Language Notes: Little French Words that are Hard to Translate

It’s a while since we had a language post. French as it is spoken bears little resemblance to the French we pored over at school. I learned the language for years, but it did little to equip me for life here, or even for holidays. For some reason, a passage we had to translate from our school textbook entitled “Chiang Kai-shek’s Car” has stuck in my memory, but only for its utter irrelevance to everyday life.

Only after we moved to France, and I took intensive lessons for four years, did I really begin to learn the language. Mixing with French people, reading newspapers and books and watching TV made me realise that what I had learned was the tip of the iceberg. The Maigret books helped a lot, despite their out-of-date idioms. I recommend them if you want good but easy reads.

Common words in conversation

Like English, spoken French has its words or phrases that don’t mean much per se but can carry a wealth of emotional meaning. We use “like”. “anyway”, “yeah well”, “you know”, “really” without thinking. The French have their own versions.

There are lots of them, but I’ll focus on a couple that you’re likely to hear if you listen to French people talk. I’ve picked them up from friends, but my first attempts to use them were fraught with anxiety. After a while, however, you get an instinctive sense for their meaning, even if an exact definition is elusive.

Quand même

You hear this all the time. The closest translation is “anyway”, “all the same” or “nevertheless”. It’s often, but not necessarily, inserted after a verb. Quand même carries the sense of disregarding or triumphing over adversity.

Je crois que c’est fermé, mais j’y vais quand même.“- I think it’s closed, but I’ll go anyway.

Or it can be used simply as an interjection to express surprise.

J’ai fait le ménage aujourd’hui.” “Quand même !” – I did the housework today. Really?

Quoi

Quoi generally means “what”. It’s a not terribly polite way of indicating that you haven’t heard. Politer forms are comment or pardon. Or it’s used in phrases like “j’ai de quoi manger” – I’ve got enough to eat, or “quoi de neuf” – what’s new, what’s happening?

But this little word often sneaks in at the end of a phrase, where it has absolutely no grammatical utility or real meaning, except to emphasise what has gone before. It’s like a sort of verbal exclamation mark. It can express indignation or that something is self-evident. One of our French friends punctuates almost every sentence with it.

Il a même demandé d’être payé en espèces, quoi !” – He even asked to be paid in cash!

C’est ridicule, quoi !” It’s ridiculous!

You’ll also hear “eh bien” (well), “ma foi” (frankly, indeed), enfin bref (briefly, to sum up – to avoid going into detail), and plenty of others you didn’t learn at school.

Some misconceptions

A couple of interjections you are most unlikely to hear.

Zut alors !

In 25 years here, I have never heard a French person say this. And only one person I know ever says, “Zut !” (By the way, certain punctuation, including ? ; : and !, is always preceded by a space in written French).

The closest translation is “blast!” or “damn!”

Ooh la la !

You won’t hear this, either. It’s not “ooh”, it’s “oh”. But French people do say, “Oh la la!” The closest translation is, “Oh dear!” If someone is particularly perplexed about something, you might hear, “Oh la la, la la, la la !” Yes, I have heard that.

This is not used in the salacious nod-nod, wink-wink sense that you often find attributed to it in English, accompanied by images of scantily clad ladies at le Moulin Rouge.

Gros mots

I’ll refrain from regaling you with the fruitier swear words (gros mots), except to say that if you want to express annoyance/frustration/dissatisfaction, and you don’t want to use “m**de”, say “mince” instead.

When we attended French classes here, several people in our group had school-age children. The parents were concerned that their children were picking up swear words from their friends. They wanted to recognise the words and forbid their use, so they asked our teacher to make a list.

This she did one evening. Her husband, a gendarme, was sitting watching TV. Without explanation, she handed him the list of pretty rich swear words.

“What the **** is this?” he said in the French equivalent.

What French words like the ones above have you come across?

I’ll leave you with the thought that it’s now only 24 days until Christmas. Christmas markets are popping up like mushrooms in surrounding villages, and the supermarket shelves are groaning with chocolates and other Xmas goodies. A few restrained Christmas decorations have made their appearance, but the festivities here are still less boisterous than in the UK. And I prefer it like that.

Stay well in the run-up to Noël. Bien à vous (all the best).

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8 comments

  1. Hi Vanessa Loved the language blog particularly as they are some words I was unsure of. One of these days I must go on a course!!! Keep saying it…. Just don’t get round to doing it.

    MJ

    Liked by 1 person

    • Doing an intensive French course was the best thing I could have done here. I was painfully aware after a year here that I had to do something to improve, otherwise I would always be at a disadvantage. If you get the chance, it’s certainly worth it.

      Like

  2. I had a couple of thoughts on this:

    Idiomatic expressions come and go, no? I remember well when people would say ‘Cela ne fait rien’ or ‘Je vous en prie.’ But it is a long time since I heard either of them.

    Today, I wonder to what extent TV has an effect. Recently I have noticed a tendency for people being interviewed, with ‘c’est compliqué. Or, if it is a question of unusually warm weather ‘c’est inquiétant.’ People seem to pick these things up from previous interviews.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Words and phrases are subject to fashion, like many other things, fuelled increasingly by social media as well as TV. ‘Inquiétant’ is a greatly overused word these days, as is ‘inédit’ in the sense of unheard of (often about something that does actually have a precedent!).

      Phrases fall out of fashion, too, as you say, although I would say I often hear ‘Cela ne fait rien’. ‘Je vous en prie’ is a bit stuffy and old-fashioned these days, although someone said it to me the other day when I apologised, having got in his way.

      Language, and the way it develops over time, fascinates me.

      Like

  3. Eh beh mais oui alors ! My sons heard this at the local market many many years ago, punctuating a conversation between two old men. As young boys newly arrived in South West France they latched on to it and this expression lives on in our family’s vocabulary. Another expression that I like is ‘Ca y est’. Like you I was nervous of using it to begin with, partly because I had no idea how it was spelt. Thank you for another interesting and amusing post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good one! You hear ‘eh beh’ a lot. No doubt your boys picked up the colloquialisms very quickly, as children do. Ca y est is another one you hear all the time. Like you, I didn’t know how it was spelt, since it’s pronounced siyay. Once I knew the spelling, it was easier to work out how to use it. Minefields everywhere!

      Like

  4. Vanessa I love this post! It really strikes a chord! We are spending several weeks in Italy just now and my husband is having fun practising all the ‘little words’ in Italian, launching into conversations with ‘quindi’ (therefore) and ‘comunque’ (however, anyway) and working on harder ones like ‘quasi quasi’ (a sort of ‘perhaps’) and ‘magari’ (which can mean lots of things ranging from ‘You bet’ to ‘I suppose’) – that one word could fill a blog post! Thanks for a fun read,

    Liked by 1 person

    • I learned Italian for a couple of years, but I never learned any of those words! Every language has them, doesn’t it? Native speakers intuitively know what they mean and how to use them. It can take years for outsiders to pick them up.

      Like

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