Speaking French – les difficultes!

There are many things in the French language that are so different in the English language. Not only vocabulary and grammar, but entire ways of handling things and saying things.  Not only is the humour different, but the whole way of responding is different too..

Even something as simple as picking up the phone – what do you say when you pick up the phone ?  I usually give the name of the property – “Pine Acre?” My parents and in-laws did this.  Some people just say “Hello ?”  Amazing how many variations of “Hello” there are – a whispery, weak, injured hello ? A strong bark HELLO!?  A pleasant pleased-to-answer-whoever-you-are type of hello?  My brother gives his name.  One of my sisters always sounds exhausted when she answers the phone, regardless.

Turquoise Moon

The French tend to snap oui ?!!  which to me always sounds so rude, but then so does the Spanish diga-me! which means, literally, “tell me”.  I remember an English woman, Denise, living in La Rochelle, who laboriously learnt her phone number off by heart, so that she could answer the phone in a manner that she, as an English woman, thought was correct.  This was 15 years ago, and even in the UK we had started to stop giving the number because they were getting so long.  I recall my mother picking up the phone when I was little : “Highworth 208?”  And as the years went by it became “Chorleywood 3702?” …. and so on. It was OK in those days when numbers were short.  Poor Denise laboriously learnt her phone number, even though she could say little else. She recited it to me. I hadn’t the heart to tell her. “Bonjour,” she said in a very English accent, “zero-cinq-quarante-six-quatre-vingts-dix-huit-quatre-vingt-quatorze-soixante-six-sept …”  Deary me!   I expect her callers wondered what the dickens she was yapping about.

And general responding.  The French will exclaim “bien sur!” (of course!) in a way which is slightly rude in English as it sort-of insinuates you should have known.  “Is this shop open?” “Bien sur!” … which somehow doesn’t quite work in our own language.

Turquoise Moon

Then there is all the vous/tu business !  And the first names business!

A Welsh couple recently bought a house nearby and went, in the normal manner, via a French notaire.  To my horror they called the notaire by her first name, Helene.  No, no, no no!  You and I know that notaires are not gods, but the notaires do not know it and nor does the general French population.  To the French mind, calling her Helene was equivalent to going to a top surgeon for the first time and calling him “ducks”!

There is a whole area, almost a language in itself, associated with when you can use a first name and when you can use tu instead of vous.  The general rule is that it depends on how well you know the person, but there is far more to it than that.  There is an entire etiquette that comes with the overall feeling of the person you are speaking with.  It also depends on your education.  Some people “tutoi” (ie use tu) easily and accept it easily, others do not.  It also depends on the age of the person.  This same Welsh couple share the same bank as me and they instantly called the banker by her first name.  That is OK – this girl is a junior banker, a lot younger, and fairly informal in her presentation. So it works.  Yet with a different banker it would not work.

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I have noticed that those of our long-standing staff will refer to my husband and myself as Bruce and Catherine (Bruuuuse et Catt-er-eeeeen) but when speaking to us they always say Monsieur or Madame and they always use vous.   New staff stick to the formal Monsieur and Madame throughout.  That is good – it is best to keep a kind of divide in a way you cannot in English with the simple “you”.

And even that is different.  As the boss in the UK, your employee can call you “Fred” (unless your name is not Fred, of course) and you can call him Joe (same conditions) and it can work fine:_

“Joe!!!  I told you to get that truck backed out the garage and loaded up!  Move it!”

“But Fred, you told me to see to the tyres first …”

Somehow that just wouldn’t work in French.  Once you use a first name and tu, you are almost chums ….

a french 4


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Catherine Broughton is a novelist, a poet and an artist. Her books are available as e-books on this site, or can be ordered from Amazon & Kindle, or from any leading book store or library.  

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Posted on 13/06/2013 by Catherine
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