We’ve dealt with adjectives a lot in previous Yabla lessons, and in this one we’ll focus on five of them that all share one important feature. See if you notice something peculiar about the spelling of the French words for “new” and “old” in the following examples:
Donc je vais vous présenter mon nouvel appartement.
So I'm going to show you my new apartment.
Caption 20, Joanna - Son nouvel appartementPlay Caption
Ce square a la particularité d'héberger le plus vieil arbre de Paris.
This square has the distinction of housing the oldest tree in Paris.
Caption 27, Voyage dans Paris - Saint-Germain-des-PrésPlay Caption
You may already know that “new” in French is nouveau (masculine) and nouvelle (feminine), and that “old” is vieux (masculine) and vieille (feminine). So where did nouvel and vieil come from?
The answer is that, for a small group of adjectives, the masculine singular form changes when the adjective is followed by a noun starting with a vowel or a non-aspirated (mute) h. So instead of nouveau appartement, you have nouvel appartement, and instead of vieux arbre, you have vieil arbre.
If you think about it in terms of pronunciation, you might get a better sense of why this happens. The phrase nouvel appartement “flows” better than nouveau appartement because the l sound prevents the little pause that occurs when you move from the “eau” of nouveau to the “a” of appartement. French pronunciation places a heavy emphasis on words flowing together smoothly (a concept called “euphony”), an idea we previously touched on in our lesson on liaisons. This little rule is just another way of making sure the language sounds pleasing to the ear.
The three other descriptive adjectives that exhibit this spelling change are beau/bel/belle (beautiful), fou/fol/folle (mad, crazy), and mou/mol/molle (soft).
Je préfère un mol oreiller.
I prefer a soft pillow.
Le fol espoir d'un rendez-vous
The mad hope of a rendezvous
Caption 15, Oldelaf - interprète "Bérénice"Play Caption
Alors, qui me fait une offre pour ce bel athlète?
So, who's making me an offer for this handsome athlete?Play Caption
This phenomenon also occurs with the demonstrative adjective ce/cette (this, that), which becomes cet before a singular masculine noun starting with a vowel or mute h. So if we removed the word “handsome” from the sentence above, it would become:
Alors, qui me fait une offre pour cet athlète?
So, who’s making me an offer for this athlete?
Note that if another word beginning with a consonant (usually another adjective) is placed between the noun and the special form of the adjective, you don’t need to use the special form anymore. You can see this in the previous example, where you have ce bel athlète instead of cet bel athlète.
As you may have noticed, all of these adjectives belong to a small group of adjectives that go before the noun they modify. You can learn more about adjectives like this in our previous lesson on the subject. Also, remember that this spelling change only occurs with the masculine singular forms of these adjectives. The masculine plural forms (nouveaux, vieux, mous, fous, beaux, ces) don’t change before a noun beginning with a vowel or mute h. According to the rules of liaison, their endings are pronounced to indicate the plural.
Since this spelling change happens with such a small number of adjectives, the best way to learn it is probably just to memorize them. Here’s a little memory aid for you using fragments of all the example sentences in this lesson:
Cet homme a le fol espoir de trouver… (This man has the mad hope of finding…)
...le plus nouvel appartement de Paris. (...the newest apartment in Paris.)
...le plus vieil arbre de Paris. (...the oldest tree in Paris.)
...le plus mol oreiller de Paris. (...the softest pillow in Paris.)
...le plus bel athlète de Paris. (...the handsomest athlete in Paris.)
"Only" might seem like a pretty lonely word, but there are actually several different ways of saying it in French: the adjectives seul(e) and unique, the adverb seulement and uniquement, and the verb phrase ne... que.
First let’s take a look at the words seul(e) and seulement:
Parce que le mardi, c'est le seul jour où je ne travaille pas.
Because Tuesday is the only day when I don't work.Play Caption
Aussi je vais dire seulement trois choses.
Also I am only going to say three things.
Caption 10, Le Journal - Joëlle Aubron libéréePlay Caption
Seulement is the adverbial form of the adjective seul(e), which has another similar (and sadder!) meaning as well:
Alors je me retrouve un petit peu seul en ce moment.
So I find myself a little alone right now.
Caption 5, Hugo Bonneville - Gagner sa viePlay Caption
Some other ways of saying "alone" or "lonely" are solitaire and isolé(e).
And seulement has some additional meanings of its own. It can be used to express a regret ("if only...") and to mean "however":
Si seulement je l'avais su avant.
If only I had known before.
Il veut venir, seulement il ne peut pas.
He wants to come, however he can't.
Although unique and uniquement are most directly translated as "unique" and "uniquely," they can also mean "only":
Je suis un enfant unique.
I am an only child.
Ce que l'on demande, c'est d'avoir uniquement la photo de l'animal.
What we're asking is to have only the photo of the animal.Play Caption
Now let’s look at a bit more complicated way of saying "only": the verb phrase ne... que. As you might have guessed, ne... que is a negative construction, as in ne... pas (not), ne... personne (no one), and ne... rien (nothing). In these constructions, the two components go on either side of the verb:
Il ne mesure que soixante-dix mètres carrés,
It only measures seventy square meters,
Caption 8, Voyage dans Paris - Saint-Germain-des-PrésPlay Caption
Moi je ne parlais que français.
Me, I spoke only French.
Caption 10, Annie Chartrand - Grandir bilinguePlay Caption
Most of the time, ne... que can be replaced with seulement:
Il mesure seulement soixante-dix mètres carrés.
It only measures seventy square meters.
Moi, je parlais seulement français.
Me, I spoke only French.
Sometimes, que can mean "only" outside of the ne... que construction. For example, in an interview with Le Figaro, A-lister Ashton Kutcher laments being typecast as a jokester, declaring: "Je ne suis pas qu’un clown!" (I’m not only a clown!)
The ne in this sentence goes with pas (not), while the que stands on its own to mean "only." Ashton (or his translator) could just as well have said, Je ne suis pas seulement un clown!
Maybe the former "Punk’d" star can shed his clownish reputation by undertaking some serious French studies at Yabla French! Since he’s known to be an avid tweeter, he might want to start by following us on Twitter @Yabla. And you should follow us too!