As a French learner, you have no doubt begun to see (if not been outright taught) that words that begin with vowels are treated differently than words that begin with consonants. Perhaps most obvious to the casual observer is the process known as elision, which is the contraction formed by many common words, such as je, le, la, que, ce, and de (to name only a few) when they come before words that begin with a vowel. Elision is the reason why, for example, even the biggest francophobe can be heard confidently uttering c’est la vie (that’s life!) and not ce est la vie.
Another thing that you probably know by now is that the French h is always silent. However, since French words that start with h are almost always followed by a vowel (heure, histoire, honneur, etc.), an obvious question to ask is: do we treat words that begin with h as we do words that begin with a vowel (since a vowel is the first sound that we actually hear)?
The answer is: sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t! The vast majority of French words that start with h are treated as if they start with a vowel (even though, technically, the French consider h a consonant). The French call the h at the beginning of these words an h muet (mute h). However, there is a relatively small group of "h words" that are treated as if they begin with a consonant (which they do!). The French call the h at the beginning of these words an h aspiré (aspirated h).
Ils ont été écrits comme ça, je pense, en un quart d'heure...
They were written like that, I think, in a quarter of an hour...
Caption 5, Bertand Pierre: Victor Hugo
In the caption above, we see that singer Bertrand Pierre says en un quart d’heure, forming an elision between de and heure to create d’heure. This is because heure, like most French words that start with h, begins with an h muet; it forms elision just as words that start with a vowel do.
Maladie qui ne l’empêche nullement d’être un sportif de haut niveau
An illness which in no way keeps him from being an elite athlete
Caption 4, Le Journal: Un sportif handicapé
On the other hand, the h in the word haut is aspiré; it is treated the same as other words that begin with a consonant. This is why we hear no elision between de and haut in the caption above. We hear three distinct words: de haut niveau, NOT d’haut niveau. (Put another way, h aspiré “prevents” the elision.)
How do we know whether an h at the beginning of a word is an h muet or an h aspiré? Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing just by looking at it! H aspiré words will usually have an asterisk or an apostrophe before them in French dictionaries. Also, lists of h aspiré words have been published that can be used for reference or (gasp!) memorization.
Other than that, exposure to fluent French speakers will hopefully help you build a “native-like” feel for which words are h aspiré and which are h muet. H aspiré words tend to be of “foreign” origin (“borrowed” from another language, e.g. le hockey), but this is not always the case, and even when it is, it is not always obvious.
Another common phenomenon associated with words that begin with a vowel is known as liaison, which has to do with pronunciation changes caused by certain types of words (contingent upon the letter they end with) when they precede a word that starts with a vowel. As you might have guessed, we also hear liaison occurring with h muet words and not with h aspiré words.
Passez par chez nous, restaurant “Les Héritiers”, n'oubliez pas c'est un “apporter son vin"...
Stop by our place, “Les Héritiers” [The Heirs] restaurant, don't forget it's a “bring your own wine”...
Caption 28, Les Héritiers: Les bonnes recettes - Part 1
Do you notice that when the chef says the name of his restaurant we hear something like "les-Zhéritiers"? That “z” sound is an example of liaison. We hear something similar in les heures (the hours), les histoires (the stories), and any number of h muet words.
In contrast, have a listen to the lovely lady from Le Mans we met one day in Manhattan’s Central Park, extolling the virtues of the fair city of New York:
Et les hamburgers sont meilleurs ici...
And the hamburgers are better here...
You will notice that we do not hear any “z” sound between les and hamburgers. This is because hamburger begins with an h aspiré—there is no liaison between the les and an h aspiré word, just as there is no liaison between the les and a word that begins with a consonant
The thing about most “rules” is that you know they will be broken! It is not terribly uncommon to hear native French speakers forming elisions and liaisons with some words that the dictionary tells us are h aspiré. For example, even though the venerable Larousse dictionary insists that hamburger is h aspiré, it is entirely possible to encounter French natives forming the elision l’hamburger, or saying perhaps un hamburger with a liaison, such that we hear it pronounced as “un-Nhamburger.”
Side note: We use the word “contraction” when describing “elisions” because our English readers are familiar with contractions such as “didn’t,” “don’t” and “wouldn’t,” and the similarities are obvious. Technically speaking, to a linguist or the like, a contraction and an elision are not exactly the same thing.
Who doesn't like to quietly sip a beer?
...s'attabler au comptoir et boire tranquillement sa bière...
...sit at the counter and quietly sip his beer...
Captions 11–12, Le Village de la Bière: Ceci n'est pas un bar!
But at the Village de la Bière, in Strasbourg, a sip is all that you are going to get, as this emporium of brew has only une licence-dégustation (tasting license). This permits them to supply you with a mere sampling of, for example, une bière brune (dark beer), une bière blonde (light-colored beer), or une bière rousse (brown ale), before you settle on the bouteille de bière (bottle of beer) that most meets your approval. (You won't find many canettes de bière or "cans of beer" in this establishment!)
Owner Alain Pesez is passionate about his calling, and he will guide you through a vast selection:
J'ai entre trois et quatre cents sortes de bières... un assortiment qui bouge, qui varie et on vend de la bière des quatre coins du monde.
I have between three and four hundred kinds of beers... a selection that changes, that varies, and we sell beer from the four corners of the world.
Captions 6–7, Le Village de la Bière: Des bières de partout
Stocking over three hundred types of beer in one single shop is no small feat! We might even say, Ce n'est pas de la petite bière! On the surface, we might read that as, "This is not a little beer!" but, in actuality, this expression means "It's no small thing/It's no small matter" or "It's really something/It's a big deal." The expression dates back to the eighteenth century, when une petite bière was a weak, poor-quality beer, created by reusing the grains from an earlier batch.
The phrase can not only imply that a matter is significant, but also that something or someone is of high caliber, of quality.
Un Nikon, c'est un très bon appareil photo. Ce n'est pas de la petite bière.
A Nikon is a very good camera. It's not a piece of junk.
Donc c'est tout de suite plus sympathique accompagnée d'une petite bière pression.
So it's nicer right away accompanied by a small draft beer.
Caption 27, Le restaurant "Flam's": Les Tartes
Bière pression originates in un baril (a barrel/keg) and flows out of le robinet (the tap) and into une chope (a mug). Of course, you might prefer un panaché with your meal: that's a very popular mixture of beer and lemonade.
There is another meaning of bière that has nothing to do with fermenting grains to create a delightful effervescent beverage. The expressions mettre quelqu'un en bière and la mise en bière both refer to placing a body into a bière or "coffin." Note that, apart from these expressions, "coffin" is usually not referred to as une bière, but rather un cercueil.
On that note, remember that life is short! Tune in to these and hundreds of other fun and interesting authentic videos here at Yabla that will help quench your thirst for French mastery!
When you think vineyards, you probably conjure up images of rolling hills and sprawling fields, lush with grapevines planted in neat rows. So it may surprise you to learn that vineyards aren't just for la campagne. In fact, that most urban of French locales, la grande ville de Paris, has a few grapevines of its own!
Our favorite Parisian tour guide, Daniel Benchimol, takes us around the neighborhood known as La Butte Bergeyre, which, believe it or not, is home to a couple of vineyards. It's surprising such a tiny neighborhood could fit a vineyard—after all, there are only ten or so streets:
Il y a en tout une dizaine de rues avec des très, très jolies villas.
There are a total of about ten streets with very, very pretty villas.
Caption 11, Voyage dans Paris: Butte Bergeyre
Take a look at the word dizaine. On first glance, an English speaker might be tempted to translate this as its phonological cousin, "dozen." But dizaine actually means "about ten." Why the similarity? "Dozen" comes from the Old French dozaine, and its modern French equivalent is douzaine.
As you can probably guess by now, -aine as a suffix added to numbers indicates an approximation of quantity. So, une dizaine is "about ten," une douzaine is "about twelve" (a dozen), une trentaine is "about thirty," and so on. "Dozen" is the only similar word of this type in English, but who's to say we couldn't one day have a "tenzen" or a "thirtyzen" too?
A Yabla French subscriber recently asked an interesting question about a caption in one of our videos
L'éco-musée du pays de Rennes ... s'en est occupé...
The eco-museum of the county of Rennes ... took it upon itself...
Captions 16–17, Le Journal: Gourmet en Bretagne
Shouldn't, the subscriber asked, the participle actually be occupée—with an extra e—to match the subject eco-musée? After all, the word-ending -ée most often denotes a feminine word in French—so wouldn't the verb need to agree in gender here? As it turns out, even though musée ends in -ée, it is actually a masculine noun. So occupé is correct. Musée is not the only word that's masculine despite ending in -ée.
Moi, je me souviens à l'époque, même que j'étais dans un lycée d'filles...
I remember in those days, even though I was in an all-girls high school...
Caption 21, Le Journal: Baisers interdits dans les couloirs!
Like musée, the noun lycée—even a lycée filled with girls and only girls—is masculine, which we can tell here because it's preceded by the masculine article un. Un ("a," masc.) or le ("the," masc.) are the right determiners to use with lycée or musée, and not une ("a," fem.) or la ("the," fem.), as one may have expected with such an ending.
What other nouns end with -ée but are nevertheless masculine words? The most commonly used are:
un athée (an atheist)
à l'apogée (at the peak)
un camée (a cameo)
un mausolée (a mausoleum)
un trophée (a trophy)
un macchabée (a stiff, also a Maccabee)
un pygmée (a pygmy)
un scarabée (a beetle)
C'est dans sa loge qu'on a retrouvé Buridane
It's in her dressing room that we caught up with Buridane
Caption 1, Télé Lyon Métropole: Buridane
Did you catch the interview with the lovely chanteuse Buridane? It took place backstage, in her loge, what we would call her "dressing room." However, on the other side of the curtain, loge can also refer to box seating, usually private, elevated, and not cheap—a nice place from which to watch the show. Sport and theater fans will recognize that we have the same word in English: "loge" seating areas offer a bird's-eye view in a luxurious setting. It's from this meaning that we get the common French expression être aux premières loges, which means "to have a great view," or "front row seats."
Where else will you find une loge? Out in the country! A rustic cabin (or "lodge") of the kind used by skiers, hunters, or park rangers is also called a loge.
Finally, if you enter a French building, bourgeois or not, beware of the loge du concierge or "caretaker's apartment." You won’t sneak past unnoticed, even if you tiptoe... so be sure to have a good reason to be there!
And just as loge can be "lodge," logement can mean "lodging," as in housing or a place to stay. Take this example, where retirement-age protesters point out that Sarkozy doesn't quite share their concerns:
Et lui, il a pas de souci de voiture, il a pas de souci de logement...
And him, he has no car worries, he has no housing worries...
Caption 22, Le Journal: À la retraite en France
There's also the verb loger, which, as you may now be able to guess, means "to house" or "provide accommodation for."
See if you can spot any other lodging-related words in our videos!
After watching her scour the desert Mad Max–style for clues to track down her amour perdu in the video for "Love Machine," we know that Melissa Mars is a romantic. Her "Army of Love" video also gives us a few clues—on how to speak the language of love, en français.
Petites fées du cœur / Accueillent les âmes sœurs
Little love fairies / Welcome the soulmates
Captions 25–26, Melissa Mars: Army of Love
If you know that the word âme is "soul" and the word sœur means "sister," you might think that Melissa is referring to her many Mini-Me's as "soul sisters." Actually, âme sœur is French for "soulmate," and even though the term is of the female persuasion, it can apply to any member of a happy couple. In French, guys can be soul sisters too!
The "Lung" of Things
Our favorite friendly tour guide, Daniel Benchimol, gives us a look in living color at the history-rich, up-and-coming Paris quartier of Belleville.
As sometimes happens with urban areas that were once on the sketchy side, Belleville has recently gentrified. These days, it's home to a thriving diverse community. You'll see people from all walks of life strolling along the Rue de Belleville and the Boulevard de Belleville. (It's easy to know you're in the right neighborhood. Just look at the street signs!)
There's even a Parc de Belleville:
Nous sommes ici dans le Parc de Belleville, qui est vraiment le... le poumon de ce quartier.
We're here in the Parc de Belleville [Belleville Park], which is really the... the lungs of this neighborhood.
Captions 11–12, Voyage dans Paris: Belleville
Notice that Daniel tells us the park is le poumon of the neighborhood—"the lung" of the hood—just as Central Park is sometimes called "the lungs" of New York City, thanks to the fresh air it offers.
Les Bellevillois are known for their distinctive fun and funky accents. Wondering what they sound like? Just listen to France's favorite songbird, Édith Piaf. La Môme hails from the streets—the rues and boulevards—of Belleville!
Give up? Start thinking in French. Do you see it now? They're all French homophones! So what are the tricks to distinguishing between mère, maire, and mer
Let’s start off where life itself does—with our proud moms. In French, your mother is your mère.
Annie Chartrand, from Quebec, recalls the limited English ability of her own mère (as well as her père, her father).
Si je pense à mes parents, à mon père et ma mère, ils parlent anglais, mais c'est un peu plus, comme on dit en bon québécois, "baragouiné".
If I think of my parents, my dad or my mom, they speak English, but it's a bit more like, as we say in good Quebecois French, baragouiné.
Caption 12–13, Annie Chartrand: Grandir bilingue
Charles Baptiste, from Paris, sings of something nobody wants their mother to do (nobody nice anyway) in the song Je sais:
Tandis que ma mère se met à pleurer
Whereas my mother starts crying
Caption 21, Charles Baptiste: Je sais
Let's move away from such sadness (we hope Charles's mère is feeling better) to our second homophone: maire (mayor).
One way to distinguish this word from its homophones: maire (mayor) is a masculine noun and so is preceded by the masculine article le. But la mère (the mother) and la mer (the sea) are both feminine. Note that more people nowadays are using la maire to refer to a female mayor (see our lesson about the feminization of professions in French), although the officially correct term is la mairesse.
The mayor of Groslay, a town north of Paris, is not very popular… He banned chicken in municipal lunchrooms because of fears of avian flu.
L'interdiction du maire a également déclenché la colère des agriculteurs.
The mayor's ban has also triggered the anger of the farmers.
Caption 9, Le Journal: Le poulet dans les cantines
However, some mayors are less cautious than others. The mayor of Lille, for example, not only supported protesters who recklessly (and illegally) switched off street lighting in the city center, she joined their rally, French flag in hand!
Et c'est toujours au nom du service public que la maire de Lille soutient les agents d'EDF en grève.
And it is still in the name of the public service that the mayor of Lille supports the EDF agents on strike.
Caption 18, Le Journal: Grève de l'EDF à Lille – Part 1
Let's move on to our last homophone: la mer (the sea).
La mer is often a romantic image in popular songs. (Who doesn't love a little Charles Trenet?) Lyon-based ska band Babylon Circus sings about the sea in a song about dreams and lost hopes:
Les rames étaient trop courtes pour atteindre le niveau de la mer
The oars were too short to reach sea level
Caption 12, Babylon Circus: J'aurais bien voulu
So now, no more confusion between la mère (the mother), le maire (the mayor), and la mer (the sea)!
An accent, or the lack of one, can sometimes determine the meaning of a French word.
For example, let's take ou, the common conjunction that means "or." After his extensive travel abroad, Chef Rachel Gesbert likes to use exotic ingredients when he returns to France "or" to Europe:
Et quand on revient en France ou en Europe... on a envie de mélanger certains produits.
And when you return to France or to Europe... you feel like mixing certain products.
Caption 25, Le Journal: Gourmet en Bretagne
Ou bien also means "or," plain and simple. Anglophones, seeing the extra word bien, might be tempted to translate ou bien as "or even," or to add some other nuance. But in fact, ou bien is used pretty much interchangeably with ou, as we find in the report on the recent discovery of Saint-Exupéry's lost plane, near Marseilles.
Mais personne ne sait s'il s'agit d'un accident, d'un suicide ou bien d'un tir ennemi.
But nobody knows whether it's a question of an accident, of a suicide, or of enemy fire.
Captions 24–25, Le Journal: Saint-Exupéry – Part 1
However, when we draw a simple accent grave over the u in ou, we get the adverb où, which is used to indicate "where." Anne Liardet, mother of three, racing solo around the world on the "Vendée Globe," tells us:
J'suis bien, là où je suis...
I'm all right where I am...
In their worldwide hit "Senegal Fast Food," Amadou and Mariam, the singing-songwriting duo from Mali, ask:
Dakar, Bamako, Rio de Janeiro: où est le problème, où est la frontière?
Dakar, Bamako, Rio de Janeiro: where is the problem, where is the border?
Captions 25–26: Amadou et Mariam: Sénégal Fast Food
Another meaning of où is "when," indicating time. Notice the way French movie star Agnès Jaoui uses it when talking about dreams and fame:
C'est bien... de rêver, mais y a un moment où il faut juste se récupérer soi-même.
It's good... to dream, but there comes a time when you have to go back to who you are.
Captions 29–30, Le Journal: Le Rôle de sa Vie
So, there you have it: the short story of ou!
FYI: Keep in mind there are at least two other words that sound exactly the same as ou and où, but have their own unique spellings: une houe is "a hoe," like we use in the garden, and du houx is "holly," the stuff the halls are decked out with come Christmas!
In her song "Diesel" (extremely popular with Yabla viewers!), Elea Lumé declares:
Et si il y a eu maldonne, je me fais mon propre prud'homme
And if there was a mistake, I'll take responsibility for it
Captions 33–34, Elea Lumé: Diesel
When we are playing cards, la donne is "the deal." It comes from the verb donner, that very common French verb that means "to give." It also means "to deal," which is not hard to see since cards are "given out" to the players. Sometimes the dealer (le donneur—literally, "the giver") screws up, and hands too many or too few cards to one or more of the players. In the poker rooms of Paris this is known as a fausse donne (false deal), mauvaise donne (bad deal), or maldonne—which we get when we preface donne (deal) with mal ("bad" or "wrong"): a "wrong deal." In English the common term for all of these is "misdeal."
Cards are ripe metaphors for life, as anyone who's ever been "dealt a bad hand" or suffered "the luck of the draw" knows. In French, the phrase il y a maldonne has drifted from the cards-specific "there is a misdeal" to the more general "there is a mistake."
A quick aside about another of Elea's lyrical selections here: if you look up prud'homme in the dictionary, you find that it is a member of a labor court, one which decides disputes between management and workers. So when Elea says je me fais mon propre prud'homme (literally something like, "I'll be my own jury"), she is saying that she'll assume full responsibility; she's not going to take it to a third party for help—she'll stand on her own.
Besides signaling a mistake, il y a maldonne takes on another metaphorical meaning: "there is a misunderstanding." The exuberant chanteuse Cassandre expresses a negated variation of the phrase when she sings:
Mais non, y a pas maldonne / C'est super romantique!
But no, there's no misunderstanding / It's super romantic!
Caption 33, Vous avez du talent: Cassandre – Je te saoule
So make no mistake! As in English, French words or phrases often evolve from literal to metaphorical meanings, and their meaning can change based on their context. Getting to know these subtleties is not a bad deal at all!
To wrap up our series of lessons on adjectives, we want to show you a few examples of multiple adjectives qualifying the same noun.
Native speakers of a language know instinctively how to order multiple adjectives. For example, Anglophones know that we say a "big old black truck" rather than "black big old truck." The rules that govern this ordering process are somewhat cumbersome to explain, and are often a bit flexible. (It's not exactly "wrong" to say "black big old truck"; it just doesn't sound quite as good—don't you agree?)
We won't delve into too many nitty-gritty details governing multiple-adjective order today. We'll leave that to the linguistics PhDs. Since, to most of us, it's simply a matter of what sounds good, we thought we'd give you a sense of what sounds good in French by taking a look at some examples and offering you a few simple pieces of advice.
Let's start out where many lessons do: in a classroom. In French, the teacher at the front of the room will write on un grand tableau noir (a big blackboard)—ordered this way because we say: un "grand" tableau (a big board), and because we say: un tableau "noir" (a blackboard). (Adjectives like grand are explained in this lesson, and color adjectives are explained in this lesson.)
Ready for some more examples? Off we go to the land of fashion. Even if you aren’t a celebrity or your pockets aren’t lined with gold, you can still check out the Chanel collection in Le Journal's fashion show videos:
La fameuse petite robe noire
The famous little black dress
Caption 3, Le Journal: Défilé de mode - Part 3
Notice how each adjective takes its usual place in this phrase. The adjective petite (which, like grand, is discussed here) comes before the noun robe. It turns out that fameuse is also an adjective that tends to come before the noun in French. And color, as we established in our blackboard example, comes after the noun. So, we place each adjective in its proper place and we get fameuse petite robe noire
Of course, sometimes you'll see multiple adjectives on just one one side of a noun (either before or after). Take a look at the story of little Morgane, who was, at two pounds, a greatly premature baby who grew up to be a perfectly healthy and cheery child.
À quatre ans, Morgane est une enfant gaie et vive sans aucun problème de santé.
At four years old, Morgane is a happy and playful child without any health problem.
Caption 2, Le Journal: Grands prématurés
Here the two adjectives describe the same type of quality—the little girl's pleasant disposition—so the conjunction et (and) is appropriately positioned between them. And, of course, both adjectives come after the noun they qualify, as they would if they were used alone: We say une enfant gaie (happy) and we also say une enfant vive ("playful" or "vivacious").
Let's look at another example, this time love-related:
Comme deux jeunes mariés, nos destins sont liés.
Like two newlyweds, our destinies are linked.
Caption 5, Ina-Ich: Âme armée
Perhaps this is just common sense, but when you have a common expression in French that's made up of an adjective-noun combo, and is then modified by another adjective, keep that common expression together. In Ina-Ich's song lyrics above, we have the common adjective-noun combo jeunes mariés (newlyweds—literally "young marrieds"). And as newlyweds typically come in pairs, we see this expression quantified by the numerical adjective deux (two), which, because it is a number, appears in front of the noun phrase, as seen in this lesson.
Here's a final point to leave you with, and perhaps the most important thing to take away from our series of adjective lessons. As is wisely written in one of Pierre Larousse's famous language books:
C’est le goût et surtout l’oreille qui déterminent la place que doivent occuper les adjectifs!
"It’s taste and especially sound that determine the place that adjectives must occupy!"
Keep taking your daily dose of Yabla video vitamins and you'll get more and more of that native-speaker sense of how to season your phrases with multiple adjectives!