in English I think one would say extra large, not XL).
English borrowings are generally not pronounced as if they were French words. Nor are they pronounced the way they are in English. Rather, an effort is made to anglicise the pronunciation, but the accent remains neutral or on the last syllable, as always in French.
Bill Clinton is pronounced as if it were written Bil Clintonne in French. Fun Radio is pronounced Foen Radio. The Gymnase Club (a health club) is the Gymnase Cloeb. In general, all u‘s in English words are pronounced with an oe sound. A trade (financial transaction, also called an opération or transaction in French) is pronounced trčde. Un trader is pronounced trčdeur. The er at the end of an English word is usually pronounced eur in French, sometimes čre.
Jazz and Jack are pronounced with a dj sound at the beginning as in English (and not simply the French j sound). Actually in Old English the j sound was allowed only after vowels-not at the beginning of a word-and the initial j in English comes from French in the first place. Jack comes from the Old French Jaque.
I was discussing the pronunciation of English names with some French friends and they asked me how an American would pronounce François Mitterand. With a straight face I said in my best American accent FRAN-swa-MIT-uh-rand. They couldn’t believe it. They thought it was horrible.
Some borrowed words such as marketing have the same meaning. Others don’t:
French English___________ _______________________________________________________un planning A schedule or sign-up sheet (for example, for reserving a block of time in a conference room)baskets sneakerscatch wrestlingcool relaxed (also cool)flip depression following drug useflipper to freak outflipper pinball machine (with the r pronounced)laser CD playeroff off-off-Broadway, avant-garde theatrepin’s pin, buttonplay-back lip-sync
French nouns ending with English ing are always masculine.
Substituting one English word for another, the translation of A Streetcar Named Desire is Un tramway nommé désir (where French tramway = English tram/streetcar).
A supermodel is called a top model in French (as sometimes in English as well). The plural is generally top models, but one magazine printed tops models on their cover.
A relookage is a makeover and relooker is to do a makeover.
French people sometimes say bye-bye, kind of the way Americans say ciao. (French people also say ciao/tchao.) But in English, only very young children say bye-bye. Adults usually just say bye.
In France there was a magazine called SPORT’S MAGAZINE.
The English phrase last but not least is often used, italicized, in French articles discussing the U.S.
Some very English words originally came from French:
English French_______ _________________________aboard ŕ bord (on board)apart ŕ partpuny puis né (born later)very verai, varai, vrai (true)
affair ŕ faire (to do)arrive arrivertennis tenez (hold)
With time I am starting to recognize more common roots: The word for gather in French is cueillir. After a while it dawned on me that the English cull must have come from cueillir. I realized that pré and prairie must have the same root. I never noticed before that just as French has venir and de-venir, English has come and be-come.
Shifted meanings and spellings of borrowed terms is not unique to French:
English has the word arbitrageur which looks French, but the word in French for someone who simultaneously buys and sells in two different markets to make a profit or speculates in takeover stocks is arbitragiste.
prix fixe is fairly infrequent in France. Here a fixed-price meal is almost always called un menu or une formule.
Though commonly heard, cul-de-sac is not the most refined French, as cul is an informal term for rear end. More standard would be chemin sans issue or impasse.
toilette in French means outfit, appearance, or wash (as in la toilette du matin, washing up in the morning). Only the plural toilettes means toilet.
Bastille Day is le quatorze juillet or sometimes la Fęte Nationale in French.
La Ville Lumičre (the City of Light), a nickname for Paris often used in English, is not used very often in French. Some French people I queried said it referred to Paris; others said it was an expression that could be applied to any city.
To French kiss is embrasser avec la langue or rouler un patin ŕ.
Borrowed French words in English often have a shifted or wider application in French:
word meaning in English meanings in French_________________ ______________________ ________________________________affluence (Latin) wealth, abundance crowds, abdundanceaide-mémoire record of a discussion cliff notes, crib sheetallure the power to entice pace, speed, appearance, lookcliché trite concept photographic plate, negative, photograph, trite conceptdéployer/deploy spread out (troops) display, spread out (anything)misčre/misery suffering poverty, trouble, sufferingniche place, recess kennel, trick, recess, placerisqué improper improper, risky
The word for risqué in French is osé.
Similarly, borrowed English words in French have a wider application in English: a quartette or quartet in French refers only to a Jazz quartet. A string quartet is called a quatuor ŕ cordes.
profond means literally deep more often in French than profound in English means literally deep in English.
In France, the (dated expression) quart d’heure Américain (American 15 minutes) is the designated time during a dance when women ask men to dance.
One time I was conducting a job interview in English with a French colleague, and toward the end she asked the candidate, What are your pretensions? I thought that was kind of an strange question to ask. But the candidate who was also French didn’t bat an eye. Pretensions in French means salary requirements in addition to pretensions.
Once I was having some food delivered and giving the order taker the codes needed to get to my apartment. He joked, “Vous habitez Fort Knox?” I chuckled and it wasn’t until after I hung up that this struck me as odd. I mean that’s something my uncle Jack might have said back in the States, and Fort Knox is in Kentucky! Go figure… (Allez savoir!)
British English sometimes seems to be closer to French than American English. (England is closer to France after all!) A few examples:
American English British English French_________________ __________________ ___________color colour couleurskeptic sceptic sceptiquegram gramme (also gram) grammeyard garden jardinmath maths mathseggplant aubergine auberginezucchini courgette courgettetrillion billion (obsolete) billionresearch researches des recherchesset up a meeting fix a meeting fixer un rendez-vous20 Drouot Road 20, Drouot Road 20, rue Drouot
On the other hand:
American English British English French________________ __________________ ______________________rutabaga swede rutabaga(for scores of a game:)zero nil zéro (but match nul)
Upon return to the United States, I had trouble believing the expression with a view to (= in order to) was really English. I had first noticed it in French, where the expression en vue de is used more frequently.
After having been in France two years, I began taking a linguistics course at Université de Paris 7, where I learned that perhaps trying to figure out whether a word was “really French” or “really English” was silly, since both languages are Indo-European and derive most of their vocabulary from a common stock.
Compare the words for foot and tooth in various Indo-European languages, in addition to the common ancestor language reconstructed by linguists known as Proto-Indo-European:
ped Proto-Indo-Europeanpad Sanskritpodos Greekpedis Latinpied Frenchfoot English edont Proto-Indo-Europeandant Sanskritodontos Greekdentis Latindent Frenchtooth English
ped and pied may seem quite different from foot, but actually there was a set of regular sound changes which occurred between Proto-Indo-European and Germanic (among which is English), called Grimm’s Law:
p -> ft -> thk -> hb -> pd -> tg -> k…
Around two-thirds of English and French words (and an even larger fraction of the most frequently used words) can be traced back to common roots which existed in 2000 B.C. or earlier. Since then, the meanings of those roots have shifted. For example, distress, stress, stare, and strict all came from ster meaning rigid.
The different forms of the verb to be came from different places: am/is from es (meaning be), was/were from wes (meaning remain), and be from bheu (meaning become). es also led to est/sont/… (the present tense of be in French), while bheu led to fut/fűt/… the simple past and imperfect subjunctive in French.
French vouloir (want) and English will (as in you will) both come from the Proto-Indo-European root wel. French connaître (know) and English know and can (as in you can) come from the roots gen/gno.
The Webster’s New World Dictionary, sitting on my parents’ or my own bookshelf all along, turns out to be a fantastic source of information on Proto-Indo-European roots.
There are many words which don’t mean what you think they mean, called deceptive cognates or false friends (faux amis). Here are some of the more common or interesting ones:
French Wrong English Right English______________ _____________ ____________________________________actuellement actually currentlyéventuellement eventually possiblypréservatif preservative condomshit shit hashish French English______________ ________________________________________________________blâmer blame (but also: criticize)correct correct (but also: proper, decent, adequate, acceptable)ignorer ignore (but also: be unaware of) French English_______________ ________________________________________________libéral free-market (~capitalist, conservative)conservateur conservative, preservativede gauche leftist (~liberal, progressive) important important, large (quantity)intéressant interesting, attractive (price)mystčre mystery, secrecy, rite, type of ice-cream pastry expérimenté experiencedexpérience experience, experimentexpérimenter to experimentexpérimentation experimentation French Usually Less frequently_________ _____________ _______________frais cold freshclair bright clearcontrôler check, verify control obscur dark obscurediscuter talk disputemoral emotional moral
visit in English is visiter (a place), rendre visite ŕ (friend), and aller chez (the dentist).
militant is not pejorative in French-perhaps this reflects a difference in attitudes. It can be translated as activist or campaigner.
Some false friends are more true than they seem. For instance, you can say I don’t blame him, which doesn’t really mean you don’t assign the blame for something to him. It means you don’t criticize him. When you say we need an experimental control, this is closer to the French meaning of verification. English has controller and comptroller, for the person in charge of auditing, not controlling, the books. English has the word moral support, which is emotional support. English has eventuality which means possibility. One says politically correct, which is politically acceptable.
Or maybe under the influence of French I’m just starting to forget what the English words really mean…
French speakers learning English often complain about its many phrasal verbs-combinations of a verb and particles such as make out, take on, and put up with. French has phrasal verbs too.
The first time I heard Tu t’en sors? I had no idea what the person was talking about even though I knew all the words in the sentence. Translated literally this is You leave yourself of it? but what it means is Are you managing OK? or How are you getting along?
Here are some other common French phrasal verbs:
French literally actually______________ _____________________ __________________________se casser break oneself leavese douter de doubt oneself of suspectse faire ŕ make oneself to get used tos’en faire make oneself of it worryjouer de play of exploitse passer pass itself happense passer de pass itself from do withouten pincer pour pinch of it for be stuck on (in love with)s’en prendre ŕ take oneself of it to take it out ons’y prendre take oneself there act, go about itse sauver save oneself leaves’en tenir ŕ hold oneself of it to stand by, keep tos’en tirer pull oneself of it cope, get byen vouloir want of it be determineden vouloir ŕ want of it to to hold a grudge againstse vouloir want itself try to bevouloir de want of have anything to do with
Beware of the following verbs:
čchapper ŕ get away fromemprunter ŕ borrow from
There are some phrasal conjunctions:
French literally actually_________ _________ ___________alors que then that while, whenbien que well that although
and phrasal adverbs:
tout ŕ fait all at done totally, completelyon ne peut plus one cannot anymore totally, completely
In English you can put two nouns side by side and create a new one: college roommate, car seat, stairway railing. In French you usually separate the nouns with a preposition:
carte de crédit credit cardboîte de nuit nightclub, club
I was surprised to learn that (probably under the influence of English) the preposition has started to disappear! At least in some cases-especially in advertising:
*+allocation chômage unemployment check couloir vélos bike lane date commande order date (on invoice) date livraison delivery date désignation article item code désignation produit product code+ entrées vidéo video inputs fiches télévision television connectors formule poulette chicken special (fixed-price meal with chicken main course)*+idées cadeaux gift ideas lait corps body milk listing produits product list, list of products numéro client client number* pause jus d’orange orange juice break+ point vente (sales) outlet promotion déjeuner lunchtime special* renseignements abonnements subscription information* renseignements concerts concert information* sandwich jambon ham sandwich (ham on buttered French bread)+ sauce chili chili sauce+ service abonnements subscription department* soirée cobayes guinea pig night (trial run at Bal Moderne) solutions rangement storage space solutions+ supplément chien dog supplement (fee paid at an inn if you keep a dog in your room)*+ticket restaurant restaurant ticket (coupon accepted by many restaurants purchased for half face value from employer)
Only the phrases preceded by an asterisk (“*”), however, are judged by one native French speaker as completely natural. Only those marked with a plus sign (“+”) were judged by another native French speaker as having become common.
The plural of phrases such as the above is formed by pluralizing only the first noun (more exactly, the part which is outside the implied prepositional phrase).
Sometimes this can even be done with three nouns:
ticket restaurant assistance restaurant ticket assistance (hot line)
However if an appropriate adjective exists, you use it instead:
Right Wrong English______________________ ____________________ ________________________ligne téléphonique ligne téléphone telephone linediversité satellitaire diversité satellite satellite diversityétudes universitaires études universités university studiesprix unitaire prix unité unit pricerue piétonne rue piéton pedestrian streetstratégie politicienne stratégie politicien politician-like strategy
(But one says Californian Law in British English and California Law in American English.)
Actually French has always allowed two nouns to be placed side by side in the case of apposition:
avocat-conseil trial lawyer and legal advisorenfant-fleur flower childgaine-culotte panty girdleoiseau-mouche hummingbirdsatellite-espion spy satellite
An avocat-conseil is both a lawyer and a counselor. A oiseau-mouche is both a bird and a fly. Well, sort of. The plural of these forms is formed by making both nouns plural.
French also has nouns formed out of verbs and nouns:
casse-croűte snackcasse-pieds pain in the neckcasse-tęte headache, puzzlefixe-majuscules shift lockguide-touches keypad casinglance-pierres catapultpresse-papiers paperweighttourne-disque turntabletournebroche rotisserie
These tend to have masculine gender and form their plurals by making the noun plural (and not touching the verb).
There are a number of differences between French and English punctuation and there is more variation in French than in English.
The standard quotation marks (guillemets) in French are « and ». Quotations are often set in italics as well:
Męmes les gens qui ont un ami ŕ Mouchotte ajoutent assez souvent :« Et comment tu peux vivre dans ce grand truc moche ? » Even people with friends in Mouchotte often ask, “How can you standliving in that big ugly thing?”
Quotation marks (or italics) can be used in French and English to enclose words or short phrases with special meanings or to give them extra emphasis:
Nul ne connaît précisément l’objectif final du « petit roi ».Nobody knows the exact objective of the “little king.”
SVM Mac, a computer magazine, uses French-style quotes for quotations and English-style quotes (“ and “) for enclosing words and short phrases. Paris Match uses English-style quotes in headlines. Le Nouvel Economiste and Vogue have switched over to English-style quotes entirely, although the comma appears outside the closing quote:
Réservé ŕ quelques créatures ultra-sophistiquées qui “avaienttoujours quelque chose ŕ cacher”, le cake … Reserved for a few ultrasophisticated creatures “always withsomething to hide,” the cake …
In Vogue periods are actually underneath the closing quote.
Some publications use English-style quotes when quotes are nested inside other quotes. Most but not all use a space after the left guillemet and before the right guillemet.
In French there is usually a space before a colon, semicolon, question mark, or exclamation point but not a comma or period:
Qui parle ? C’est moi qui parle.Who’s talking? I’m talking.
An exclamation point can sometimes occur within a sentence, in which case the letter following the exclamation point is in lower case. For example:
Ah ! mes amis.Ah! My friends.
(This also occurs in literary English.) There are some differences in the use of dashes in French:
- the dashes are shorter
- they are preceded and followed by a space, and
- commas may also be introduced if they would have otherwise been there:
· dotée d’un corps asymétrique – de longues jambes maigres et un torse· abondant -, qui se retire dans une banlieue invraisemblable· · possessing an asymmetrical body-long skinny legs and a large chest-· withdrawing into an improbable suburb
In English, an ellipsis (or three dots) is usually used to indicate that material has been omitted from a quotation or as a replacement for and so on. But in French dots are also often used to simulate a suspenseful delay in print:
se consoler avec… un tas d’orconsole themselves with a pile of gold
Though this is sometimes done in English as well. From Musician magazine:
Kevin Johnson played … pocket change.
The use of commas and decimal points in numbers is reversed, so that 86,283.10 becomes 86.283,10 or 86 283,10. But when announcing the frequency of an FM radio station, you will often hear quatre-vingt douze point un instead of quatre-vingt douze virgule un (for 92,1).
In French there is no serial comma before the conjunction in a list of three or more items:
lundi, mardi et mercrediMonday, Tuesday, and Wednesday
In French two sentences are often joined together by a comma instead of a semicolon. If translated literally into English, many of these would be considered frowned upon run-on sentences.
In an informal writing style it’s not uncommon to use sentences which aren’t sentences, but I have noticed this even in newspapers with a more formal style such as Le Monde:
Une vie qui s’est identifiée ŕ l’histoire de la gauche pendant presquecinquante ans. A life identified with the history of the Left for almost fifty years.
In French style, subject headings often cannot be removed, since they sometimes provide information not in the text itself. In English style, subject headings typically can be removed-information in the heading is repeated in the text.
French acronyms (called acronymes and sigles in French) have a different-less aesthetic to me at first-ring to them than English ones: SMEREP is the Société mutualiste des étudiants de la région parisienne (Student’s Mutual Insurance Company of the Greater Paris Area). COFRABO is Compagnie française du bouton (French Button Company). Some other company names from the phone book: COFAP, COFICINE, COFIXEL, COGEMA, COGIFEST, SOCODA, SOCOTEC, SOFIPAR, SOFREGAZ, SOGETEX, SOGETRONIC.
Some common acronyms are:
acronym short for English_________ _________________________________ _________________________________ ASSEDIC Association pour l’emploi dans organization managing l’industrie et le commerce unemployment benefits* B.P. boîte postale P.O. Box CAC 40 Compagnie des agents de change 40 the Paris Dow index* CDD contrat ŕ durée déterminée fixed-term employment contract* CEE Communauté économique européenne European Economic Community (EEC) MATIF Marché ŕ terme international de financial futures market France SICAV Société d’investissement ŕ mutual fund capital variable SMIC Salaire minimum minimum wage interprofessionnel de croissance
The initials are pronounced in the words preceded by an asterisk (“*”); the others are pronounced as if they were normal words.
By 1994 the European Community was being called l’Union européenne (The European Union). I noticed the use of the abbrevation EU in English for about a year before UE turned up in French (on April 13, 1995 in Le Monde).
The plural of an acroynym is unchanged in French:
les Fnac Fnacs (electronics and audio/video stores)* des IBM IBMs* des PC PCs* vos P-D G your CEOs
In fact, invariant plurals are more common in French than I had imagined:
les Baudry the Baudrys (family)les Prisunic Prisunics (similar to Woolworth’s and K-Mart)des Virgin Megastore Virgin Megastores
(There are a few invariant plurals in English as well: take two aspirin/take two Aleve.)
Rules of thumb:
- Plurals are invariant for person names, works (of art, literature) referred to by person name, book names, names of periodicals, trademarks, and upper-case acronyms.
- Plurals are inflected as they normally would be for place names, person names referred to metaphorically, names of inhabitants of places (such as Parisiens), and acronyms in lower-case.
Common mistakes made by English speakers in French
There are a number of common mistakes made by English speakers in French:
- using the wrong gender article or adjective
- using the indicative or subjunctive mood inappropriately
- pronouncing English names the English way instead of the French way
- je vais instead of j’y vais (I’m going/I’m off)
- peut-ętre il a raison (maybe he’s right) instead of peut-ętre qu’il a raison or better yet, il a peut-ętre raison
- il est fini (he is finished, for example as an artist or politician) instead of il a fini (he is finished with whatever he was doing)
There are some handy methods of guessing the gender of a word: Words ending in age, ier, in, isme, ment, and oir are almost always masculine. Some exceptions: cage, image, plage, fin, main.
Words ending in ade, ance, ée, ence, esse, sion, té, tion, and ure are almost always feminine. Some exceptions: grade, stade, centigrade, coryphée, lycée, silence, décolleté, été, doigté, feuilleté, côté, sauté, pâté, comté, himation, ligure, bromure, mercure, tellure (all masculine). (For more detailed information, see the web page Le Truc de Genres at http://www.fourmilab.ch/francais/gender.html).
If you are really stuck and the word ends in e, feminine is a good guess-this works about 66 percent of the time.
The gender of an acronym is the same as the gender of whatever it is derived from-assuming you know that. So la société nationale des chemins de fer français (the French national railroad) is la SNCF.
A brand name often has the same gender as the generic word:
une Mercedes une voiture carun Leica un appareil photo camera
The gender of English borrowings is generally the same as the gender of the corresponding French word:
une grosse news (a juicy piece of news) une nouvellela Central Intelligence Agency la CIA une agencele Massachusetts Institute of Technology le MIT un institut
An exception is le NASDAQ (probably a shortening of le marché NASDAQ), where NASDAQ stands for National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations.
In French, the letters of English-language abbreviations are often pronounced in imitation of English pronunciation:
Usually Instead of _____________ __________EMI i emme aille oe emme iMIT emme aille ti emme i téNBC enne bi si enne bé sé
Even if you know the gender of a noun, it may be hard to get your mouth to use the agreeing article or adjective. If you speak a little more slowly you have more time to prepare mentally before uttering the word. I find this ability improves with time.
There is a transfer of ability from one language to another, so I am better at agreements that are the same in English. For example, there is no problem with il (he) and elle (she). But English only has they where French has ils and elles. So sometimes I incorrectly use ils when referring to a group of women. But since English distinguishes between the third-person singular and plural, I have no trouble making the same distinction in French. More difficult are son, sa, and ses which agree with the noun they modify, while his and her agree with the possessor. Again this improves with time. Think noun agreement!
The more you try to translate English expressions directly-instead of using common French collocations or words commonly found together-the more English you will sound:
OK better English_______________ _____________________ ________________J’aime bien ça. Ca me plaît beaucoup. I like it a lot.
Le Petit Robert is a gold mine of collocations and expressions such as cela se vend comme des petits pains for they are selling like hot cakes. You also pick these up through experience: A woman I had met asked for my telephone number, saying ça peut servir, which I realized meant that might come in handy.
At first it seemed to me that English would make more of an attempt to avoid canned phrases such as thank you for your understanding-very often seen in French as merci de votre compréhension. For example, in the U.S. when renovations are being done you might instead see a sign saying excuse our appearance, which is somewhat humorous-as if someone hadn’t put on makeup. But of course excuse our appearance is also a canned phrase. In any case, these kinds of standards of communication are fairly superficial and can be quickly overturned. Language trends in the mass media spread like wildfire internationally and many of the trends you see in English-magazine articles incorporating the style of spoken speech or advertising copy with short incomplete sentences-you also see in French.
Every day is tous les jours. chaque jour has the slightly different meaning of each day.
All this is not to say that native French speakers don’t also make mistakes with their language. You sometimes hear false starts such as:
J’ai fait de le … du vélo-stop. un nouveau … une nouvelle techniquea new technique tous les données … toutes les donnéesall the data
Adjectives in French usually come after the noun which is convenient because the adjective must agree with the noun and you often think of the noun first. There are also a few cases in English where the adjective comes after the noun:
bargains galoresomething comfortablePrince Charmingthe girls next-doorCoke Classicbattle royaland other matters political
One restaurant in Paris catering to English speakers displayed conditioned air instead of air-conditioned.
signaux is the correct plural of signal, but this speaker thought it was wrong and mistakenly corrected it to signals:
… des signaux-des signals (laughs)
In print, an n elison from en became a nonexistent ne:
Elle n’en n’avait pas eu le temps.
The book Pičges et difficultés de la langue française (Pitfalls and difficulties of the French language) says the t should not be pronounced in en fait (actually, in reality), but almost everyone does.
Everyone says c’est de ma faute (it’s my fault) but c’est ma faute is considered more correct (though Grevisse in Le bon usage shows this to be valid and have a slightly different meaning).
Section 3: Fine points
One time I said je pensais que tu l’as vu (I thought you saw it). I was told this sounds wrong in French-since the seeing is prior in time to the thinking, the pluperfect must be used: je pensais que tu l’avais vu (I thought you had seen it).
French has rules about what tenses go together (called concordance des temps or tense agreement) which can be found in grammar books. The basic idea is, if the time is the same, the verbs are in the same basic tense-past, present, or future. So unlike in English where you say when they arrive, we will start, in French you say quand ils arriveront, nous commencerons (when they will arrive …). And if you want to say when they arrive, we start, you can: quand ils arrivent, nous commençons. However the tense agreement rules are not always maintained in informal spoken French.
Particularly difficult is the choice between the passé composé and the imperfect, since these tenses do not correspond to the simple past and past progressive respectively in English. Here are some rules of thumb:
- To describe a stable state of affairs, use the imperfect:
· En 1965, la maison appartenait ŕ ma grand-mčre.· In 1965, the house belonged to my grandmother.· · Il y a une semaine, j’étais content.· A week ago, I was happy.
- To describe a change of state, use the passé composé:
· Tout ŕ coup, j’ai été content.· All of a sudden, I was happy. (= I became happy)
- To describe a process or action which was in progress or unfolding at the time being focused upon, use the imperfect:
· Hier soir, Jean écrivait un roman.· Last night, Jean was writing a novel.· · Ŕ 8 heures précises, je jetais un coup d’oeil ŕ ma montre.· At exactly 8 a.m., I was glancing at my watch.
- To describe a completed process or action, use the passé composé:
· Jean a écrit un roman, et puis…· Jean wrote a novel, and then…
If you would use the present perfect in English, it is probably correct to use the passé composé in French:
Viens voir! J’ai repeint le mur.Come take a look! I’ve repainted the wall.
The future tense is sometimes used in past narratives where English would use the simple past or would + infinitive:
Pendant quatorze ans … il dirigera les opérations secrčtes …il ne sera libéré qu’en 1968. For forty years … he directed the secret operations … he wasnot released until 1968. Jacques Cartier découvrit le Canada. Il y retournera plusieurs fois.Jacques Cartier discovered Canada. He would return there several times. (or He was to return…)
It may seem strange for the future tense to be used to refer to a past event, but tenses don’t correspond to time in English either. One example is at the laundromat, you will often find detergent. This isn’t really in the future-it’s a generalization about past events. (Linguists study something they call verb aspect-much more complicated than simply past, present, and future.)
In English the word it is often used without any clearly expressed antecedent:
OK, so we’re getting together for lunch on Tuesday? I’ll make a noteof it. (it = appointment)
In French you would say Je note le rendez-vous (I’ll make a note of the appointment). You would not say Je le note unless le rendez-vous has been explicitly mentioned.
Where English uses it, French often uses ça:
It isn’t worth it. Ca vaut pas la peine.
Instead of using a vague it as in English, in French one sometimes omits the direct object of a verb-provided it is clear what is being referred to. So one may say Je note in the above example, and one may say j’aime pas (I don’t like) instead of j’aime pas ça (I don’t like that).
French though does not always require the antecedent to come before the pronoun which refers to it:
redonne leur beauté naturelle aux cheveux(literally, restores its natural beauty to hair)restores hair’s natural beauty
Words such as jamais and personne to me meant never and nobody. I soon learned they can mean ever and anyone as well:
le plus beau texte jamais écrit par Cocteauthe most beautiful passage ever written by Cocteau Je la connais mieux que personne au monde.I know her better than anyone in the world. C’est plus vrai que jamais aujourd’hui.This is now truer than ever.
I was originally taught to use ne … ni … ni for the English neither … nor but there are at least three possibilities, with slightly different meanings:
Je n’aime ni le tennis ni le football. I like neither tennis nor football.Je n’aime pas le tennis ni le football. I don’t like tennis nor do I like football.Je n’aime pas le tennis et le football. I don’t like tennis or football.
In an infinitive construction:
Ne pas utiliser de lessive ŕ la main, ni en paillettes.Do not use hand detergent or soap flakes.
For either … or you can use ou bien … ou bien … as well as soit … soit … or even soit … ou bien.
Numbers and letters
In English, a phone number such as 555-3401 is typically pronounced five-five-five (slight pause) three-four-oh-one. In France, phone numbers are broken up into a series of two-digit numbers such as 01 36 65 27 66. (France switched from 8 to 10 digits on October 18, 1996.) Each two-digit number is pronounced as if it were a regular number-you don’t say trois–six (pause) six–cinq and so on, but rather trente-six soixante-cinq and so on. However, if one of the two-digit numbers is a zero, then the English method of pronouncing the individual digits is used: 01 36 00 02 47 is pronounced zero-un trente-six zero-zero zero-deux quarante-sept. Especially in an advertisement, you might hear trente-six deux fois (thirty six twice) for 36 36.
For long bank or customer numbers, if printed in groups of numbers, you pronounce each group as a number. If a long string of digits is shown without grouping, you revert to the English method of pronouncing each digit separately.
“Quatre vingt” in French is ambiguous-it could mean 80 or 4 20, though 80 is much more likely. Same in English-“twenty one” could mean 21 or 20 1. Still, soixante-dix, quatre-vingt, and quatre-vingt dix are sufficiently error prone that Parisian financial traders use the regional terms septante (seventy), octante (eighty) and nonante (ninety) when quoting prices.
When spelling my name, Mueller, I learned to say deux els–el el and double el do not seem to be common.
To pronounce the word tu properly, round your lips as if you were saying the English word who and without changing your lips from this position, say the English letter T.
Once you have the front u sound down, to pronounce the even more difficult glide sound of huit, start to pronounce ut (do, as in do re mi) but think huit at the same time. Some other practice words: suis, bruit, bruyant (as distinguished from brillant).
English vowel sounds are generally diphthongized-the tongue and jaw glide from one position to another as you are pronouncing the vowel. For example, in time the i is pronounced gliding from the ah sound to the ee sound, and tee is pronounced gliding from something like an ih sound to an ee sound. In contrast, French vowel sounds are generally pure-you keep your mouth in one and only one position for the duration of the vowel.
The vowel sound in vous is similar to the oo sound in English, except that it is not diphthongized and your lips are more rounded.
Remember to use the same very rounded lips for the w sound in words such as moi and toi.
The a sound in words such as d’accord and Madame is pronounced not with a back ah sound as in father, but closer to the front æ vowel sound in hat-actually a good approximation is the vowel sound in the Boston pronunciation of car.
The final sound of Brassens (the name of a popular French singer/songwriter) and other similar names such as Thorens is the nasal vowel sound of fin followed by an s sound.
In Paris, the vowel in enfant and francs and is much more rounded than I had imagined (or is implied by the International Phonetic Alphabet transcription provided in dictionaries). It’s a nasalized, rounded, back aw sound, not the less rounded, more front sound used in Canadian French.
Because the vowel in enfant is very rounded in Parisian French, you need to round the vowel in bon even more to distinguish it. A good practice phrase is son temps: start very very rounded for son and then let up a bit for temps.
We may be witnessing the beginning of the disappearance of the distinction between these two vowels. In the history of languages, vowel distinctions are continually created and destroyed over time. Nobody knows exactly why-laziness or a kind of “mumbling tendency” is usually cited as an explanation of the destruction of vowel distinctions, while the need to be different is cited as a reason for their creation. The distinction between brun and brin is almost gone in French. The distinction between cot and caught is gone in many American English dialects.
Nasal vowels in French (as in the words amant, bien, and bon) arose historically via the following sequence of events:
in general pronunciation of bon _______________________ ___________________________Step 1: vowel + nasal b + o + nStep 2: nasalized vowel + nasal b + nasalized o + nStep 3: nasalized vowel b + nasalized o
That is, the m‘s and n‘s in such words were once pronounced, then the vowel started taking on the nasal quality (lowering the soft palate so that air passes through the nasal passages) of the m or n, and finally the m and n disappeared altogether. English is at Step 2 for some words-compare the pronunciation of pat and pan. Some African-American dialects of English take it to Step 3 and drop the final consonant, just like French.
Vowels in Canadian French and Parisian French seem to be moving in opposite directions: In Paris the vowel of bien is becoming lower so that it sounds more like byah, while in Canada the vowel is becoming higher and the nasalization reduced so it sounds more like byih.
e‘s which are present in the spelling of a word and pronounced in the South of France but not normally pronounced in Parisian French are called mute e‘s (e muet in French). They are revived when reading traditional poetry or singing songs. The classical rule is to pronounce a mute e if it is before a consonant inside a line or if it is at the end of a line. Though I’ve noticed in some rock songs mute e is not pronounced when followed by an s or z sound.
In Parisian French, a mute e is retained when dropping it would create a series of three consonants (where the third is not an r or l). Thus the mute e is pronounced in n’importe quoi (anything, nonsense).
English is said to have difficult spelling, but French is difficult too-for example there are 30 ways of spelling the č sound: e, é, č, ai, ais, ait, ay, ei, ey, … Some-such as this French engineer of speech understanding systems quoted in Actuel magazine-believe it to be more complicated than English:
Une des grandes difficultés du français, c’est la non-homogénéitéentre la phonétique et l’alphabétique … Ce qui est loin d’ętre lecas de l’anglais ou de l’américain. A big problem in French is the inconsistency between sounds andspelling … Which is far from the case in British or American English.
The reason spelling doesn’t always correspond to pronunciation is that pronunciation changes more quickly than spelling. For good reason-you wouldn’t want to have to reprint all books every time there is a sound change, and you wouldn’t want to have to produce different books for every dialect! (Perhaps computer technology will someday make customized spelling feasible?) Here is the evolution of roi and loi according to the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure:
century spelling pronunciation_______ ________ _____________11th rei, lei rei, lei13th roi, loi roi, loi14th roi, loi roč, ločnow roi, roi rwa, lwa
I had always concentrated on getting the French r , l, and vowel sounds right since they seemed the most different from English. But I soon learned there are a number of differences in the articulation of other consonants.
The consonants t, d, and n are normally articulated in English by placing the tongue against the ridge in back of your teeth. In French they are articulated where the ridge meets the teeth, or even slightly on the teeth. To learn the French articulation, compare how you pronounce the English tree with the way you pronounce at three. The dental articulation of the t in at three is similar to the way t‘s d‘s and n‘s are always articulated in French. It almost sounds like a slight lisp to the English ear. Some practice words: thé, toit, doit.
Voicing is the technical term for vibrating your vocal cords. When you whisper, you aren’t voicing. b is the voiced version of p, d is the voiced version of t, and so on. The consonants b, d, and g are voiced for their entire duration in French, whereas in English they start out unvoiced for an instant and then become voiced. To pronounce the French b, d, or g , make sure you start your vocal cords vibrating the instant you start to pronounce the sound. I think of it as pronouncing the sound “more strongly.” Some practice words: bois, doit.
The consonants p, t, and k at the beginning of a word are pronounced in English with an extra burst of air from the mouth, called aspiration. To see what is meant by aspiration, try pronouncing pin and spin. pin is aspirated and spin isn’t. There is no aspiration in the French pronunciation. Thus-as the linguist Sapir put it-the French p, t, and k have a “precise, metallic quality.” I think of it as pronouncing the sound “more lightly” and “more crisply.” The French t sound is just a quick tongue tap. When pronounced properly, the French p actually sounds closer to an English b than an English p, and the t closer to d. Some practice words: paix, pois, thé, toit.
The r in words such as trois and droit must be pronounced strongly to distinguish them from toit and doit.
Many of the French articulations are actually simpler. It’s just a question of unlearning your more complicated English articulations (only when speaking French of course!). Here is a practice sentence incorporating some of the sounds discussed above:
Et qu’ils doivent vivre désormais dans une société de proies et deprédateurs. And that they have to live from now on in a society of predatorand prey.
The consonants that should be pronounced “more strongly” are shown in boldface and those that should be pronounced “more lightly” are in italics.
The French l is articulated nearer to the English n: balle de set (set point) sounds slightly like banne de sette.
In the history of the French language, many consonants at the end of a word have disappeared from pronunciation. Some surprises: You do pronounce the final consonants of amer (bitter), Boulez (the French composer), fier (proud), and net (clear). But you do not pronounce the final c in tabac (tobacconist’s shop)-though you do use a k sound at the end of sac and tic. You can pronounce but (goal) with or without the t-it hasn’t disappeared for everyone yet.
Whether to pronounce or not pronounce the final consonant of numbers is a bit tricky. The t is pronounced in vingt (twenty) in the numbers 21 through 29, and when there is liaison with the following word: vingt ans (twenty years). In other cases such as vingt personnes (twenty people) and il y en a vingt (there are twenty of them), the t isn’t pronounced.
The t in huit is pronounced if there is liaison with the following word, if it is being used as an ordinal adjective as in le 8 janvier (January 8th), if it is begin used as a noun as in multiplier par huit (multiply by 8), or if it is part of a compound number as in dix-huit (eighteen) and vingt-huit (twenty eight). The t is not pronounced if it is used as a cardinal adjective as in huit jours.
When plus is used to mean more or most the s is not sounded, except before a vowel, at the end of a sentence, and in plus que. When plus is used to mean not anymore, the s is never sounded. The s is sounded when plus is used to mean plus (as in deux plus quatre font six or two plus four is six).
Some French words begin with two consonants in a row that would not both be pronounced in English. In French they are both pronounced:
Fnac Fnac record storepneu tirepseudo pseudopsychologue psychologistpsy shrink
Some more observations: observateur is pronounced with an ops sound, not an obz sound as in English. version is pronounced with an s, not a z sound. The w in interviewer (to interview) is pronounced with a v sound. The p is pronounced in beaucoup ŕ faire (a lot to do). There is never liason between et (and) and the following word.
In French, the accent of a word is usually on the last syllable. A declarative sentence in French is generally spoken with a rising intonation for each phrase, except the last phrase of the sentence which is spoken with a descending intonation.
For short standard phrases such as au revoir, bonjour, bonsoir, and merci it is very common to use a rising intonation on the last syllable even when a question is not being asked.
When saying tous les or toutes les, a high tone is often used on the word tous or toutes for extra emphasis. This does sound good.
In English it is common to use intonation for emphasis, where French instead uses additional words:
Qu’est-ce que c’est que cette histoire?! What are you talking about?!C’est ma chatte ŕ moi./C’est ma chatte. It’s my cat.C’est moi qui vous remercie. Thank you.Ca, c’est sűr. That’s for sure.
Intonation can also be used for emphasis in French, but the rules are different:
Il n’existait pas. Maintenant il existe. It didn’t exist. Now it exists. C’est son devoir.It’s his duty.
(And of course words can be used for emphasis in English as well, as in this does sound good.)
Now I can answer the questions I asked at the beginning.
Q: Is there a single moment when the language finally clicks and you understand it?
A: No. It’s a gradual and continuing process. When I first started learning French, I could immediately understand oui and non to mean yes and no. At that point I understood less than, say, 1 percent of the French language. Since then, a greater and greater percentage of French is understandable to me directly, without having to think about it or translate it into English.
It takes a while to tune in to all the exact sounds required to distinguish different words: the u sound in jus and vous is different, but when someone said jus d’orange (orange juice) I thought they were saying je vous dérange? (is this a good time?/did I catch you at a bad time?). This distinction is often critical, as in the case of ci-dessous (below) and ci-dessus (above). Or when they said pour aller oů? (where are you going?) I thought they said pour l’avion? (for the plane?).
I’m still not sure I understand the difference between un nouveau film and un film nouveau, but for other adjectives I started to feel the difference: une certaine violence is a certain type of violence while une violence certaine is a violence that is certain.
I would guess my percentage of comprehension is now around 75-99 percent, depending on the situation. There were moments when I thought to myself, “Wow, I’m actually understanding and speaking French and not really aware of it,” but no single moment for me where it all clicks.
Q: When can you speak it?
A: Learning to speak in a foreign language is also a gradual and continuing process. In the beginning the problem is that you are always hitting up against concepts you don’t know how to express. In that case you have two choices: You can pause to think, in which case the person you are talking to may try to help you out with the missing word or expression. But listeners are impatient with silence and if they can’t guess what you mean they will just go onto something else. Or you can try to express the idea in a very awkward manner using words that you do know. This is the best strategy. The person you are talking to may or may not correct you.
One time I wanted to buy a fan (ventilateur) but I didn’t know the word, so I asked for an éventail électrique (electric handheld fan). OK, they may have looked at me a little askance, but they had no trouble understanding. Unfortunately, fans were sold out in France that summer. Eh oui. (I’m afraid so.)
Another time, I could not remember the word for straw (paille), so I asked for a petit tuyau (little pipe). Strange looks, but I got the straw.
As you learn more French words and expressions by reading and listening, you find that they start to come to you naturally in speaking. And through speaking you reinforce words and expressions so that they come to you more quickly in the future. The speed improves with time. I can speak quickly only if everything I want to say is already on the tip of my tongue. I’m still not able to talk about a broad range of topics competently in French, but at a party with a lot of noise I can fool a French person into thinking I’m French for about 15 seconds! Not bad!
Certain words which seem not to have an exact equivalent in English, such as the conjunction or (and yet, now), took me quite a while to get used to.
Q: How long does it take?
A: After about a month of immersion in a foreign language, you can start to communicate in it. But there is a lot to learn after that.
Q: Once you can understand and speak it, does it feel as natural as English?
A: The portion I understand feels no different than if it were expressed in English. It’s the portion I don’t understand which makes French still seem fuzzier to me than English, as if there were a slight fog. Understanding feels more natural than speaking, where I am always aware of my accent.
When I read a book in French and suddenly there is a quotation in English, the contrast is striking. It’s hard to describe what it seems like for that instant-the English seems quaint, silly, over-simplified, vulnerable, or as if too much weight is being given to some mundane English text. I can almost hear the English words being pronounced with a French accent.
Q: Can you distinguish different dialects-both accents and vocabulary? In the same way as English dialects?
A: So far I can detect foreign and Canadian accents, but I’m not usually aware that a person is from Toulouse or Lille-I’m busy just understanding. I sometimes notice differences in pronunciation of words, such as au revoir pronounced as three syllables instead of two, but have no idea where they are from.
Q: How much are differences between English and French cultural?
A: The relationship between language and culture is a classic debate among linguists. I will just offer some observations:
The greatest majority of words and expressions are directly translatable between French and English, which I attribute to the commonalities and cross-pollination between the two 20th century Western cultures. Even Murphy’s Law has an equivalent: la loi de l’emmerdement maximum (the law of maximum shit).
There are some difficult-to-translate words and expressions-you can come up with a translation for any given situation, but there is nothing which works in all situations. When there is only one word in your language, you get the impression there is only one concept. Upon further reflection, you may acknowledge the different meanings or nuances of meaning, but the boundaries are often hard to draw. If you are used to using a certain blanket word in your native language, it can be frustrating to learn that the word doesn’t exist in the foreign language. You’re forced to think harder about what you actually mean!
Sometimes there isn’t a word for something-as noted above there’s no word for dégustation in English and no word for serendipity in French. Different cultures do concentrate more than others on refining certain areas of meaning.
Thanks to Marie Perrin for her detailed comments on this work and the additional examples she contributed. Thanks also to 15 people whose suggestions have been incorporated and others who responded to the web page.
And thanks to everyone else who made this possible!
Conversion of most of this book from Microsoft Word to HTML was made possible by Chris Hector’s RTFtoHTML program.
In association with Amazon.com
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Maurice Grevisse and André Goosse, Le bon usage, 12e édition, Duculot, Paris, 1986.
J.-P. Vinay and J. Darbelnet, Stylistique comparée du français et de l’anglais, Didier, Paris, 1977.
Jacqueline Guillemin-Flescher, Syntaxe comparée du français et de l’anglais, Éditions Ophrys, 1981.
Marina Yaguello, En écoutant parler la langue, Seuil, Éditions du seuil, Paris, 1991.
Peter Newmark, Paragraphs on translation, Multilingual Matters Ltd, Clevedon, England, 1993.
Bernard Tranel, The sounds of French, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 1987.
Adrian Battye and Marie-Anne Hintze, The French language today, Routledge, London and New York, 1992.
Bodo Muller, Le français d’aujourd’hui, Éditions Klincksieck, Paris, 1985.
Hélčne Chuquet and Michel Paillard, Approche linguistique des problčmes de traduction anglais/français, Éditions Ophrys, Paris, 1987.
Jacques Van Roey, Sylviane Granger, and Helen Swallow, Dictionary of faux amis, Duculot, Paris, 1991.
Henriette Walter, L’aventure des langues en Occident, Robert Laffont, Paris, 1994.
David Burke, Street French I, Second edition, John Wiley, New York, 1996.
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Genevieve, Merde Encore!, Atheneum, New York, 1987.
Additional commonly-used words and phrases
coincé inhibited, boringcrevé, épuisé, nase beat, burned out, exhausteddécontracté relaxedefficace efficientfou, cinglé, dingue, zinzin crazyinsupportable unbearablemarginal fringemignon ŕ croquer cute as a buttonNew Yorkais of New Yorkpénible annoying (person), painful, unpleasantrépandu widespread, commonly foundsemblable similarsingulier uniquevraisemblable likely, probable
apparemment apparentlyauparavant before, beforehandbien verybien indeedcarrément completely, downrightforcément necessarilyfort veryplein de lots ofquasiment nearly, practicallyquelque peu rather, somewhattoujours still, always
agence branchbalivernes, bętises, conneries garbage, nonsense, stupidityballe francla banlieue the suburbsboîte companybouffe foodcasse-pieds a pain in the neckcentre commercial mall, shopping centerchiottes toiletscommérages gossipcopain/copine friend, boyfriend/girlfriendcourants d’air breezeenfant gâté spoiled bratfoutaise totale total crapfrimeur showoffgâchis mess, waste (as in gâchis politique)jouissance pleasurele strict nécessaire the bare essentialsles sans domicile fixe the homelessles S.D.F. the homelessles sans-abri the homelessmerde, caca, crotte shitnounou food (used with children), nannynounourse teddy bearnuitée night (spent in a hotel)ours en peluche teddy bearpetit ami, petit copain boyfriendpetite amie, petite copine girlfriendpičce de théâtre playpoint de repčre point of referencepote friendsičge social main office, national headquartersune boum a partyvernissage opening (at an art gallery)
annuler un rendez-vous cancel an appointmentavoir (un) rendez-vous have an appointmentbachoter cram (for a test)bouquiner readbriser breakdécaler un rendez-vous reschedule an appointmentdéchirer tear updéposer to deposit (a check)ętre de retour come backfaire ça do itfaire la fęte party, celebratefaire la grasse matinée sleep infaire la tęte sulkfiler givefiler leavefixer (un) rendez-vous set an appointmentjouir enjoy, savor, climaxlarguer dump (a boyfriend/girlfriend)prendre la parole take the floor, speakprendre son pied get a kick out of somethingprendre (un) rendez-vous make an appointmentprendre un pot go for a drinkprendre un verre go for a drinkrater miss (a plane, a TV show)s’éclater have a balls’occuper de take care of, worry aboutse régaler feast, regalese remémorer recollectsupporter stand, beartricher cheattromper deceive, cheat onzoner hang around
ŕ 3 heures pile at 3 o’clock sharpŕ 3 heures tapant at 3 o’clock on the dotŕ merveille wonderfullyŕ peu prčs almostŕ une exception prčs except for one thingŕ un franc prčs give or take a francŕ l’issue de at the end ofd’emblée immediatelyd’ici un an within a year, a year from nowd’occasion useddans les mois qui viennent in the upcoming monthsde quoi means, reasonen effet that’s righten particulier in privateen passe de about toen permanence permanentlyen voie de disparition endangered (species)faire gaffe watch outfaire une gaffe blunderhuîtres ŕ volonté oysters-all you can eat jusqu’ŕ présent so farjusqu’au bout all the way, to the very endlaissez tomber forget it, never mind, let it gole Français moyen the average Frenchpersonmercredi 12 Wednesday the 12thne fűt-ce que pour even if only tooublie, oubliez forget I even said itouverture exceptionnelle holiday hours (department store)patatras ! crash!petit ŕ petit little by littlepas ŕ pas step by stepque sais je what have youquitte ŕ even if it meansrupture de stock out of stocksauf erreur unless I am mistakensi je comprends bien if I understand correctlysi je ne m’abuse unless I am mistakensi je ne me trompe unless I am mistakensoit (t pronounced) so be itsoit (t not pronounced) which brings/makes a total oftandis que whereas, whiletant mieux good for him/her/themtant pis too bad, never mindtaratata! bullshit! I don’t believe you!tout ŕ coup suddenly, all of a suddentout ŕ l’heure in a second, a second agotout de suite immediately, right awayAllez les enfants. Come on, kids.Avec ceci?/Avec ça? Will that be all? (at grocery counter)Ca me fait chier. That really pisses me off.Ca vous dérange si je … ? Do you mind if I … ?Ca vous va? Is it OK with you?Ca va s’arranger. Things will work themselves out.C’est faux. That’s wrong. (a word, a dance step, …)C’est impossible ŕ louper. You can’t miss it. (when giving directions)C’est juste? Is that correct? (said of change)C’est la raison pour laquelle … That’s why …C’est pas trop tôt ! Never too soon!C’est pour ça que je … That’s why I … C’est un petit peu dommage. That’s a bit of a shame.C’est un petit peu compliqué. It’s sort of complicated.C’était bien vous. It was you all right.Comme ça. Just because.Elle est en ligne. She’s on another line.Est-ce que ça te branche? Sound good to you?Est-ce que ça te dit? Sound good to you?Faut pas ręver! Get real!/In your dreams!Il n’y a pas de quoi rire. There’s no reason to laugh.J’ai beau essayer, je peux pas. Try as I might, I can’t do it.J’ai du mal ŕ … I have trouble …J’ai toujours su que… I’ve always known…Je suis plus accommodant que vous ne le pensez. I’m more easygoing than you think.Je ne sais que faire. I don’t know what to do.Je ne sais pas quoi faire. I don’t know what to do.Je n’arrive pas ŕ … I am having trouble …, I can’t seem to …Lŕ, vous allez fort! You’re really going off on a limb there!Moi je déconne. I’m talking nonsense.On est bien comme ça. I’m happy.On est en démocratie! It’s a free country!On est en république! It’s a free country!On se retrouve au café. We’ll meet at the café.Parce que parce que. Just because.Parisien de souche Parisian born and bredPas question! Out of the question!/No way!Pourquoi tu dis ça? Why do you say that?Qu’est-ce que vous faites dans la vie? What do you do for a living?Qu’est-ce que tu me racontes? So what’s up?Soit. So be it.Surtout pas. Certainly not.T’as bien dormi? Did you sleep well?T’as qu’ŕ suivre. All you have to do is follow. Sheesh.T’as qu’ŕ venir. Just come along, silly.Tu fais bel avoir… It would be good for you to have…Tu l’as fait exprčs? Did you do that on purpose?Veuillez patienter. Please hold. (on telephone)