Sunday, July 08, 2007

Bonjour, Part Two -- A Little Bit about the French Language

Here are a few hints for pronouncing French words:

1) Keep your tone of voice soft and gentle. Be particularly careful about this if you are from the U.S. Even though the French enjoy heated discussions, they do not speak as loudly as Americans do.
2) Pronounce each syllable clearly, with a slight stress on the last syllable. Speak smoothly, but do not slur sounds, as you might in English.
3) A cedilla is a mark that is sometimes placed under the letter c. When you see a cedilla, pronounce the C like "s". In other words, treat the C as a soft C, not a hard C -- like K. For example, in the word
Français (French), the little cedilla under the c tells you that you should pronounce the word Fran-say instead of Fran-kay. You never see a cedilla used when the C is in front of an E or I, because C is always soft, like S, in front of these vowels.
4) There are some accents or marks that are used over French vowels that help with pronunciation. (There are a couple of other accents that serve other purposes, but we won't fool with those).
a) accent aigu -- placed over the letter e. When you see it, pronounce the e like long a in English. An example of this is
Fiancé. Note the angle of this accent.
b) accent grave placed over a, e, u. This only affects pronunciation when it is placed over e, as in the word
chèque. This indicates that the e is pronounced similarly to the e in the English word check or in our word pet. Note that this accent slants the opposite way from the accent aigu.
c) accent
tréma -- two dots that can be over an e, i, or u. You see this when two vowels are next to each other and both are to be be pronounced. An example is the word naïve.
5) French vowels are generally pronounced differently than in English. Actually, English vowels used to be pronounced just like French vowels. No one knows exactly why that got changed around many centuries ago. See this link for a simple explanation of how French vowel sounds work, see In the meantime, one key point is to remember that the French I is pronounced like the English e. For example, when we see Nice, we would rhyme it with ice. But, the French would rhyme it with neice.
6) Final consonants are generally not pronounced, except for c, e, f, and l or when necesssary to make the language flow. For example, the French would not say the letter "t" on the end of the word "moment" (In French, this sounds something like mow-maw. I don't have the correct symbols in my type to reproduce it exactly.)
7) H is not pronounced. For example, in the phrase hors-d'oeuvres, you never say the "h" at the beginning. It's pronounced "or d'erv". Some French words, such as huit (eight), have a slightly aspirated sound, in which a sort of h-like sound is barely whispered. If you are a beginning French student, don't bother with that. Just leave off the H entirely, and everyone will know what you mean. The French also do not have a sound for th. Some of their words begin with th, just as English words do, but the h is never pronounced. Just say the t sound. For example, thé, which means tea, is pronounced tay, as rhymes with say or day.

Of course, in one post, I can't tell all you need to know to pronounce French. But, if you understand at least these seven things, you'll be on your way. :)

Now, on to a few French words that you probably already know:

R.S.V.P. -- This is the abbreviation for the French phrase, "Respondez, s'il vous plait." This means, "Please respond". (Note, don't write "Please R.S.V.P." That's like writing, "please respond please."

billet doux (bee-yay doo) -- literally sweet tickets or notes -- love letters.

haut or haute -- high, as in tall or up high; high as in fine or excellent or great
Terre Haute -- literally high ground or high earth -- a city in Indiana that must be on high ground.
cuisine -- cookery, cooking
haute cuisine -- high cooking style -- food as served in a top restaurant or by a great chef
couture -- dressmaking, sewing, needlework
haute couture -- high fashion, as you would find in designer collections
Prêt a porter (pronounced pret ah portay) -- ready to wear, off the rack -- not clothing from a fashion house or on the runway, but what you would find on the rack in a store.

Belle -- beautiful -- in English, it used to mean a pretty and popular girl
Beau -- handsome -- In English, it used to mean a suitor or boyfriend.
Belle and Beau show up in lots of U.S. and British place names and surnames -- Bellevue and Beaumont, for example.

au jus -- served with a sauce or with the natural juice produced as the meat cooked
au gratin -- topped with bread crumbs and butter or with cheese and baked in the oven (Reader Carien tells us this comes from the type of dish used to bake the crumb topped food.)
au courant -- describes a person who is current, up to date, or a current trend, itself.
a la mode -- literally "in the style" -- 1) in keeping with current style 2) in the style of someone or something else, e.g. "a la mode de Rembrant" means in the style of Rembrant 3) In English, we also use it to say pie " topped with ice cream". This was a new fad at one time. Thus, it was once pie "a la mode", and the name stuck.

cachet -- a distinctive quality

c'est la vie -- That's life! -- That's how it goes; that's just part of life.
c'est la guerre -- That's war! -- This is what happens in war; War is tragic, but what else can you expect it to be?
c'est l'amour -- That's love!

cherchez la femme -- literally "look for the woman" -- used in detective fiction, but in other settings, as well. It means that if a man is acting in a strange or even criminal way, he is likely doing it to please a woman. Find the woman, and you'll find both the man and his motive. Then, you'll be able to solve the mystery. In the U.S., our fictional detectives more often say, "Follow the money trail".

Adieu -- A serious goodbye. Note: This literally means "until God". It indicates that you think there is a good chance that you will not see this person again until you are both standing before God in heaven or until Jesus comes back. Do not use this form of good-bye lightly!
Au revoir --An ordinary, every day good-bye. It conveys the idea, "Until we see each other again". . Feel free to use this good-bye anytime.

du jour -- of the day, as in "soup of the day" or "special of the day" or "catch of the day".

faux -- false or fake
faux pas -- literally a false step. Practically, it means to make a social mistake.

joie de vivre -- the joy of living

sans -- without

Soigné -- well taken care of --- used to describe a woman who is well-groomed and whose outfit is well put together and neat; also describes a woman who is elegant.

savior faire -- literally knowing how to do or to make -- the art of knowing what to do or say in a social situation

noblesse oblige -- literally nobility obliges -- It means that if you have position or wealth or family name, you are obligated to use such blessings for the good of those less fortunate. You are also obligated to a higher standard of conduct because people look to you as an example.

comme ci comme ça -- like this, like that -- practically, it means so-so, ok, fair to middling

en masse -- all together
en bloc -- as a group

ennui -- boredom, particularly a habitual mindset of boredom -- tired and world weary

esprit de corps -- the spirit of the body (body as used in the sense of a group, not in terms of an individual's physical body) -- morale -- group spirit

Here are some words you can probably guess by how similar they are to our English words:

addresse (adress), beouf (beef), banque (bank), curieux (curious), visite (visit), silence (silence),
lettre (letter), restaurant (restaurant), ordinaire (ordinary), nation (nation) l'ordinateur (computer), ligne (line, as on a paper -- not a queue), potentiel (potential), serieux (serious) journal (newspaper), papier (paper -- actual paper, not a newspaper) garage (garage).

While the similarities between English and French make it easier for an English speaking person to learn French, it also makes for some mix-ups. So, do be careful about words that are used to mean one thing in English and quite another in French.

Some examples:

actuellement -- does not mean actually. It means presently
avertissement -- this does not mean an advertisement. It means a warning.
à -- assister can mean the obvious -- to help. However, it frequently means to attend, as to be present at a meeting. This is particularly true if the assister is followed by à
pays -- does not mean to purchase something or to settle a bill -- it means countries
crier -- does not mean to cry, but to shout
occasion -- can mean occasion, but usually means a bargain or something bought second-hand

French sentence structure is different than in English. I can't go into all of that in one post. But, one thing to remember is that the adjective follows the noun in French. In English, we would say "a red car". The French would say une voiture rouge (a car red).

Also, all nouns in French are either masculine or feminine. This usually has more to do with French grammar than with an obvious connection to gender. With some exceptions, there's no an identifiable reason why one noun is masculine and another is feminine. Don't bother trying to figure it out. Just memorize if the noun is masculine or feminine when you learn it. If you aren't sure, a French dictionary will tell you.

Finally, there are two ways to say "you" in French.

Vous is a formal way to address someone as "you". You would use this form when addressing someone you do not know well, someone who is older than you, someone in a public position, etc.

It is also a way of indicating a plural you. It is the way you would ask two or more people a question. Example: "Philippe et Nicole, avez-vous une voiture rouge? (Philip and Nicole, do y'all have a red car?) (Note: Y'all, you all, and you guys are American slang ways of saying a plural you. These are attempts to make up for the fact that English has no official way of differientiating between you as spoken to one person and you as spoken to a group.)

Tu is the way you say "you" when you are talking to one person whome you know well.

If someone invites you to "tutoyer" them, that is an invitation to use the informal "tu" when speaking to them. This is a happy thing. It means you've just made a new friend. :)

Very young people in France might tutoyer each other upon a first meeting. But, it's not the wisest thing for a foreigner to do in France, even if you are young and speaking with a person of your own age. It's better to err on the side of using vous until invited to do otherwise.

Assignment: Flip through a cookbook, a book about sewing, a book about home decor, or a book about etiquette. See if you can identify five English words that come from French words. If English is not your first language and French isn't your first language either, see if you can find five French words that have become a part of your native language.


PS: I'll post some French resources later on. But, for now, you might want to take a look at You can sign up for a free word of the day in any of a number of languages, including French. You will receive the word and the word used in a sentence. You can click to hear a native speaker read the word and the sentence. The site does try to sell you materials. I haven't yet bought any. But, I do enjoy the free words of the day.

Also, check out the web site, This site -- Words in a French Life -- is the blog of Karen Espinassee -- an American woman who is married to a Frenchman. It chronicles stories taken from the daily life of the Espinasses and their two children. Mrs. Espinasse writes the site in English, but she includes in a few French words and phrases pertinent to the story. She provides the definitions for these words, but you can usually pick up what they mean by the context of the post.


Susie said...

Très bien!

Mrs. U said...

It's amazing at how much high school and college French come back after just reading this!!

Mrs. U

Tammy said...

Interesting post! I did not take French, so I doubt I'll remember all the rules, but it was still fun to read them!

One of your comments caught my eye...there are actually phonetic rules for the letter c in English! =)

If c appears before e, i, or y, it most likely is going to be a soft sound, like the c in city.

If c appears before a, o, or u, it is going to have a hard sound. (Think cat, cone, cup.)

Think of the word access. The first c is hard, the second c is soft because of the e.

Ok, phonics lesson over. LOL Have a great day!

Elizabeth said...

Allo Susie,


Hi Mrs. U,

I'll bet you haven't forgotten much! It sounds from your recent post as if you have a bit of knack for languages.

Hi Tammy,

Yes, you have a good point. I had forgotten all about the English rules until I started writing about the French rules. In my first draft, I wrote that English didn't have rules for pronouncing C. But, the more I thought about it, the more I remembered that we do. It's very similar, isn't it -- except for the cedilla mark.

I wonder if this is another of those rules we absorbed from French into English. Or, I wonder if this is one of those things that both French and English got from Latin. Oh, well, it's a good thing the rules are there to help us!

Thanks for the phonics lesson!


Anonymous said...

I learned the rules for pronouncing "c" when I took a class on old Irish Galic (I don't remember much of anything else!)

a o u are "fat" vowels (they are not found in the word "exercise"), they are the ones that make for a "k" sound.

God Bless!

Elizabeth said...

Hi Panda Bean,

Maybe French and English both got the rules about C from a Gaelic influence. The Gauls of France had some connection to the Celts and the Gaelic (sp?) langauge.

How fun that you go to take a class in Irish Galic! I have a lot of Scots in my ancestry, and I would love to know more about Celtic/Gaelic languages.

Carrien said...

I'm enjoying these posts but I must correct you on one point. Au gratin does not mean with cheese. That's au fromage. Gratin refers to a type if dish used for certain recipes, many of which involve cheese but not necessarily. Au gratin simply means baked in a gratin dish, usually with butter and milk and cheese but not always.

Elizabeth said...

Hi Carieen,

Well, your post sparked my thougt. Frommage is the French word for cheese. So, I consulted an English dictionary and two French ones to see what they had to say.

Collins French dictionary says "Cheese (or crumb) topped dish"

The French language dictionary says, "covered with crumbs and cheese adn then baked".

The English dictionary said cooked "with bread crumbs and butter or sometimes cheese and then baked."

Wickipedia says, "cooked or baked with a topping of either browned bread crumbs and butter or grated cheese, or with both."

So, apparently, the element I'm missing is bread crumbs -- which is funny, as I adore casseroes toppped with bread crumbs.

Thanks for inspiring me to dig deeper. I will correct the post.