In this lesson, we'll take a look at some special uses of the elementary French word petit(e), which, as you probably already know, means "little," "small," or "short." Though it generally refers to something or someone of a small size, it can take on a variety of other related meanings. For example, since children are smaller than adults, petit(e) can also mean "little" as in "young":
Mais tu voulais vivre de la musique? T'étais attachée à la musique?
But you wanted to make a living from music? You were attached to music?
Oui. -Ouais. -Depuis toute petite. Oui, oui.
Yes. -Yeah. -Since [I was] very little. Yes, yes.
Captions 24-25, Alsace 20 - Femmes d'exception: Christine OttPlay Caption
In fact, if you turn the adjective into a (usually plural) noun, you get an informal word for "children":
Les petits sont à l'école.
The kids [or "little ones"] are in school.
But if you address someone as mon petit or ma petite, you're affectionately calling them "my dear." (You could also say mon chéri/ma chérie.)
Speaking of affectionate uses of petit(e), the words for "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" are petit ami and petite amie (literally, "little friend"):
Et pour parler de ma première petite amie, l'une de mes premières petites amies est encore ma femme. Voilà.
And as for my first girlfriend, one of my first girlfriends is still my wife, so there.
Captions 24-25, Mario Canonge - Ses propos - Part 1Play Caption
Going back to petit(e) as in "young," the words for "granddaughter" and "grandson" are petite-fille ("little daughter") and petit-fils ("little son"). Note that these words are hyphenated, unlike petit ami/petite amie:
Les parents de ma petite-fille sont morts dans un accident de voiture, et c'est moi qui l'élève.
The parents of my granddaughter died in a car accident, and I am the one raising her.
If you're only a little bit hungry, you might want to eat something with une petite cuillère (a teaspoon):
Si vous avez une petite faim, je vous recommande de vous arrêter quelques minutes juste ici.
If you're feeling a little hungry, I recommend that you stop for a few minutes right here.
Captions 12-13, Voyage dans Paris - Autour de l'Hôtel de VillePlay Caption
...et pour finir, des couverts comme une fourchette, un couteau, ou une petite cuillère.
...and finally, some cutlery like a fork, a knife, or a teaspoon.
Caption 34, Joanna - Son nouvel appartementPlay Caption
You can also use the word to give a rough approximation of something:
Il y a une petite dizaine de places...
There are barely ten seats or so...
Caption 25, Voyage dans Paris - Cité FloralePlay Caption
The number of expressions with petit(e) is by no means small! Here are a few more, just to give you un petit goût (a little taste):
avoir une petite mine (to look pale)
avoir une petite pensée pour quelqu'un (to be thinking of someone)
une petite douceur (a little something sweet)
en petite tenue (in one's underwear, scantily clad)
chercher la petite bête (to nitpick)
à petite dose (in small doses)
une petite nature (a weakling)
une petite foulée (a trot)
une petite voix (a quiet voice)
petit à petit l'oiseau fait son nid (every little bit helps; literally, "little by little the bird makes its nest")
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.)