30 eyebrow-raising things I’ve learned about the French language in my three years in Paris

I’ve been in Paris for just over three years now. My French was about a two out of ten when I arrived, now it’s about a 7.5.

Here’s a look back at 30 things I’ve noticed about the French language – from learning it in real time with real French people. Let’s start with the formalities.

Oh, and If you like what you see here, consider becoming an Earful Tower member 🙂 And a note to regular readers: A few of these I’ve touched on before.

FORMALITIES

1. You can say “Re-hello”

Well, rebonjour to be exact. That’s when you see someone for the second time in the same day. You can even say rebonsoir if the same thing happens in the evening.

2. If someone asks you “How are you?” you can respond “always”

In French class, you learn: Ca va? Très bien, et vous? (How are you? Very well, and you?). But some people respond to “Ca va?” with just toujours (always).

3. … you can also respond with impec

It’s short for impeccable, and it’s much more fun than just saying “tres bien”.

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4. In fact, you don’t even really need to respond.

If someone says Ca va?, you can answer oui (yes) or simply et toi? (And you?). It might sound rude (hey, it might even be rude), but people do it all the time.

5. …you can even just respond by repeating them.

Ca va? means “how are you?”, or literally: “It goes.” Another translation could be “All good?” That might help to understand that two French people could say:

“Ca va?”…  “Ca va. Ca va?” …  “Ca va.”

In a rough translation: “All good with you?” “Yeah, all good with me. All good with you?” “Yeah, all good with me too”. Sometimes, people even double it up, as in Ca va, ca va. By this logic, I think a conversation could legitimately have six ca vas in a row:

Person one: Ca va? Person two: Ca va, ca va. Ca va? Person one: Ca va, ca va.

WEIRD NOISES

6. If you talk like a monk you sound more French 

To fill pauses in conversation, French people make a sound like a monk singing. It sounds like the word fur without the letter F. Eughhhh. If you’re ever stuck for a word, throw this noise in and you will sound more French than you’d ever believe. To hear this sound in action, watch point two in my video below. (And subscribe to the YouTube channel, it’s brand new!)

7. They also sound like horses

As you can witness in point one below.

8. 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.

9. 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.

10. The more la’s that you add to oh la la, the stronger your reaction

People often do say Oh la la, meaning “Oh my god”, but did you know that the more la’s you add, the more serious your reaction.

THEY SHORTEN WORDS

11. Keep it short

The French 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!

12. They also like to shorten place names

It’s not just ordinary words! In Paris, for example, some say Place d’It instead of Place d’Italie, Inva for Invalides, and Montpar for Montparnasse.

13. 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.

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14. They also say puree instead of putain

It’s much more pleasant way to say ‘whore’.

15. 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.

THEY LOVE SLANG

16. 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.

17. They actually use a backwards language

It’s called Verlan, and we talked about it in the show before. But it’s essentially switching syllables in words around. Eg: Merci is Cimer. While this might sound like some kind of kids’ language, French people actually use it, provided they are under the age of 40. You may have used it without even knowing – the singer Stromae is Verlan for Maestro, the word Meuf comes from Femme (woman or girlfriend)… and the word Verlan itself… yep, it comes from L’envers (reverse).

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18. 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.

19. 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. As I understand, they don’t even need to be that tall.

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20. You can say “hello the guys”

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.

21. All the guys are “dudes”

Every French guy under 40 refers to every other French guy under 40 as “mec” (pronounced meck). It could be translated as “dude” but is not as slangy. If you want to fit in in France, start your conversations with guys with a “salut mec” and voila, you fit in.

IT MIGHT NOT ALWAYS SEEM LOGICAL

22. Baguette doesn’t always mean bread 

I was once ordering sushi to take away and the mec at the desk asked me if I wanted some baguettes with it. I was gobsmacked. No, I said, I don’t want baguettes with my sushi. I also wondered where the baguettes were in the tiny sushi shop.

It took a while for me to understand that he meant chopsticks. I then thought he was just using baguettes as slang for chopsticks, as they’re both kind of long and pointy, but no, chopsticks are actually called baguettes. Baguette just means stick. In fact, Harry Potter’s magic wand is a Baguette magique in France.

While we’re on the topic, there are actually at least ten things that the French call “baguette”.

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23. 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).

24. 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 beach? Loads! There’s pas mal de choses a faire (there are plenty of things to do).

25. 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. As I admitted on the episode with the Australian ambassador, dear readers, that I am in the latter group. For now.

BONUS POINTS

26. You need to stock up on your bons

Everyone knows the French say bonjour (and even rebonjour, apparently). They also say things like bonsoir, bon appetit, and bonne journee. But I had no idea they say so many other bons, which you should really know. Every day of the week can have a bon (bon dimanche = Have a good Sunday). You can say bonne degustation, bonne continuation, bonnes vacances, and bonne chance, of course. The list goes on and on forever. It remains unknown at this point if, when buying candy, the seller says bon bonbon, but they probably do.18677_big.jpg

27. They don’t say cheese, they say marmoset

When someone’s taking a picture of French people, they don’t yell out “Say Cheese”. No, they don’t even yell out “Say fromage“, as you might have suspected. But they do often yell out “Ouistiti”.

What’s a ouistiti? Well, apparently it’s a marmoset, which is apparently a small monkey with an outlandish haircut. In fact, that’s a marmoset in the picture above. The idea is that the word ouistiti, like the English word cheese, makes your mouth naturally smile 🙂

28. Be careful with the word mademoiselle

You learn in school that a person is either a monsieur, madame, or mademoiselle. But many today consider the word mademoiselle to be outdated and even sexist (why should I woman have to reveal if she is married or not?). So, keep this in mind if you plan to use the word Mademoiselle. I should stress, many women have no issue with the word and it’s still common.

Bonus trivia: There used to be a word for young man – mondamoiseau – but it died out.

Related listening: The struggles of being a woman in France

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29. They like to add the pronoun at the end

Imagine saying in English: I’m cold, me. Or: He’s funny, him. Well, they do that in French sometimes. Eg: J’ai froid, moi. Il est drole, lui. It’s a good way to show you speak good French. You should fake it til you make it, you.

30. And lastly… Sometimes you get an A+ without even trying

The French love to shorten A plus tard (See you later) to A plus. Then they shorten it again to A+ in text speak (and they do it often). It’s pronounced Ah ploose (rhymes with “a moose”) and when I first saw it I thought someone was suggesting I had done a really good job with something, like an A plus effort. I hadn’t. They were just saying goodbye.

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For language-based episodes, head over to our language section. Why not start with the 24 best words in the French language?

Or learn how to improve your French here.

16 thoughts on “30 eyebrow-raising things I’ve learned about the French language in my three years in Paris

Add yours

  1. I’m going to Paris for the first time in two weeks, and have been trying to learn some French via Duolingo. At this point, I’m just hoping to be able to successfully order a glass of wine and remember to say hello when I enter a shop. That being said, thanks for the all the tips! I’ve listened to many of your podcasts and I’ve learned a lot!

  2. A very funny expression they use a lot is: ça va? oui, nickel! They use it a lot for “cool”, it is quite cute! A+ 🙂

  3. Many French speaker would argue on some things mentioned (I am French-Quebecer). It’s just some clarifications needed, but sometimes it makes a difference :p

    1. @Nathan, but the French would say that Quebecois is not French. There’s a reason they subtitle French-Canadian shows.

  4. Regarding Monsieur le Maire , there is an actual explanation I believe. In French we basically never use a noun without an article. You can’t say “paix” for peace, you need “la paix”. For a mayor, we would use “un” or “le”, the former for any odd one, indefinite, the latter either for the function as a concept (le maire est élu par les habitants de sa ville – the mayor is elected by his/her town’s inhabitants) or a specific unique mayor. If you address a mayor hopefully both you and (s)he knows who (s)he is. Either you would have Madame/Monsieur alone or if you add the title or function you need “la/le” to accompany the noun. We do that with all jobs preceded by “Madame/Monsieur”, not just mayors. The only time you won’t have an article before a job or position is if it’s something someone wants to be or is, eg “Il est docteur”.

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