In Le Journal's video on chalets, we're treated to a fascinating description of a modern cabin entirely built of ancient wood. And speaking of modernity, the speaker's story includes quite a few instances of neuf and nouveau. Both adjectives mean "new," but each corresponds to a different meaning of the word "new."
Before we talk about the trick to distinguishing between neuf and nouveau, we should point out the feminine forms, which are irregular, of each adjective: the feminine of neuf is neuve, and the feminine of nouveau is nouvelle (though nouvel is used as the masculine form before words beginning with vowels or the silent letter h. For example: un nouvel album).
We see an instance of nouvelle right at the beginning of the chalet video.
Ce tronc d'arbre a été coupé il y a plus de deux cents ans. Aujourd'hui Michel Ferrari lui redonne une nouvelle vie.
This log was cut more than two hundred years ago. Today, MichelFerrari gives it back a new life.
Captions 1-2, Le Journal: Le chalet
Here, nouvelle vie denotes a life different from before. Notice that the qualifying adjective nouvelle precedes the noun vie.
A little further, we see nouveaux (the plural form of nouveau):
La Pologne fait par exemple partie des nouveaux fournisseurs.
Poland, for example, is among the new suppliers.
Caption 14, Le Journal: Le chalet
Again, the adjective here indicates a change; the list of suppliers is now different from the previous one. And, once again, the adjective nouveaux is placed before the substantive fournisseurs.
Now, the following captions give us some examples of an entirely different meaning of "new."
Le vieux bois, un matériau très recherché pour les constructions de montagne, même s'il coûte deux fois plus cher que le bois neuf.
Old timber, a much sought-after material for building in the mountains, even if it costs twice as much as new wood.
Captions 3-4, Le Journal: Le chalet
Here, bois neuf means wood that was recently produced. Notice that neuf is placed after the substantive bois.
We see the same primary meaning for neuf below:
Aujourd'hui pour construire, comme ici, du neuf avec du vieux
Nowadays, to build, like here, the new with the old
Caption 12, Le Journal: Le chalet
The speaker is talking about the recent construction of these houses. (And note that neuf is a substantive here: "the new.")
Want some more examples of objects with which you could use neuf? You could have un manteau neuf (a new coat) or un livre neuf (a new book). And don't forget about the ironically named Pont-Neuf, which is actually the oldest bridge in Paris!
And what other types of changes would you describe with the word nouveau? You could use it to talk about une nouvelle amie (a new friend) or un nouveau numéro de téléphone (a new phone number).
If you look at all the examples above, you'll see that neuf is used for recent creations: objects, like wood, constructions, etc., that were recently manufactured and are thus "new to the world." Nouveau, however, is used to indicate a change: either something different or the most recent example of something (a change from before).
Now that we've explored the linguistic subtleties of these two adjectives, let’s look at a few more ways to use the words neuf and nouveau.
La Nouvelle Vague is the name of the post-WWII cinematic trend in France of shooting movies in a different, more realistic way and using modern, spontaneous young actors rather than handsome, classical movie stars. In English, we call this type of cinema "French New Wave." Nouvelle vague also became a cultural term, applying to the youth of the time, who aspired to change their lives, to have freedom without convention.
There is also the term nouvelle cuisine, which refers to a French cooking approach that uses light ingredients and emphasizes presentation—a change from the previous heavy classical cuisine.
So what about other ways to use neuf?
You probably know that neuf also means the number nine.
Neuf is also used in some common expressions, like peau neuve, which we can also see in the chalet video.
Nous voici dans une ancienne ferme proche de Megève. C'est l'heure pour elle de faire peau neuve.
Here we are in an old farmhouse near Megève. It's time for it to get a face-lift.
Caption 5-6, Le Journal: Le chalet
This old farm is in need of a "new skin" to look better.
And speaking of old, our curious readers may be interested to know that the opposite of neuf/neuve is vieux/vieil/vieille; (vieil, like nouvel, is the masculine adjective for preceding vowel sounds), and the opposite of nouveau/nouvel/nouvelle is ancien/ancienne. Hard to believe there are five different options for such a simple word as "old"!
Stay tuned for a lesson that further discusses the placement of adjectives in French, which will help you solve that pesky "before or after?" dilemma.