After mastering grammar, building a basic vocabulary required to get your point across (e.g. “box” versus “receptacle” or “red” versus “vermillion”), and perhaps attaining some cultural knowledge, there remain parts of a language that are rarely, if ever, communicated in a classroom setting, except perhaps at the most advanced levels. Though many of these items are not completely necessary for expression, they can add a great deal to the cultural authenticity of whatever you happen to be saying.
As the intrepid explorer finding myself suddenly deep in the field, I am beginning to synthesize my observations of non-classroom French. At every turn I relish the opportunity to listen, as much for the enrichment of my francophone studies as for general curiosity. Cafes and checkout aisles have been especially great, since I get the double advantage of practical function (caffeine, food, shopping) and prime source material.
What I have learned thus far:
-the lips are the windows to the… err…
When animated and continuing a thought or expressing agreement or disapproval with the utterances of another person, the French (women especially) take up the space between thoughts by making hand gestures and squishing their mouths into different shapes. For example, in place of saying “of course” or “well” one of the more expressive girls in my dorm makes a duck bill with her lips before adding her own two cents. Gracefully, but still.
Also, there is a stereotype that Americans speak with their whole face, using the entire mouth to enunciate. Some of the extreme specimens of French speech I’ve seen display most of the visible movement in the very front of their mouths, as if the words are still being formed up until the point of exit into the air.
Instead of the staccato “like,” French fillers lend rhythm and variation to a phrase in a far more musical way. “Euh,” “ben,” “mais,” and “alors” can be stretched, intonated, and reintonated for as long as necessary to fill the gap between thoughts in a way that would sound strange (to me) in English.
-speak like you sing
After adding the fillers, the French conversationalist intonates a lot more from word to word than the English. Two words up, one down, three up, two down and on it goes.
-cursing, c’est un art
The art of cursing in French, where the precise bon mot takes a phrase from emmerdant to exceptionnel, takes a bit of practice. It is not exactly refined to do so in polite company, as there are certainly apt words that do not carry such vulgar connotations, but in everyday informal conversation this lends a vernacular air to whatever you say. For example, when one might say “Sheesh” in English, you could slip in a sighed “Putain” to the same effect. Much like “f*ck” in English, “putain” is adaptable to many different parts of speech, so it is infinitely adaptable, though not always wise to do so.
Bien sur, one always sounds more attractive cursing in French rather than in English. I, for one, find it very hard to sound convincingly angry when uttering any of these because they are too friggin’ pretty, but for the sake of my language-learning compatriots, here are a few choice words and phrases you may find useful (or fun to practice shouting when nobody else is home):
merde = sh*t
salope = sl*t, used like “b*tch”
cul = a**
foutre, je m’en fous= t0 f*ck, I don’t give a f*ck
c’est le bordel = literally, “It’s a brothel” but means something closer to “It’s a mess”
putte, putain =wh*re
con, connard, conasse…= c*nt, can also be used to mean “fool” or “douchebag” as in “Gros con”= big fat blathering idiot. this can sound a lot like the word for “account,” which is “compte” so make sure to emphasize the T in the latter case.
connerie = bullsh*t (are we noticing a theme here?)
vachement = (mild) equivalent to “friggin” or “really really”
peter des plombs = literally, “to fart lead” but means something closer to “to throw a hissyfit” or “to blow a fuse”
bander =to have an erection. the only reason this one made the list is to warn travelers to use the French “pansement” instead of “band-Aid.” If your English pronunciation isn’t completely clear you may get some very interesting reactions otherwise.
There will undoubtedly be others I’ll discover along the way, but for now, I leave you with this cheeky lesson in how to fake French even if you don’t speak it.