Category Archives: French language

Bons mots: l’éponge et le bâtard


posted by Simon Kemp

The French language, as we know, is never that keen on pronouncing words as they’re spelled. Almost any French word you care to mention contains a consonant or two that doesn’t make it to air. This explains why French schoolchildren still spend time doing dictées, trying to write out a precise transcription of a passage being read aloud by their teacher.

All of these silent letters used to be pronounced in Old French, but while pronunciation gradually shifted over the centuries, spelling was less inclined to move with the times. It did, however, allow for a certain degree modernization. In 1740, the Académie Française introduced spelling reforms that went through the dictionary and deleted more than ten thousand silent letters. All of them were in fact the same letter: an ‘s’ following a vowel in the middle of a word. They hadn’t been pronounced for years, and so they finally got the chop. Espier became épier, ancestre became ancêtre, coste became côte. The disappearance was marked by an accent over the vowel that came before the ‘s’ (in most cases a circumflex accent, or an acute accent over a letter ‘e’ where appropriate). And that’s the spelling that has persisted until today.


Rewind back to the middle ages. In the wake of the Norman conquest, English was helping itself to great swathes of the French language. The language of the conquerors was the language of power and administration, and Old French terms found their way from the royal court into the everyday language of the British people. A millennium later, many are still here, with their Old French ‘s’ still alive and well, hundreds of years after it disappeared from modern French.


The upshot is that there are now scores of words in modern French with an ‘é’ or a circumflex vowel, where the addition of an ‘s’ after the vowel produces a recognizable English word. Let’s try a little exercise in reconstitution. Answers at the bottom of the post.

Easy ones first. How about these?

le mât

la crête


la hâte

la tempête

la forêt

le bâtard


And these ?




une épice


en dépit de

une éponge


And what about these, which are slightly trickier, but still just about recognizable :

l’huître (f.)

le maître

la guêpe

la pâtisserie

l’écureuil (m.)

la coutume

For English speakers, when faced with an unfamiliar French word that has an acute-accented ‘e’ near the start or a circumflexed vowel in the middle, it’s always a good idea to try adding back in the missing ‘s’, to see if an English word magically appears.



  1. Mast, crest, honest, haste, tempest, forest, bastard (in the literal sense of illegitimate son – the French don’t use the word as an insult!).
  2. Scarlet, strange, study, spice, respond, despite, sponge.
  3. Oyster (it doesn’t look much like it, but if you think of the French pronunciation – ‘wee-truh’ – and add an ‘s’ into the middle of that, the similarity is clearer), master, wasp (the shift from Old French ‘gu-’ to English ‘w-’ is quite common, e.g. ‘Guillaume le conquérant’ to ‘William the conqueror’), pastry, squirrel, custom (‘coutume’ used to be spelled ‘coûtume’ but later lost its circumflex. ‘Le coût’ (cost) still has it).



Fun with Grammar: ‘She has broken the leg to herself!’

posted by Simon Kemp

I’d like this blog to be useful for all aspects of studying French, including grammar, but I don’t want reading it to feel too much like work. So here’s a new thread of occasional posts, offering a highly unsystematic dabble here and there in the French language to come up with a few choice nuggets of tricky grammar.  I’m going to pick out the things I wish someone had put straight for me when I was learning… the things examiners slip into the grammar questions in our first-year exams to trip up the unwary… the things my undergraduates are STILL getting wrong after having it pointed out half-a-dozen times….

Let’s start with this sentence:

Elle s’est cassé la jambe.

It means, ‘She’s broken her leg’, or literally, ‘She’s broken the leg to herself.’ French grammar tests are always full of women breaking their legs, cutting their fingers, washing their faces, not due to a worrying obsession with female body parts, but to see whether you’ll translate it correctly as:

Elle s’est coupé le doigt.

Elle s’est lavé le visage. (etc.)

…or whether you’ll succumb to the temptation to add an extra ‘e’ to those past participles. So why is it cassé, coupé and lavé, not cassée, coupée and lavée? To answer that, we need a little excursion into the rules of French agreement.

As you probably know, past participles in French, like the ‘cassé’ of ‘elle s’est cassé la jambe’, agree with a preceding direct object. (There is the exception of the sixteen special verbs whose past participle agrees with the subject — Elle est allée, Ils sont tombés, etc — but they don’t concern us here.)


‘Où est ta voiture?’

‘Je l’ai vendue.’

There’s an ‘e’ on the end of the participle, ‘vendue’, because the ‘l’ is the direct object of the verb vendre (I sold it), because it’s feminine (the ‘l’ is a ‘la’, referring to ‘la voiture’), and because it precedes the word vendue in the sentence.

On the other hand, there’s no agreement here:

J’ai vendu ma voiture.

because there’s a direct object, ‘ma voiture’, but it comes after the participle in the sentence.

And there’s no agreement here:

Je leur ai vendu ma voiture.

because the ‘leur’ preceding the participle is an indirect object (I sold my car to them.)

OK so far?


The problem comes when you have something in the sentence that’s clearly a preceding object of the verb, but you’re not sure whether it’s direct or indirect. Sometimes it’s easy to tell, because they’re obviously two different words. The French direct object pronouns, le, la and les (him/her/it, them) are clearly different from their indirect equivalents, lui and leur (to him/to her/to it, to them).

But more often than not, they’re spelled and pronounced the same. The direct object, ‘us’ in French is ‘nous’, and the indirect object, ‘to us’ in French is also ‘nous’. Even so, they’re still two different words every bit as much as the bark on the outside of a tree is different from the bark that next door’s dog does when you’re trying to get to sleep. Here are the direct object pronouns in French:

me —- me

te —- you

le —- him/it

la —- her/it

nous —- us

vous —- you

les —- them

And here are the indirect ones:

me —- to me

te —- to you

lui —- to him/to her/to it

nous —- to us

vous —- to you

leur —- to them

 The same rules apply for pronouns with reflexive verbs, which are the ones where the object of the verb is the same as the subject (i.e. when you’re doing things to yourself). Here are the direct object pronouns for reflexive verbs:

me —- myself

te —- yourself

se —- himself/herself/itself

nous —- ourselves

vous —- yourself/yourselves

se —- themselves

  And here are the indirect ones:

me —- to myself

te —- to yourself

se —- to himself/to herself/to itself

nous —- to ourselves

vous —- to yourself/to yourselves

se —- to themselves

With the reflexive pronouns, as you’ll have noticed,  every single one of them looks the same in direct and indirect forms. It’s a cunning ploy by the French to confuse language learners as much as possible.


So, finally, back to our original sentence. The key to understanding how it works is to remember that there are two different ‘se’s. There’s the direct object ‘se:

Elle s’est lavée. – She washed herself.

Here, ‘se’ (herself) is the direct object of the verb laver. (What did she wash? She washed herself.)

And there’s the indirect object ‘se:

Elle s’est lavé le visage. – She washed the face to herself

…which is just the French way of saying that she washed her face, I know, but the literal translation helps me keep the grammar straight in my head. Here, ‘se‘ (to herself) is the indirect object of the verb laver.

(By the way, it’s important not to get distracted by the fact that reflexive verbs take être rather than avoir in the perfect tense: ‘Elle s’est lavé le visage’. That doesn’t make them part of that list of sixteen verbs with past participles that agree with the subject — aller, tomber, etc. — which also  take être. Reflexive verbs follow the same rules of agreement as avoir verbs.)


And the same goes for:

Elle s’est cassé la jambe. – She broke the leg to herself.

The verb has a direct object, la jambe (What did she break? The leg), but it is not preceding the participle: it comes after.

And the verb has a preceding object pronoun, the reflexive pronoun ‘se’, but it is not a direct object: it’s an indirect object (to herself).

Therefore, there’s no preceding direct object.

Therefore, no agreement.

Therefore, cassé.

Thank you, and good night.

Medieval French Phrasebooks: Encore Tricolore, circa 1400

‘… a parler, bien sonere et parfaitement escrire douce frances qu’est la plus belle et la plus gracious langage et la plus noble …’ [A detail from a manuscript of the Manière de langage, Cambridge University Library, MS Dd.12.23, f. 67v.]‘… a parler, bien sonere et parfaitement escrire douce frances qu’est la plus belle et la plus gracious langage et la plus noble …’[A detail from a manuscript of the Manière de langage, Cambridge University Library, MS Dd.12.23, f. 67v.]

posted by Edward Mills

For those of us who are fortunate enough to study languages, holidays can be a great way to practise: there’s nothing like embarrassing your parents by ordering their train tickets for them. If you don’t speak the language, though, there is one trusty route to fall back on: the phrasebook. As an idea, phrasebooks have a long history; much longer than you might otherwise think when leafing through a Collins or a Berlitz. Some of the earliest manuals that we possess today were written for learners of French in England in the high and late Middle Ages; still objects of study today, they offer a fascinating insight into how languages were taught over five centuries ago. To illustrate this, I’ll be taking three examples, from consecutive centuries: the Tretiz, written by the wonderfully-named Walter de Bibbesworth around the second half of the 13th century; a Manière de langage from 1396; and a fifteenth-century general primer, the Liber Donati (named after the Latin grammarian Donatus).

These three texts were all written in England, and the circumstances in which they were produced reveals a great deal about the esteem with which French was held in the later Middle Ages. French was widely spoken in what is today Britain in the wake of the Norman Conquest, as part of a (very interesting indeed) triglossia[1] with Latin and English, but as interactions with the continent became more frequent the value of learning French for non-native speakers greatly increased. This is why the Manière de langage is able to state its purpose so boldly: ‘Ci comence la maniere de language que t’enseignera bien a droit parler et escrire doulz françois selon l’usage et la coustume de France.’[2] Assuming on the part of the reader a basic knowledge of the Anglo-Norman dialect of French, all three of these texts aim to educate an English audience that needs vocabulary specific to certain situations.

Of course, all of this may well ring bells — that essentially remains the purpose for the modern phrasebook today. Nor is it an alien concept for textbooks to be written in what is termed the ‘target language’: how many times have you read the phrase ‘corrigez les phrases suivantes’, or else ‘écoutez et répondez’? In a wonderful example of differentiation by prior knowledge, Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz and the Liber Donati even include annotations (‘glosses’) offering English translations for more complicated French terms — ‘berce’ is glossed as ‘cradel’,[3] ‘espaule’ as ‘scholderbon’,[4] and ‘autre fois’ as ‘anoth tyme’.[5]

Another similarity with present-day phrasebooks comes in the way in which new material is presented. We’re all familiar with the hackneyed, slightly stilted dialogues that fill the pages of Encore Tricolore or Élan, so it should come as no surprise that most of the new terms in the medieval texts are first seen in dialogue form. The Manière de langage and the Liber Donati both present the characters of the traveller and his servant (intriguingly called Jehan in both texts) as a focalising device through which the reader can see themself. Here again, similarities abound, as the topics of conversation — a good indication of what it was judged as important to learn — are practically identical to today. The Liber Donati provides an example of how to book into a hotel:[6]

— Hostilier, hostilier.
— Sir, sir, je su cy.
— Purrons nous bien estre loggez ciens?
— Oy, certez, mez maistrez … Combien estez vous en nombre?

While on the road, whether in 1300 or today, it’s also important to be able to ask for information from people you meet. Thankfully, the Manière de langage is here to help, providing multiple ways of how to ask for the time:[7]

Et puis le sr s’en chivalche sur son chemyn, et quant il venra ou my lieu de la ville, il demandera du primer homme qu’il encontrera, ainsi : « Mon ami », vel sic : « Biau sire », vel sic : « Biau filz, quelle heure est-il maintenant ? » Vel sic : « Qu’est ce qu’a sonnee de l’oriloge ? »

But perhaps the most striking similarity between the Collins Gem in your pocket and its medieval equivalent is to be found not in vocabulary, but in grammar. The concept of gender, always tricky to explain, is dealt with in the Tretiz just as it often is today: by looking at the body. Just as we introduce the concept of gender by focusing on the agreement in the phrases ‘j’ai les cheveux noirs’ ( or ‘j’ai de longues jambes’ (, the Tretiz explains the best way to teach your children the concept of gender is through the human body. Plus, it will stop your darling child from being mocked:[8]

Et quant [un enfant] encurt a tele age
Qu’i[l] prendre se poet a langage,
E[n] fraunceis lui devez dire
Cum primes deit sun cors descrivre
Pur l’ordre aver de ‘moun’ e ‘ma’,
‘Ton’ e ‘ta’, ‘soun’ e ‘ça’, ‘le’ e ‘la’
Qu’i[l] en parole seit meuz apris
E de nul autre escharnis.

There’s a huge amount more to be said about these books, whether it be what happens in the narratives that they construct, the individual manuscripts in which they survive, or the complicated relationship between French and English during this period. For now, though, I hope this short foray into the medieval world through the medium of tourism has left you with a sense that your A-Level textbook has a long history behind it. When you’re next grappling with the pluperfect tense, just remember that you’re not the first — some time around 1447, readers of the Liber Donati were faced with another element that would not look out of place today:[9]

J’avoy enseigné, tu avoiez enseigné, il avoit enseigné, nous avoions enseigné, vous avoiez enseigné, ils avoient enseigné.

I find it fascinating to think that all of the things we think of as ‘modern’ tools to learn a language — vocabulary primers, sample conversations, even verb tables — have existed for centuries, in forms we can still look at today. While the medieval learner of French may not have had WordReference on his iPhone, the influence of the tools that he did have can still be felt today. As the (nineteenth-century) French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr would say, ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.’

If you’re interested in reading more about medieval French literature, there are many excellent websites out there. Websites such as the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts Blog and the Medieval Fragments project are a great place to start; I also wrote a more general introduction to medieval French over at the University of Cambridge’s Be Cambridge blog. The Manière de langage is also available online here.


Edward Mills is a postgraduate student in medieval French literature at Wolfson College. Thanks very much to Daron Burrows for proof-reading prior to publication.

1. ‘Triglossia’ refers to a situation wherein three languages are spoken in a given space. See also ‘diglossia’, the phenomenon of two languages being spoken in a given space, and Polyglossia, the University of Cambridge’s student-run modern languages journal (which I definitely wasn’t involved with. Nope. Never.) [↵]
2. Manière de langage, p. 382. “Here begins the Manière de langage which will teach you the proper speech and writing of sweet French as it is used in France.”[↵]
3. Tretiz, l. 7. [↵]
4. Tretiz, l. 98. [↵]
5. Liber Donati, p. 18. [↵]
6. Liber Donati, p. 20. “Innkeeper, inkeeper. / Sir, here I am. / Can you house us here? / Certainly, sirs … how many are you?” [↵]
7. Manière, pp. 394-95. “And then the sire continues on his way, and when he finds himself half an hour away from the town, he asks the man whom he meets, thusly: ‘Friend,’ or ‘Good sir’, or ‘Good man, what time is it now?’, or ‘How many times has the clock sounded?'” [↵]
8. Tretiz, ll. 21-28. “And when [a child] reaches such an age / That he may apply himself to languages, / You should first tell him in French / How to describe his body / By proper order of ‘mon’ and ‘ma’, / ‘Ton’ and ‘ta’, ‘son’ and ‘sa’, ‘le’ and ‘la’; / So that he be better educated in speech / And not be mocked by others.” [↵]
9. Liber Donati, p. 11. [↵]

French (Tree) Roots: The Gauls

posted by Simon Kemp

One of the things you can study as a modern linguist at Oxford is linguistics, either within the French course or as a subject in its own right. Linguistics is the analysis of how languages work, and how they change over time. One option in our degree is a  course that traces French right back to its roots, and then examines how it gradually develops over the course of centuries into the language we recognize today. I thought you might like a little taste of this, with a trip back through the mists of time to the earliest peoples to have left their mark on the French language: the Gauls, the Romans and the Franks. First up, the Gauls. gauls_color[1] The Gauls were a Celtic people who settled France some time around 600 BC. They weren’t the first people to arrive in France: the cave paintings at Lascaux were painted fifteen thousand years earlier, and stone tools have been found in the Hérault département that date back one and a half million years. The Gauls came to dominate the culture and language spoken in the territory that would become France, however. Only the Basque language spoken in the far south-west and across the border in northern Spain preserves an echo of the speech of earlier populations. For French, the Gauls are our starting point. While the Gauls may be the ancestors of many modern French people (and many more, raised on the adventures of Asterix and Obelix, would very much like to think so), their language has left much less of an imprint on French than that of the invaders who were to conquer them, the Romans. Latin is the real root of modern French, as we’ll see in a later post, imported into France by the conquerors to be the language of trade and administration, and gradually filtering down to supplant the Gaulish language over the course of six centuries. Gaulish was not entirely wiped out, though: it survives as a language through Breton, one of the family of modern-day Celtic languages that includes Welsh and Gaelic. And if you look carefully you can find a few Celtic remnants scattered in the French spoken today as well.

A map of minority languages spoken in France today. You can find Breton and Basque in the far north-west and south-west respectively.

According to Henriette Walter, there are no more than about seventy words in modern French that are of Gaulish origin. As you might expect, they mostly relate to a simple life of hunting, fishing and farming, and include terms for common animals and plants. Une alouette (a lark), le mouton (sheep), la tanche (tench, the fish) are some of the creatures that still have Gaulish names. La charrue (plough), le soc (ploughshare), la mine (mine), le sillon (furrow), le gobelet (beaker) and le druide (druid) are a few of the surviving words that testify to the Gaulish way of life. There’s also one single part of the body that still has a Gaulish name, which is l’orteil (toe), plus an old-fashioned word for poo, le bran, which survived at least into the last century. Many of the other Gaulish words describe the natural world, such as la dune (dune), la bruyère (heather), le galet (pebble) or la lande (moor). Among these, since we’re talking about roots, a good number are types of tree, including le sapin (fir), le chêne (oak), le bouleau (birch) and l’if (yew). It’s nice to think that yew and oak trees in particular, often the most magnificent and ancient thing you’ll see in a landscape, are also magnificent and ancient in their names if you say them aloud in French. Le chêne and l’if  are words which link the speaker right back to the time of Julius Caesar, and of the Gaulish chieftain Vercingetorix who led the Gauls in revolt against him, and further back to other people who saw these things around them and spoke their names, pronouncing them in a way that may not sound much like the modern names, but which have evolved gradually in an unbroken chain down a hundred generations to us today.

 Oak tree


Chassez l’intrus!

posted by Simon Kemp

The weather is getting warm. The sun is shining in a cloudless sky. In the garden, the strawberries are ripening and the clematis is in bloom. In my world, that can mean only one thing: it must be EXAM SEASON! For too long, this blog has been content to inform and entertain. It’s high time we had some Formal Assessment.

‘Chassez l’intrus’ (‘Flush out the intruder!’) is the French language’s rather aggressive and paranoid way of saying ‘find the odd one out’. So, below are five facts about French. Four of them are true*. One of them is false**. Your task is to chasser l’intrus.

* Strictly speaking, four of them are believed to be true by many eminent historians of the French language, which is not quite the same thing, but for the purposes of this examination, we are going to pretend that it is.

** One of them is definitely false because I made it up earlier this morning.

A cat demonstrating the principle of the exercise.

It is NOT PERMITTED to scroll down to find out the answers until the candidate has plumped for the one they think is fake.

It is PERMITTED for candidates to test their French teachers on the facts and see how many they didn’t know, and/or to attempt to persuade them that the false one is true.

It is NOT PERMITTED, subsequent to the test, for candidates to immediately forget the four true facts and just remember the one I made up.

 OK, here goes:


1. The reason the French use the same word, pas, for the negative ‘ne… pas’ construction and le pas, meaning a footstep, is that… they’re the same word. In Old French, the negative was made by ne alone, so ‘I’m not walking’ would simply be ‘je ne marche’. If your feet were especially sore, however, you’d be entitled to say ‘je ne marche pas’, or ‘I’m not walking a single step.’ Gradually the pas started turning up in other negatives too, until eventually it became an essential part of the construction.


2. The French word for a hedgehog, le hérisson, derives from a confusion between Anglo-Norman French and Old English at the medieval court of William the Conqueror. King William’s third son, the future King William II (known as Rufus), was famed for his unkempt appearance with long hair and beard. He was mocked by French-speaking courtiers for looking like a hedgehog, and nicknamed by English speakers the ‘hairy son’ of the family. Over time, the cross-linguistic insults merged, and le hérisson became an alternative French word for a hedgehog, and later the accepted name of the animal.


 3. The French word for a chair was originally la chaire. It became la chaise due to the fashion among sixteenth-century women to pronounce as a z any single letter r with a vowel before and after it. Chaire has an r sandwiched between an i and an e, so got pronounced ‘chaize’, and later the spelling followed suit. Fashionable ladies of the period would also refer to their husbands as ‘mon mazi’ and to the capital city as ‘Pazis’, but those ones didn’t catch on so well.


4. The French word for a dustbin is la poubelle because bins were introduced to France by Monsieur Poubelle, and named in his honour.


5. English borrowed the French word gentil three times to make three different words. It first entered English as gentle, with the original sense of noble-born (as in gentleman). Then, once gentle in English had shifted to mean mild or kind, we borrowed the French word a second time, now as genteel, to get back its sense of the upper classes. Thirdly, in the seventeenth century we borrowed it again to make the English word jaunty. If jaunty doesn’t look much like the other two, that’s because it’s a (slightly rubbish) attempt to capture the modern French pronunciation of gentil in English spelling.


Answers below. No peeking until you’ve made your choice!












Fact 1 is TRUE. In Old French you could also say ‘je ne bois goutte’ (I’m not drinking a drop) or ‘il ne coud point’ (he’s not sewing a stitch), along with other similar expressions. The constructions ‘ne…goutte’ and ‘ne…point’ are also still in existence, if rather old-fashioned now, and similarly detached from their original meanings of ‘drop’ and ‘stitch’.


Fact 2 is FALSE. But still a good way of remembering the French word for hedgehog.


Fact 3 is TRUE. I know, it sounds totally ridiculous, but apparently it really was the fashion to do that, and was mentioned by Erasmus. ‘La chaire’ still exists in French as a rostrum, Papal throne or professorial chair.


Fact 4 is TRUE. And is consequently my all-time favourite French word. I shall be returning to M. Poubelle and his amazing new bin idea in another post in the near future.


Fact 5 is TRUE. And just dull enough to try to convince you that it was the one I’d made up.


If you got the right answer, WELL DONE! If you didn’t, don’t worry – the people who got the right answer were only guessing anyway.

Bons mots: from ‘trouvaille’ to ‘mise en abyme’


posted by Simon Kemp

We all know that the listicle is the lowest form of internet journalism, but I came across one the other day that I thought you might like to see., the French sister-publication of the American online magazine links approvingly to a list in Business Insider, of all places, of ‘wonderful French expressions’ that have no simple translation into English. Here, for your edification, and so you can casually drop them into conversation and then declare vaguely that ‘non-French-speakers can’t really grasp the concept’, are the words and expressions in question, as compiled by Rob Wile:



Something awesome that was discovered by chance or stumbled upon.


France’s aggressive form of separation between church and state. The country would never allow a voting booth to be placed in a church, for instance, even if it would be the most expedient means of holding an election in a small town.


The act of a jack-ass.


Pure, sure of oneself, lacking neurotic hangups or socio-cultural pressures.

Droit a l’oubli

“Right to oblivion.” There are now guidelines, signed in 2010, applying to search engines that automatically cache pages on social media — basically, they’re not really allowed to. “We don’t hate what the Internet stands for — there’s a lot of material online that should be kept. But in certain cases, we’d prefer to have the ability to erase them,” Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, who put together the guidelines (and who just lost the race for mayor in Paris), said upon signing the guidelines.


To impugn with bad intentions — to suggest that someone or something is inherently bad. Often used in discussing politics.


Feeling displaced from one’s native land or familiar routine.


An informal but widely set of rules for a profession. Also a philosophical concept denoting a set of actions taken out of duty, rather than consequence.

Mise en abyme

This is the word for when you’re standing between two mirrors and you see an infinite regression of yourself. It’s also commonly used to describe self-referential works in a novel or play.

Bons mots: chat tigré

posted by Simon Kemp

Given that the internet is made of cats, there’s no reason for this blog to be an exception, so here, accompanied by an image of my own overweight and slightly moth-eaten chat tigré, is a post on the subject. Tigré is another of my favourite words, not just because I own a chat tigré myself, but because it makes the cat sound very much cooler than in its English translation, tabby cat. My Larousse dictionary lists tigré as a simple adjective, which ‘se dit d’un pelage marquée de taches, de bandes plus foncées’ [‘refers to fur marked with darker patches or stripes’]. The online Trésor de la langue française goes one better, though, identifying it as the past participle of a rare verb, tigrer quelque chose, ‘to tiger-stripe something’. It even has a few literary examples of usage, including the following from Huysmans: ‘l’épiderme se tigre de taches jaunes’  [‘the epidermis is tiger-striped with yellow marks’]. It strikes me as an unfortunate lapse that English never thought to make tigering a verb, and it never occurred to us that our tabby cats might have been tigered.

Cats turn up in all kinds of idioms and proverbs in French. I think, although I’m not sure of this, rather more frequently than they do in English. Rarely the same ones though. You don’t set the cat among the pigeons in French, for instance, on jette un pavé dans la mare (‘throw a cobblestone into the pond’). You don’t let the cat out of the bag but vendre la mèche (literally, ‘sell the wick’, but in an archaic sense meaning, more or less, ‘reveal the fuse that leads to the hidden gunpowder’). And nor does it rain cats and dogs: in France, rather less surreally, il pleut des cordes (‘it rains ropes’). Weirdly, though, a French idiom will often map exactly onto its English equivalent in image and sense, except for the fact that the French have substituted a cat for various items used in the English expressions. French people do not have a frog in their throat, ils ont un chat dans la gorge; they do not call a spade a spade, ils appellent un chat un chat; they do not tell each other to let sleeping dogs lie, they warn that il ne faut pas réveiller le chat qui dort;and they do not have other fish to fry, ils ont d’autres chats à fouetter. And yes, the French are whipping those cats in that last expression, but English speakers have no cause to feel morally superior: the French simply complain about cramped accommodation that il n’y a pas la place de se retourner (‘there isn’t room to turn around’), without having recourse to cruel and unusual cat-swinging to express their dissatisfaction.

Occasionally the two languages agree on the uses of cats: both of us can play cat and mouse with someone / jouer au chat et à la souris avec quelqu’un, for instance. And there must presumably be some link between the French expression, donner sa langue au chat, meaning to give up trying to guess something, and the not-quite-matching English idea that a ‘cat’s got your tongue’ when you’re too inhibited to speak, with its equally peculiar image. They also have a good stock of cat-expressions all their own, such as the proverbs, chat échaudé craint l’eau froide’ (‘a scalded cat fears cold water’), which is near-equivalent to our ‘once bitten, twice shy’, but, when you think about it, isn’t exactly the same idea, plus the wonderfulla nuit, tous les chats sont gris’ (‘at night, all cats are grey’), which has nothing like it at all in English, and refers in French to how darkness (and, perhaps, other kinds of obscurity) hide the differences by which we classify and distinguish people. It’s incidentally also the title of the chapter of Les Trois Mousquetaires I talked about here, where d’Artagnan pretends to be the Comte de Wardes in Milady’s darkened bedroom.

Finally, it’s not just in language, but in French culture generally that cats have prominence. No less than three of the poems in Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal are about cats. Here’s my favourite:

Les Chats

Les amoureux fervents et les savants austères
Aiment également, dans leur mûre saison,
Les chats puissants et doux, orgueil de la maison,
Qui comme eux sont frileux et comme eux sédentaires.

Amis de la science et de la volupté
Ils cherchent le silence et l’horreur des ténèbres;
L’Erèbe les eût pris pour ses coursiers funèbres,
S’ils pouvaient au servage incliner leur fierté.

Ils prennent en songeant les nobles attitudes
Des grands sphinx allongés au fond des solitudes,
Qui semblent s’endormir dans un rêve sans fin;

Leurs reins féconds sont pleins d’étincelles magiques,
Et des parcelles d’or, ainsi qu’un sable fin,
Etoilent vaguement leurs prunelles mystiques.

And (loosely) translated by Roy Campbell :


Sages austere and fervent lovers both, 
In their ripe season, cherish cats, the pride 
Of hearths, strong, mild, and to themselves allied 
In chilly stealth and sedentary sloth.

Friends both to lust and learning, they frequent 
Silence, and love the horror darkness breeds. 
Erebus would have chosen them for steeds 
To hearses, could their pride to it have bent.

Dreaming, the noble postures they assume 
Of sphinxes stretching out into the gloom 
That seems to swoon into an endless trance.

Their fertile flanks are full of sparks that tingle, 
And particles of gold, like grains of shingle, 
Vaguely be-star their pupils as they glance.

The others are here and here. Better known even than Baudelaire’s cats, though, is the cat belonging to sixteenth-century essayist, and master of thought-provoking quirkiness as literary style, Michel de Montaigne:

Quand je me jouë à ma chatte, qui sçait si elle passe son temps de moy plus que je ne fay d’elle?’

(‘When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?’)

… he famously wondered, as has many a cat-owner in his wake.

Is French a Sexist Language?

la rousse

posted by Simon Kemp

 The French newspaper Le Monde has been taking a look at the question, in an interesting article (in French) that you can read online here. There are the issues we know about, of course, such as the rule that ‘le masculine l’emporte sur le féminin’ in sentences where both genders govern an adjective, pronoun or participle ending:

Les femmes sont rentrées chez elles.


 Les femmes et le garçon sont rentrés chez eux.


We know too about the vexed question of masculine job titles for professional women :

Madame le maire

Madame le ministre

Madame le professeur

Both of these grammar points cause controversy, and there have been calls for reform, which we’ll revisit another time. Le Monde, though, takes a different tack, and examines pairs of words, which grammatically stand as simply the masculine and feminine forms of the same word. In all the cases Le Monde picks out, though, the masculine form has a positive or neutral connotation, while the feminine form has a derogatory, and often sexual meaning:

– Un gars peut être  bon ou brave, c’est-à-dire un mec sympa. Une garce même belle, restera une garce.

(‘Un gars’ translates more or less as a ‘lad’, but ‘une garce’ means a bitch.)

– Un courtisan est un proche du roi, une courtisane est trop proche du roi

(‘Un courtisan [a courtier] is close to the king; une courtisane [a courtesan] is too close to the king.’)

– Un professionnel est un homme compétent, une professionnelle est une prostituée.

(‘A professional [applied to a man] is a skilled man; a professional [applied to a woman] is a prostitute.’)

Le Monde has several more examples, and a lively debate among readers below the line, about whether the language itself is teaching its speakers from an early age to disrespect and sexualize women. See what you think, and if you think the writer is onto something about French, are you confident that English is free of the same problems?

Le Lunch (and other franglais)

posted by Sam Gormley, fourth-year French student at St Hugh’s, and year-abroad hotel-worker in the Auvergne

Recently, a woman came to reception to ask for her ‘lunch’. It being a calm point of the day- that particular day was a Wednesday, I think, or a Monday, it doesn’t matter- I had just been quietly minding my own business. The sun was out, I was emptying the dishwasher, nothing special, it was a Wednesday or a Monday, maybe a Thursday, and I was minding mes oignons. 

She asks me for her ‘lunch’.

I merrily ask her to repeat the request.

‘Mon lunch’.

All I hear is ‘moleurrncsh’. I ask her, apologetic, to repeat again.

[With annoyance] ‘Tu sais? Leleeurrrnsch que j’avais commandé hier?’

Nope, sorry, still….

…still not getting it.

She looks at me as if I were an idiot, as if this were all a joke, a hilarious joke on my part, and that no, really, ha!, I know what your ‘leeurrnsch’ is, this just a set-up, you’re actually on television right now, joke’s on you! I ask her again to repeat, and by now I’ve gone bright red, I’m floundering like a beached whale, at least, one that can’t speak French, and, somewhere, all my past languages teachers vomit simultaneously.

She then proceeds to mime shoving food into her face, into her unimpressed French face.

And it suddenly twigs. She’s saying ‘lunch’.

Lunch! Yes! YES. I know what that is! At that point I slapped myself on the forehead, jabbering something about being an idiot, how could I not know what ‘lunch’ meant, and I probably looked like a psychopath and she probably reached into her pocket and quietly started dialling for the police.

Now, as an Englishman, I am generally expected to have a decent grasp of English. But ‘lunch’ throws me entirely. ‘Lunch’.  An English word. I failed to comprehend my own language. I hand the woman her panier pique-nique, which is the set phrase I’m used to, still jabbering pathetic apologies, and she nods and gives me a chilling, sarcastic smile and takes her plastic bag of food.

Fortunately, this has only happened once since I’ve been in working in the hotel. Actually, it’s less common to hear nonsense like that than it is to see it. A few days previously, I notice these words on an advert:

‘Le top shopping sensation!’

No, France, wrong. That’s wrong. That’s not French. That’s English. I am English, trust me, that’s not French. There are lots of these floating around, including, but by no means limited to:

– un total-look

– Stabiloter (i.e., to underline something with a Stabilo highlighter)

– une garden-party

– un one-man-show

– un brunch

It’s a strange phenomenon, but one the student of French just simply has to accept, especially when the English word used does not even seem to make any real sense in English. It’s all part of language change and, love it or hate it, it exists, and the French bloody well love it. If anything it adds to the exciting unpredictability (read: maddening unpredictability) of studying a foreign language. But it also adds to its richness; many bizarre conversations are to be had with foreigners on the subject of word-swapping. Not only do you learn about the way in which a modern French person speaks, you also learn about the huge number of French expressions in English. Here’s the catch: they don’t mean anything in French either. I used the phrase ‘un double-entendre’ when explaining to a French person, well, what a double-entendre was. We all know what it means in English: to a French person? Nothing at all. Just nothing. Not even a flicker. The just heard the words ‘twice-hear’ put together for no reason. So it’s as strange for them as it is for us. When you do travel experiences like this, in France, or Germany, or wherever you go for your Year Abroad, you come face to face with the reality of language as it’s really spoken by people (which, incidentally, is nothing like how you’ll speak it for your GCSE or A-levels- but that’s a matter for another time), and not the kind of French the Académie française wants us to learn. For better or for worse (often for worse, especially when stupid stuff happens to modern language students), languages change. All we can do is deal with it, adapt, move on, and then sob silently when no-one’s watching.


(For my Year Abroad (2012-13) I worked: as a language assistant in primary schools in Briançon, in the Alps, for seven months; then as a waiter/ receptionist/ barman for two months in a hotel in the Auvergne (South-Centre); and finally as an au-pair for three boys, still in the Auvergne, for two months. This article been adapted from a blog post I wrote whilst I was working in the hotel, hence the lack of context.)

Bons mots: le créneau


Is it odd to have favourite words? Hopefully not too strange among language-learners, as it’s always been the case with me. How do we ever manage in English without the French si, the special version of ‘yes’ for exclusive use when contradicting the person you’re talking to? It’s very handy in conversation, and much more elegant than the English ‘oh yes it is’ (‘oh yes I did/she has/etc.), which is its most precise translation, and only suitable for pantomime usage. And how nice to discover that the French bélier, ‘ram’, not only means the male sheep but also the big wooden thing for battering down castle gates. So here, in an occasional series, are some French words that tickled my fancy as a linguist.

Firstly, le créneau (‘les créneaux’ in the plural). It means ‘battlement’, the up-and-down bit on top of a castle wall, and is related to the English word ‘crenellation’. You can use it literally: the poet Verlaine has a line about

L’archer qui veille au créneau de la tour (‘The archer standing watch on the battlements of the tower’).

And you can also use it metaphorically:

monter au créneau’ (‘go up to the battlements’)

means to wade into a discussion or controversy, particularly one where there’s attacking and defending to be done. That’s already more than we do in English with our own word, but the nice thing about the French créneau as opposed to the English battlement is how much further they take the idea of its up-down-up shape. Un créneau in French is not just a literal slot in the stone parapet at the top of a castle wall, but almost anything else that resembles that shape or reminds you of it in some way. It can be a crenellation-shaped design or pattern, square notches or teeth on a mechanical device, or the shape of a city skyline. More than that, it can be a figurative ‘slot’ between two blocks for something to fit into. You can have a

‘créneau horaire’

in your timetable available for a meeting. ‘Quels sont vos créneaux d’ici à vendredi ?’ (‘What times do you have available between now and Friday ?’) offers the online dictionary, Trésor de la Langue Française as its example. (I’m scheduling classes and tutorials at the moment myself, which is probably why the word springs to mind.)

You can

‘trouver un bon créneau’

in the market (‘find a good opening’) for your product. ‘Une petite société, à condition de bien choisir ses créneaux, peut rivaliser avec les géants mondiaux’ (‘A small company can rival the giant multinationals, as long as it chooses its market openings carefully.’) says the TLF.

My favourite usage, though, is the more concrete idiom

‘faire un créneau’

literally, to ‘do a battlement’.

Rather beautifully, it’s the normal French expression meaning to slot your car into the gap between two other cars, i.e. to parallel park. The TLF illustrates the concept with the handy phrase, ‘Je rate toujours mes créneaux’  (‘I always mess up my parallel parking’), which you may wish to memorize in case it comes in useful in the future.

 posted by Simon Kemp