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Arabic Words in the French Language

It’s no secret that many English words have become part of the French language. What is not so well-known, however, is how much Arabic has influenced European languages. From the Moorish occupation of Spain to the latest waves of North African immigrants, Arabs have had a strong presence in Europe. So, it’s no surprise that Arabic terms have crept into the French language. Let’s explore some of them.

 

Many of these words were adapted to sound more like French over time, so much so that French people use words of Arabic origin every day without realizing it. For example, a typical day may start with un café, derived from the Arabic word qahwa:

 

Les adultes boivent plus du café ou du thé

Adults drink coffee or tea more

Caption 9, Arles Le petit déjeuner

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Arab cuisine has also become part of the French cooking repertoire. For example, you can find the spicy Maghrebi sausage called merguez in most supermarkets nowadays. In the video below, Parisians can’t resist the smell of merguez:

 

les odeurs de merguez, de frites, euh...

the smells of merguez, of French fries, uh...

Caption 8, Manif du Mois La traditionnelle manif du 1er mai

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People even use Arabic terms when talking about routine activities, like aller au magasin (going to the store), a word borrowed from the Arabic makazin, which originally referred to a warehouse. The meaning of introduced words often departs from the original:

 

Alors, nous sommes dans un magasin.

So, we're in a shop.

Caption 24, Extr@ Ep. 2 - Sam fait du shopping - Part 3

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Other times, loanwords have remained close to the original Arabic meaning. French borrowed the term souk, which is a marketplace in Northern Africa. But the word has also become slang for a messy place and is often accompanied by an exclamation mark:

 

Quel souk!

What a mess!

 

The somewhat dated expression faire la nouba (to party) kept its Arabic sound but lost its original meaning. La nouba refers to traditional songs and dances performed by Algerian women. The term later became slang, first used in the military, for partying and living it up:

 

J’aime trop faire la nouba.

I love to party a lot.

 

While young people may not use the same Arabic expressions as their parents, today’s youth adopted their own new set of Arabic words to add to their vocabulary and complement their favorite verlan expressions. In his conversation with Anna, Louis greets her using the term wesh, borrowed directly from Algerian slang, which is equivalent to "hi," "yo," or "what's up":

 

Wesh ["salut" en arabe] Anna.

Wesh ["hi" in Arabic] Anna.

Caption 1, Anna et Louis Le vocabulaire des jeunes

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Louis also uses the word kiffer (to love). Kif originally served as a slang word for drugs, equivalent to "dope" or "hash" in English. By extension, the verb kiffer came to mean "to smoke hash." Nowadays, though, kiffer mostly functions as a general synonym of aimer:

 

En vrai, Louis, je kiffe bricoler

For real, Louis, I love tinkering

Caption 45, Anna et Louis J'ai besoin d'un coup de main

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Conversely, something that is pas kiffant is not fun:

 

Enfin c'était pas kiffant, quoi

Well, it wasn't fun, you know

Caption 14, Anna et Louis Hier soir

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Speaking of pas kiffant, you might hear someone in trouble use the expression avoir le seum, slang for being depressed, frustrated, or in a bad spot:

 

Moi, j'ai trop le seum.

Me, I'm really frustrated.

Caption 14, Sophie et Edmée Les études de médecine

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Ben, euh... moi j'ai un peu le seum

Well, uh... I'm kind of in a bad spot

Caption 8, Edmée et Fanny Les présidentielles à 20 ans

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The reason for all this seum (trouble) might be a lack of moula (moolah), which is one of several slang terms for money:

 

Pour les langages des jeunes et plus récemment: "la moula", "la moulaga", "les lovés", "les bifs" et "les waris."

In youth language, and more recently: "la moula" [moolah], "la moulaga," "les lovés," "les bifs," and "les waris."

Captions 24-26, Lionel L L'argent

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The lack of moula might well prompt the use of the Maghrebi expression c’est la hess ("it’s hell," "it’s a struggle"). Imagine a hungry teenager opening an empty refrigerator, saying:

 

Le frigo est vide, c’est vraiment la hess.

The fridge is empty, it’s hell.

 

The Algerian term hess or hass originally referred to licking the plate clean, in other words starving. 

 

As you may have noticed, many Arabic loanwords come into French as slang, and thus change from generation to generation. However, many of these words, such as café and magasin, have been part of the French vocabulary for many years, centuries even, and are not at all slang. In any case, there is no shortage of Arabic words in the French language. Watch for new ones in Yabla videos!

 
Vocabulary

Say When!

There are a few different ways of saying "when" in French, the most basic of which is quand. Like "when," quand can either be an adverb or a conjunction. As an adverb, it's generally used to form questions:

 

Quand seras-tu libre?
When will you be free?

 

Tu l'as inventé quand ce morceau?

When did you compose this piece?

Caption 24, Claire et Philippe - Mon morceau de piano

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À quelle heure is an adverbial expression that's more or less synonymous with quand, albeit a bit more specific. It's the equivalent of "at what time" in English:

 

Enfin, tu commences à quelle heure le travail?

Anyway, what time (when) do you start work?

Caption 70, Elisa et Mashal - Petit-déjeuner

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As a conjunction, quand is synonymous with lorsque:

 

À Paris quand vous sortez le soir,

In Paris when you go out at night,

le métro se termine à minuit trente.

the metro stops [running] at half past midnight.

Captions 15-16, Amal - Vélib

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Lorsque je vous vois, je tressaille

When I see you, I quiver

Caption 19, Bertrand Pierre - Si vous n'avez rien à me dire

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We could easily switch quand and lorsque in those examples:

 

À Paris lorsque vous sortez le soir, le métro se termine à minuit trente.
Quand je vous vois, je tressaille

 

However, you can't use lorsque as an adverb, that is, as a question word. So you would never ask someone, Lorsque seras-tu libre?

 

You'll also see the phrase au moment où ("at the moment when") instead of quand or lorsque:

 

Au moment où le chat sortit en courant,

When the cat ran out,

la calèche royale atteignait le château.

the royal carriage reached the castle.

Captions 33-34, Contes de fées - Le chat botté

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 usually means "where," but sometimes, as in au moment où, it means "when":

 

Les lignes de métro vont s'ouvrir

The subway lines will open [continued to open]

jusqu'à mille neuf cent quatre-vingt-dix,

until nineteen ninety,

dans les années mille neuf cent quatre-vingt-dix,

in the nineteen nineties,

la ligne quatorze fut ouverte.

when line fourteen was opened.

Captions 17-20, Adrien - Le métro parisien

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Le dimanche, les gens ne travaillent pas,

Sunday, when people don't work,

on va prendre le croissant, on va prendre le pain au chocolat.

we'll have a croissant, we'll have a chocolate croissant.

Captions 29-30, Arles - Le petit déjeuner

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BANNER PLACEHOLDER

If you're ever in doubt when to use which word for "when," just go with quand. It has the broadest scope, so you can use it pretty much n'importe quand (whenever).

Vocabulary

Less Is More with "Moins"

In our last lesson, we talked about the word plus (more) and how its different pronunciations affect its meaning. Now let’s take a look at the opposite of plusmoins (fewer, less)—which only has one pronunciation, but no fewer meanings! 

BANNER PLACEHOLDER

Like plus, moins is an adverb of comparison, and can modify both adjectives and nouns. When it modifies an adjective, it’s usually followed by que to form the comparative phrase “less than.” In his video on French breakfast customs, Éric observes that cereal is less popular in France than it is in English-speaking countries: 

 

Et puis les céréales, mais c'est moins commun que chez vous, qu'aux États-Unis, qu'en Angleterre.

And then cereal, but that's less common than where you come from, than in the United States, than in England.

Captions 37-38, Arles - Le petit déjeuner

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When modifying a noun, moins is usually followed by de:

 

Il y a moins de bêtes à chasser.

There are fewer animals to hunt.

Caption 9, Il était une fois - Les Amériques - 1. Les premiers Américains

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You can even make moins a noun by putting le in front of it, in which case it means “the least”: 

C’est le moins que je puisse faire. 

That’s the least that I can do. 

When you put an adjective after le moins, the adjective becomes superlative: 

 

C'est le livre le moins cher et presque tous les éditeurs ont une collection de poche.

This is the cheapest book, and almost all publishers have a paperback collection.

Caption 36, Manon et Clémentine - Vocabulaire du livre

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Moins is also the basis for several common expressions. There’s the phrase à moins que (unless), which Adonis uses when singing about what he believes is the only acceptable reason for cutting down trees: 

 

À moins que ce soit pour faire Mes jolis calendriers

Unless it's to make My pretty calendars

Captions 4-5, Nouveaux Talents? - Adonis chante

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Try not to confuse à moins que with au moins, which means “at least”: 

 

Tout le monde connaît le Père Noël, tout le monde lui a écrit au moins une fois...

Everybody knows Santa Claus, everybody's written him at least once...

Caption 3, Télé Miroir - Adresse postale du Père Noël

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Finally, there’s de moins en moins (“fewer and fewer” or “less and less”):

 

Ça peut aider aussi à sauver les animaux, à ce qu'ils soient de moins en moins abandonnés.

That can also help save animals so that fewer and fewer are abandoned.

Caption 12, Grand Lille TV - Des photos contre l'abandon des animaux

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Since moins is a quantitative word like plus, it makes sense that it can be used with numbers as well. You’ll hear it the most often as a number modifier in expressions involving temperature, time, and basic arithmetic: 

 

Et voilà, me voilà parée pour, sortir par, moins zéro, moins quinze degrés.

And there we have it, here I am dressed to go out in below zero, negative fifteen degrees.

Caption 14, Fanny parle des saisons - S'habiller en hiver

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Il est dix heures moins le quart. 

It’s a quarter to ten. 

Deux plus cinq moins trois égale quatre.

Two plus five minus three equals four. 

BANNER PLACEHOLDER

We hope you are plus ou moins satisfait(e) (more or less satisfied) with our presentation of plus and moins! And for any math whizzes out there, here’s an informative article on French math vocabulary beyond addition and subtraction. Why not try learning (or relearning) geometry in French? 

Vocabulary

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