14 peculiar things I’ve noticed about the French language

Full disclosure: I’m still learning French.

But aren’t we all?

Here are some intriguing things I’ve noticed over my past three years in Paris.

1. The French say “Tak tak tak”

Sometimes, when a French person is, say, adding together numbers, or pushing buttons on a machine, they absent-mindedly say “tak tak tak” as they do it.  I have no idea how to actually spell it, but it sounds like they say tack tack tack. The best bit is that they often don’t even realize they’re doing it, and deny it indignantly if you bring it up with them.

2. Kids say mercredi instead of merde

Children who are in the process of saying the swear word “merde” (shit) but are in the company of adults will sometimes change the word halfway through from merde to mercredi (Wednesday). It’s a euphemism, kind of like how people say “shoot” instead of “shit” in English. French adults don’t say Mercredi – they’re quite happy to swear in anyone’s company, including children.

3. You can say si instead of oui for yes

Did you know that you can also use the word si for “yes”? But there’s a twist – you can only use it if someone asks you a negatively-toned question. Eg: “You don’t speak French, do you?” Then, BAM, you can respond with “si” (that is, if you do speak French). This might sound like basic French for some, but not for me. Due to the complicated nature of the rules, I’ve never uttered the word “si” in a French conversation.

4. You can say “not bad” as an amount

To say “not bad” in French, you say pas mal (kinda pronounced pah mull). But you can also use pas mal to describe when there are a lot of things. For example: What can we do at the funfair? Loads! There’s pas mal de choses a faire (there are plenty of things to do).

5. If someone asks how you’re doing, you can respond impec

I only learned this the other day – after three years in France! I asked a man ca va? and he responded “impec”, presumably short for impeccable. What a jolly fellow, I thought. And the very next person who said ca va to me got an “impec” in response. The French love to shorten words, and are known to say Bon aprem for bon apres midi (good afternoon), comme d’hab for comme d’habitude (as usual) and bon app for bon appetit!

6. If somethings really good, it’s like a cow

The word “vachement” means “really”, but literally means “cow-ly”. As in, that holiday was vachement bien (cow-ly good). Why do they use this? No idea. But I love it. This word featured in one of the most popular Earful Tower episodes – The 24 best words in the French language. Listen by clicking play below.

7. They say du coup. A lot. 

There are many ways of determining how well someone speaks French. There are levels from A1 to C2, university degrees, and duolingo levels.  But for me, we’re all in one of two categories. Those who have used the filler phrase du coup – a filler phrase that doesn’t mean anything – and those who haven’t. I can admit, dear readers, that I am in the latter group. For now.

8. They sometimes say shwee instead of Je suis

If you’re new to France (or French), you may not realize that you don’t actually have to pronounce all the letters in “Je suis” (I am). Nope. Loads of French people just say shwee instead and get away with it.

9. Some people say “wesh” instead of oui

I’ve heard this is so extremely slang that I shouldn’t even use it as a joke, so I’ve never said it, but there are some people going around saying “wesh” instead of oui for “yes”. If you’re reading this, you probably shouldn’t use it either, but at least now you know too.

10. You can answer ‘how are you?’ with ‘always’

Ah, the French. Why answer an easy question with an easy answer? I remember when I first came to France, and I asked the gardien (the concierge) in a building “Ca va?”. He responded with toujours (always) and my mind exploded. But, on later reflection, I realized that it actually works in French, because ca va literally means “It’s going?” to which you can legitimately answer “yes” or “always”. Some people answer with just “and you?”, which I wrote about here.

11. You can just chuck “bah” anywhere and it’s ok

This is another VERY popular filler word, I suppose it’s quite slangy. It’s pronounced like bah or bar, and just fills any pause with sound. This word featured in the episode we did about the worst words in the French language. Have a listen here.

12. They ask where you boss…

Speaking of slang, beware of being asked where you bosse. The first time I heard it I was bamboozled. Does this guy think I’m a boss somewhere? Where do I boss? I’m not a boss. Or am I? Turns out it just means “to work”, so “tu bosses ou” means where do you work? Sounds so easy, but it sure caught me off guard.

13. You can call someone “my big”

One thing I love about French is that you can call a mate “mon grand” (my big) and it’s considered a cool thing to say. Call a mate “mec” (dude) and you’re even cooler.

14. You can say “hello the guys”

And lastly, I don’t know why this tickles my funny bone, but it does. Sometimes I translate French into English literally in my head, so when someone says “salut les gars” I hear “Hello the guys” and it makes me smile. Why the “the”? Who knows. I actually asked the Mayor of the Marais in Paris why French mayors are called Monsieur Le Maire (Mister The Mayor)… but he didn’t really give me a satisfactory answer. Listen to the conversation here.

Anyway, that should keep you all going for a while. New episodes around the corner (subscribe here). You may notice I’ve rejigged the site – see the side panels for all the social media links – and even subscribe for emails!

Thanks, the guys!

7 thoughts on “14 peculiar things I’ve noticed about the French language

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  1. It’s really fascinating to see how you get involved in banal situations (for French people) that lead to teach you something, as in the “impec” instance! And ho you absorb it to learn some tips and tricks about the French language! I love reading those articles because it makes me look at my mother tongue in a different perspective! Even I here in Australia am learning new words and speech manners. Thank you !

  2. Super interesting! I’ve been studying for a while and listening to the radio, etc. but I don’t get many chances to hear everyday spoken French. These examples are great and I’ll be adding them to my notes.

  3. I actually always miss the “si” in languages in which it doesn’t exist. My native language German has it as well, it’s ‘doch’. When somebody makes a negative statement and I want to say this is not true, ‘yes’ never seems sufficient to me.
    For example:
    It seems that you are not happy.
    Yes, I’m happy, very happy! (Or would you use something else instead of here? I think you just stress it differently to make the yes more an opposition.)

    Il paraît que tu n’es pas content!
    Si, je suis contente, très contente!

    I think the closest thing in English is how children use ‘too’ when they argue:
    You ate the cake!
    Did not!
    Did too!

    Tu as mangé le gâteau!
    Pas vrai!
    Si, c’est vrai!

  4. Yes we do have funny expressions like the ones you’ve listed. As for your questions on why ‘les’ gars, it’s got something to do with grammar, we use articles a lot more than English ie: J’aime la France, Would you be able to explain to a French person why there isn’t any articles in ‘Hi Guys’, or ‘Mister President’? It probably seems strange to a lot of French people. A lot of people- both in the UK and France do not know their grammar very well and as a result cannot explain why we say things in a certain way..

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