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 18-19, Le Journal - Gourmet en BretagnePlay Caption
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...Play Caption
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)
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,
And when we return to France,
ou en Europe... on a envie de certains produits.
or to Europe... we feel like mixing certain products.
Captions 27-28, Le Journal - Gourmet en BretagnePlay Caption
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,
But nobody knows whether it's a question of an accident, of a suicide,
ou bien d'un tir ennemi.
or of enemy fire.
Captions 27-28, Le Journal - Saint-ExupéryPlay Caption
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...
Caption 25, Le Journal - Les navigateurs du Vendée GlobePlay Caption
In their worldwide hit "Senegal Fast Food," Amadou and Mariam, the singing-songwriting duo from Mali, ask:
Dakar, Bamako, Rio de Janeiro
Dakar, Bamako, Rio de Janeiro
Où est le problème, où est la frontière?
Where is the problem, where is the border?
Captions 25-26, Amadou et Mariam - Sénégal Fast FoodPlay Caption
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
It's good... to dream, but there comes a time when
il faut juste se récupérer soi-même.
you have to go back to who you are.
Captions 32-33, Le Journal - Le rôle de sa viePlay Caption
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!
You may have noticed the difference a little accent mark can make. Take the words côté, cote, and côte, for example. It’s the same four letters, but depending on the accents, both the meaning and the pronunciation can change.
Côté is a two-syllable word, while côte and cote are one-syllable words, each with its own unique pronunciation (though in some regions of France there may be little distinction in pronunciation).
In its most straightforward definition, côté means “side.”
Que je suis assis en face, et pas à tes côtés
Over the fact that I'm sitting across from you and not by your side
Caption 23, Babylon Circus - J'aurais bien vouluPlay Caption
It may seem a bit odd that "by your side" is à tes côtés (plural) and not à ton côté (singular), but this is just how it's done in French.
When getting directions, you will often hear du côté droit (on the right hand side) or du côté gauche (on the left hand side). “Next to” (which, if you think about it, could be said “on the side of”) is expressed as à côté:
C'est juste à côté de la voiture.
It's right next to the car.
Côté can also be used to describe an aspect, a quality, or a “side” of something:
Je dirais les ingrédients qu'on a dans cette farce va [sic] donner ce côté savoureux et moelleux à la volaille.
I would say the ingredients in this stuffing will give the bird a savory and tender quality.
Captions 33-34, Le Journal - Gourmet en BretagnePlay Caption
But the word côté is not only used literally. It also appears in expressions like:
D’un côté... D’un autre côté...
On one hand... On the other hand...
Côté can also be used to show someone’s opinion, their “side” on an issue, or their perspective.
De son côté, Nicolas Sarkozy annonce sa volonté de rupture avec la politique africaine de la France.
For his part, Nicolas Sarkozy announces his desire to break away from France's African policies.
Caption 17, Le Journal - Sarkozy en Afrique du Sud - Part 1Play Caption
And we see the same sort of côté in the video on the marché in Rennes:
Bon, du côté de Cocotte, secret défense.
OK, as for Cocotte, it's top secret.
Caption 14, Le Journal - Gourmet en BretagnePlay Caption
But côté is not only used to express the perspective of a person. It can also be translated as “about” or “on the subject of” or “as for.” In the following example, it’s used to distinguish between the main and secondary railway lines:
Côté grandes lignes, la SNCF a depuis longtemps pensé aux voyageurs handicapés.
As for the main lines, the SNCF has kept handicapped travelers in mind for a long time.
Caption 12, Le Journal - Manifestation de paralysésPlay Caption
Just in case that’s not enough to satisfy your curiosity, keep in mind the word côté’s similarly spelled (and hence easy to confuse) counterparts...
For starters, there's côte, one of the primary meanings of which is very similar-sounding to its English equivalent: “coast” (as in "the Pacific coast"). Actually, en français, the French Riviera is called the “Azure Coast.”
Venu de sa Côte d'Azur natale, il est tombé amoureux de l'île et de ses fonds marins.
Having come from his native French Riviera, he fell in love with the island and its sea depths.
Caption 7, Le Journal - L'île de PâquesPlay Caption
Côte can also mean “rib,” as in côte d’Adam or côte d’agneau (what we call a “lamb chop”).
And last but not least, the second video in the series on Sarkozy’s trip to South Africa gives us an example of an entirely different kind of cote, which means “stock.” This can be in the literal sense (stock market) or refer to the general worth/esteem of something or someone, as below.
Alors que sa cote continue de chuter, Nicolas Sarkozy tente un quitte ou double vis-à-vis de l'opinion.
As his stock continues to tumble, Nicolas Sarkozy tries to double down on opinion.
Captions 17-18, Le Journal - Sarkozy en Afrique du Sud - Part 2Play Caption
There’s also a related verb, coter, which means to rate, quote, or list the price of something.
Cette voiture est cotée à 10.000$ dans le journal.
This car is listed at $10,000 in the newspaper.
Whether you’re talking economics, opinions, proximity, food, or geography, you’ll be better equipped knowing the nuances and differences of these similarly spelled words!