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What's That You Said?

Wednesday, Oct 12, 2016

Over the course of these months, I've come to recognize some of the common words and expressions (and even sounds!) used over and over in everyday language here. I'll try to explain what they mean, or what they CAN mean, as some of them seem to have more than one meaning, from my read of the situation. I think the main reason several of these noises developed was to fill dead air space, as the French prefer sounds to silence. In fact, when there is a prolonged silence during an otherwise animated conversation, people use the expression "un ange est passé" ("An angel has just passed by"). The fact that Myriam will state this after an approximately three second lull will tell you such silence is rare.

I can't count how many times I have heard 'alors,' 'hop,' and 'hein.' It numbers in the several hundreds, though. 'Hop' is pronounced 'op' (as there's no 'ha' sound in French) and is used when finishing a task, or signaling the move from one action to another, like getting up from the table or parking the car. 'Hein' is sort of a verbal cross between 'uh?' and 'eh?' and can mean "what did you say?" or is used in place of a rhetorical "isn't that right?" 'Alors' translates literally to 'so' and is often used when transitioning from one subject to another, or in trying to bring the discussion to a conclusion. Then there's the ubiquitous "Bah, oui!" which means "of course, goes without saying" and punctuates many heated conversations where both parties are in strong agreement. Exceptionally common is the 'errr' sound with which many of you will be familiar already in French speech, used when the speaker is contemplating what to say; again, it's a real space filler. 'Tack' (or sometimes 'tack, tack, tack' if you are Thierry -- but the others have said this is a Thierry-ism) means 'there it is' or 'that's done now,' and often accompanies a completed physical task. I know I've spoken of gestures before but there's one that comes under both a gesture and a noise and that's the 'raspberry' sound (you know, the one you use on a baby's tummy). This sound/gesture is very common and translates to 'I don't know' or more explicitly, 'I haven't got a clue' and, as it is often used in exasperation, even 'Why are you asking me, I don't care.' Continuing on, we come to 'oo la la.' Truly, the French use this expression often but there are variations denoting the seriousness of the event to which they are responding, with the phrase either shortened to a brusque 'oo la' or lengthened as appropriate to include the number of la's that seem called for (I have heard as many as six). And for those of you who may remember Grade 10 French in the BC curriculum thirty-five years ago, they still, from time to time, say "Zut" but the more common expression now is "Mince" ("Darn") or something stronger, and *I* will not be the one to teach you those words!

Continuing with well-used phrases, I must mention "On y va?," ("Shall we go?"), "Comme tu veux" ("As you like," meaning 'whatever you want'), " Qu'est-ce qui se passe?" ("What's happening?"), "Coucou" (Hi there"), "Ce n'est pas grave" ("It's OK," or "It's not important"). "Ca va?" is the common "How are you?" greeting, literally meaning "It goes [how]?" to which the respondent often replies back in the same wording "Ca va" but the real answer lies in the tone that is used to reply; if it's half-hearted and weak, that means it's not going too well; if a bit more upbeat, then things are fine, and if really chipper, it's going great. Another oft-used word is the multi-faceted 'Voila,' used, of course, when producing an object, but also exclaimed when the listener (perhaps finally, as is often in my case) comprehends what is being said, or said when the speaker has finally finished a task.

As it's challenging to describe the gestures explicitly, I'll have to wait till I'm back to show you but, so far, I've learned (and started to use!) the gestures for 'he's drunk,' 'crazy,' 'they went/they go,' 'very strong,' 'whatever/I don't care,' 'that's boring,' and 'I don't believe you.' Ben, you're going to need to give me even more space than usual with all these hand gestures I've picked up.

Posted by mzemliak 13:13 Archived in France

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