French Lessons


Painting the Sky

Who has not gazed at le ciel (the sky) to check the weather or enjoy a sunset or a sunrise? Indeed, the sky can take on many colors, from somber gray to magnificent sunset-red. There are many ways, colors, and expressions to describe the wild blue yonder. Poets, songwriters, weather forecasters, and ordinary people are all adept at describing le ciel. So, let's join them and explore some sky-related vocabulary. But first, let us find out where le ciel (the sky) is…


In this video, sweet cartoon character Piggeldy wants to know where le ciel (the sky) begins, and he asks his older brother Frédéric to take him there:


Piggeldy voulait savoir où commence le ciel.

Piggeldy wanted to know where the sky begins.

Caption 1, Piggeldy et Frédéric Le ciel

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Piggeldy’s mission to reach the heavens (on foot, no less) is bound to fail because, as the saying goes, la limite, c'est le ciel (the sky is the limit):


La limite, c'est le ciel, tu sais de qui c'est

The sky is the limit, you know whose it is

Caption 53, Disiz la Peste Dans tes rêves

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Though it's impossible to walk up to le ciel, it is certainly possible to gaze at it and enjoy its bright blue hue. In his humorous song, "Cha Cha du Marin," singer Cré Tonnerre sings about a ciel bleu (blue sky) that reflects his happy mood:


Tout heureux, tout amoureux, tout bleu comme le ciel bleu

All happy, all in love, all blue as the blue sky

Caption 26, Cré Tonnerre Cha Cha du Marin

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In his video about dog training, trusty guide Lionel also enthuses over a ciel radieux (glorious sky) as he finishes his visit to a canine club:


Nous allons prendre congé sous ce ciel radieux, bleu-azur.

We're going to take our leave under this glorious, azure-blue sky.

Captions 52-53, Lionel au club canin - Part 5

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And in Metz, Lionel enjoys another ciel estival (summer sky):


Nous sommes donc ici toujours à Metz, sous un ciel estival, ciel bleu

So we're still here in Metz under a summer sky, a blue sky

Caption 1, Lionel à Metz - Part 2

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While un ciel estival is a blue summer sky, un ciel gris (a gray sky) usually means drab winter days. And yet, people like Sophie and Patrice see beauty in les dégradés du gris (the shades of gray) in the Parisian skies:


Entre les dégradés de gris du ciel et les dégradés de gris des toits c'est vrai c'est super beau, hein?

Between the shades of gray in the sky and the shades of gray of the roofs, it's true it's super beautiful, huh?

Captions 9-11, Sophie et Patrice Paris, c'est gris

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Still, most people seem to prefer un ciel dégagé (a clear sky) over un ciel couvert (an overcast sky) or un ciel nuageux (a cloudy sky):


Cette nuit le ciel est dégagé avec huit degrés pour les températures... Et puis pour la journée de jeudi un ciel couvert avec quinze degrés le matin

Tonight the sky is clear with eight-degree temperatures... And then for daytime on Thursday an overcast sky with fifteen degrees in the morning

Caption 9, 14, Grand Lille TV Prévisions Météo (Juin)

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Un ciel dégagé est plus agréable qu’un ciel nuageux.

A clear sky is more pleasant than a cloudy sky.


In any case, not everyone is as fond of gray skies as Sophie and Patrice. Most would agree with the speaker in the video below, who describes gray skies as maussade (gloomy) and pluvieux (rainy):


Malheureusement avec un ciel maussade et un peu pluvieux...

Unfortunately under a gloomy and somewhat rainy sky...

Caption 15, Lionel Le club de foot de Nancy - Part 1

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Sometimes the sky is bleak and pale instead of gray, and when it comes to describing pale skies, who does it better than renowned poet Charles Baudelaire? In his poem "À une passante" (To a Passersby), Baudelaire depicts a bleak sky with the adjective livide, which means “pale” or even “deathly pale." (Unlike its English cognate, the French livide does not mean “livid/angry.")


Dans son œil, ciel livide où germe l'ouragan

From her eye, pale sky where a hurricane grows

Caption 41, Le saviez-vous? "À une passante" de Charles Baudelaire

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Still on a bleak note, singer Zaz portrays the sky in an even gloomier way:


Je mettrais du ciel en misère

I would put some sky in misery

Caption 9, Zaz Si

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In yet another sad song, singer Lesieur laments over un ciel sans avenir (a sky without a future), projecting even sadder feelings, a sense of hopelessness into a sky that refuses to rain:


Un ciel qui vous oublie... -Un ciel sans avenir

A sky that's forgetting you... -A sky with no future

Caption 26, Lesieur Des Ricochets

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Thankfully, le ciel does not always spell gloom. What could be a happier sight than un arc-en-ciel (a rainbow, literally an “arc-in-the-sky”)? In his humorous song, Oldelaf sings the praises of the colors of the rainbow in his own unique way:


Et j'avoue que j'aime aussi / Toutes les couleurs de l'arc-en-ciel / Le rouge, le jaune, le vert-de-gris / Le pourpre, le mauve, même le bleu ciel

And I'll admit that I also like / All the colors of the rainbow / Red, yellow, verdigris / Purple, mauve, even sky blue

Captions 30-33, Oldelaf J'aime les bêtes

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If un arc-en-ciel is close to a heavenly sight, le ciel is most certainly heavenly. It's synonymous with “heaven” when talking about the afterlife: que le roi est leur meilleur guide sur terre en attendant d'aller au ciel.

...and that the king is their best guide on earth while they wait to go to heaven.

Captions 45-46, d'Art d'Art Vitraux de la Sainte-Chapelle

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Whatever you may see or choose to see in le ciel, you are now armed with extra vocabulary that will enable you to better paint the sky in words—French words, of course—or just talk about the weather. Thank you for gazing at le ciel (the sky) or les cieux (the skies) with Yabla!


Gender of Inanimate Nouns and Concepts

Memorizing the gender of nouns referring to things is one of the most difficult parts of learning French, as assigning gender to an object or concept is unfamiliar to native English speakers. Is there any logic to this process? In many cases, it seems arbitrary, and there’s no way of guessing. Fortunately, some categories of nouns do follow logical rules. 


For example, it is indeed possible to identify the gender of a country based on its ending. La France is a feminine noun because it ends in e. (Note that we say la France even though it’s a proper noun. Unlike in English, all names of countries are preceded by an article in French.)


Le nom de la France vient du mot "Franc"

The name of France comes from the word "Franc" [Frank]

Caption 3, Le saviez-vous? D'où vient le nom de la France?

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That said, there are always exceptions. Even though it also ends in an e, le Mexique (Mexico) is masculine:


Maintenant avec leur aide, partons sur-le-champ conquérir le Mexique!

Now with their aid, let's leave at once to conquer Mexico!

Caption 29, Il était une fois: Les Amériques 9. Cortés et les Aztèques - Part 8

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But as for countries that don’t end in an e, it’s easy! They are automatically masculine: le Canada, le Japon, le Luxembourg (Canada, Japan, Luxembourg).


Pierre Trudeau, Premier Ministre du Canada, a dit que c'était une loi de fou.

Pierre Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, said it was a crazy law.

Caption 28, Le Québec parle aux Français - Part 3

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What about cities? Do they follow the same rule as countries? Not exactly. The Académie Française (the official French language watchdog, if you will) doesn’t give a definite answer, noting that people tend to prefer masculine although feminine is often used in literary contexts. 


In the video below, we can tell that Paris is masculine because of the masculine past participle traversé (intersected):


Car Paris était traversé à l'époque par un aqueduc

For Paris was intersected at the time by an aqueduct

Caption 39, Voyage dans Paris Le Treizième arrondissement de Paris - Part 2

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French speakers often get around the gender ambiguity by using the expression c’est (it’s), which always requires a masculine agreement. Instead of saying Paris est belle or Paris est beau (Paris is beautiful), Sophie uses the phrase c’est + masculine to describe Paris:


C'est beau Paris comme ça.

Paris is beautiful like this.

Caption 1, Sophie et Patrice Paris, c'est gris

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The gender of languages is much more clear-cut. All languages are masculine, from le français (French) to le thaï (Thai):


Je crois que le français est une langue géniale.

I believe that French is a great language.

Caption 11, Allons en France Pourquoi apprendre le français?

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Note, however, that if you say "the French language" or "the Thai language" instead of just "French" or "Thai," you have to use the feminine, because the word langue (language) is feminine: la langue françaisela langue thaïe.


Most foreign words are also masculine, in particular sports names and terms borrowed from English. It’s a simple matter of putting a masculine article like le (the) in front of the loanword:


Il aime le football.

He likes soccer.

Caption 33, Lionel L Les liaisons et le h aspiré

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On the other hand, native French sports terms are either masculine or feminine. For example, we have two words for “bicycle”: le vélo, which is masculine, and la bicyclette, which is feminine.


Tu peux faire du vélo

You can ride a bike

Caption 31, Amal et Caroline Le Parc de la Villette

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Most inanimate nouns follow no predictable pattern when it comes to gender. When we talk about feelings, for example, we say le bonheur (happiness) but la joie (joy): 


Y a de la joie. On est avec les petits.

There's good cheer. We are with the little ones.

Caption 45, Actu Vingtième Fête du quartier Python-Duvernois

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C'est quand le bonheur?

When is happiness?

Caption 9, Cali C'est quand le bonheur

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To complicate things further, some words take both genders, and their meaning changes depending on whether they're masculine or feminine (we discuss this at length in our lesson One Word, Two Genders). For example, un livre is "a book," but une livre is "a pound": 


L'extérieur d'un livre s'appelle la couverture.

The outside of a book is called the cover.

Caption 4, Manon et Clémentine Vocabulaire du livre

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Une livre équivaut à environ quatre cent cinquante-quatre grammes. 

One pound is equal to around four hundred fifty-four grams.


And there is a small group of noun pairs that have slightly different meanings in the masculine and feminine that aren't conveyed in English. For example, the words an and année both mean "year," but the masculine an emphasizes a point in time or a unit of time, while the feminine année stresses duration: 


Un manuscrit de mille deux cents ans

A one thousand two hundred year old manuscript

Caption 9, Télé Lyon Métropole Un manuscrit vieux de 1200 ans découvert à Lyon

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Ça fait des années et des années qu'ils cherchent à être logés.

For years and years they've sought housing.

Captions 35-36, Actus Quartier Devant la SNCF

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Whether you’ve been studying French pendant des années (for years) or you’ve only just begun, with practice, remembering the gender of nouns will become easier. Thank you for reading the final lesson of this series!


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