Spoken on all continents by 220 million people, an official language in 29 countries, learnt as a foreign language worldwide and extensively used in international diplomacy, French is also known as the language of culture, art, fashion, gastronomy and love. We hear it when we think of Louis XIV, Molière, Victor Hugo, Jean-Paul Sartre, Edith Piaf, Astérix, The Three Musketeers, The Phantom of the Opera or The Little Prince. At the same time, French is a dynamic language, evolving and striving to counterbalance the global influence of English (which, apropos, borrowed almost half of its basic vocabulary from French – words like money, air, car, stupid, blue, arrogant, to gain, to cry, to marry were all French at some point). And, whether we realize it or not, the French language and culture have a major influence on our lives. We fancy French fries, French kisses, French manicure and French windows, but we also have déjà vus, tête-a-têtes, ménages à trois and, essentially, the joie de vivre. Cliché, menu, force majeure, haute couture, femme fatale, belles-lettres, coup d’état and coup de foudre may sound equally familiar. Rich, elegant and melodious, French has a je ne sais quoi that makes foreigners either love it or hate it. We inserted below a few things you may not know about French, which will hopefully make you want to (re)discover its charm and what this language is really about beyond the usual stereotypes. We selected the crème de la crème of French curiosities, main difficulties, and reasons why it is a gold mine for linguists.
Let us begin by glancing at the building blocks of the French language, its words. Widely acknowledged as the longest word in French, 25-letter anticonstitutionnellement (‘anticonstitutionally’) is actually deposed by several other terms the length of which is dantapentagruelogargantuesquissime (an invented word, not to worry). The champion par excellence is aminométhylpyrimidinylhydroxyéthylméthythiazolium (49 letters), whose chloride is vitamin B2. Chapeau! Other prodigious terms are dichlorodiphényltrichloroéthane (a.k.a. the insecticide DDT – 31 letters), électro-encéphalographiquement (‘by means of an EEG’ – 29 letters), œsophago-gastro-duodénoscopie (‘endoscopy of the oesophagus, stomach and duodenum’ – 28 letters), psychopharmacothérapeutique (‘treating mental disorders by means of psychoactive drugs’ – 27 letters). Apparently, fear generates some of the lengthiest words out there: hexakosioihexekontahexaphobique – reading its 31 letters takes longer than defining it as ‘afraid of the number 666’ -, and apopathodiaphulatophobique (‘afraid of constipation’ – 26 letters), if you’ll pardon my French. And in case you are afraid of such long words, you are obviously hippopotomonstrosesquipédaliophobique (another humorous invention, don’t panic).
Word meaning is also a source of awe in French. In this language, for instance, rumours sweat (transpirer) before they start running (courir). When somebody is dying, they are extinguishing (s’éteindre), but once dead they are fire (feu). Insults are washed (laver une injure), while affronts are simply wiped off (essuyer un affront), and one spends white nights (nuits blanches) because of black thoughts (idées noires). And, although opinions not shared are unmistakably divided, if you tell a Frenchman Je ne partage pas votre avis (‘I do not share your opinion’), it makes perfect sense for him to answer Les avis sont partagés. Moreover, by looking into certain words and expressions, foreigners may reach a few conclusions about French people: they are so polite that when they dismiss an employee they literally thank them (remercier un employé), and seem to have amazing physical abilities: whenever they sleep soundly, the French will sleep on both ears (dormir sur ses deux oreilles). French parties are probably very confusing as well: both the host and the guests are called hôte. Other words which have contradictory meanings are amateur (‘inexperienced’ and ‘connoisseur’) and apprendre (‘learn’ and ‘teach’). Not puzzling enough? Then learn that while the English take a French leave, the French take an English leave (filer à l’anglaise).
As opposed to English, where adjectives always precede nouns, French adjectives move around and, more unexpectedly, some have different meanings depending on their location before or after the noun. For instance, un brave homme is a good man, while un homme brave has a lot of courage. Une pauvre femme is a pitiful woman, whereas une femme pauvre has little money. Un ancien professeur no longer works as a teacher, un professeur ancien still does, although chronologically challenged. Ma chère voiture is a car I love very much, ma voiture chère has been expensive. Un curieux enfant is a strange child, un enfant curieux simply wants to know many things. Diverses personnes refers to several individuals, while personnes diverses implies there are clear differences between them. Une forte tête is a rebel, une tête forte may just be a hard head. Un grand général is a great commander, un général grand will only impress by his height.
A special category of semantics, autological words possess the property they describe. For example, mot (‘word’) is, not surprisingly, a word, lu (‘read’) has just been read, traduisible (‘translatable’) can definitely be translated, and accentué visibly bears an accent. From the point of view of their use, the adjective fréquent is frequent, but its antonym infréquent is indeed infrequent. French offers quite a few interesting autological terms, such as abracadabrantesque (‘ludicrous’), a ludicrous word coined by Arthur Rimbaud and popularized by Jacques Chirac, or verlan (backslang of l’envers ‘the other side’) designating a type of French argot which inverts syllables.
The French language may be conservative in many areas, but word formation is not one of them, with about 20,000 terms created every year. Just think of two morphological processes that keep adding lovely coinages to the language: reduplication and blending. On the one hand, reduplication creates expressive terms by repeating a word or part of a word, especially in familiar language. Such terms are often onomatopoeic, like ronron (‘purring’) or teufteuf (‘old car’), or used by children in particular: mémé (‘granny’), joujou (‘toy’), chienchien (‘doggy’), etc. Other familiar words are bouiboui (‘low-quality drinking establishment’), zonzon (‘prison’), plan-plan (‘peaceful’). Some reduplications are so appealing that they have been assigned several readings: zinzin means ‘bonkers’, ‘thing one cannot or does not want to name’, ‘noisy thing’ and ‘institutional investor’ at the same time. Chouchou, a frequent pet name for a favourite child or loved one, and Carla Bruni’s term for her husband, doubles chou, an equivalent of sweetheart. However, chou is also the name of a common vegetable, which makes Sarkozy a little cabbage. Speaking of names, Lady Gaga is probably unfamiliar with French, because her name means ‘senile’ or ‘imbecile’ in this language.
On the other hand, blends (mots-valises in French) are words formed from parts of two or more other words, and the language of Molière offers plenty of such creations reflecting modern lifestyle, like barathon (‘contest won by whoever has a drink in the largest number of bars in one night’, from bar and marathon), clavardage (‘online chatting’, from clavier ‘keyboard’ and bavardage ‘chatter’), and mobinaute (‘person who uses the mobile phone to go online’). French blends also provide combinations of concepts that are surprisingly frequent: a person who behaves like an adolescent at an adult age is an adulescent; a démocrature is a dictatorship camouflaged as a democracy. Voted word of the year in 2011, attachiant refers to someone who is both lovable (attachant) and difficult to live with (chiant), and was allegedly invented in the 1970s to designate Joe Dassin. Another popular word is bravitude, first used by Ségolène Royal in 2007. Supporters praised the term as a blend between bravoure (‘bravery’) and plenitude (‘fullness’), showing that Royal could speak rather than waffle; according to her opponents, however, it was a linguistic blunder. By the way, all proof-readers’ torment is traduidu (from traduit du ‘translated from’), the jargon resulting from a bad translation.
Among the curiosities of any language, one always finds palindromes, i.e. words or sentences which read the same backward as forward. The longest word in the French dictionary which is a palindrome is ressasser (‘to repeat endlessly’), but other palindromic words display their length outside the dictionary, such as essayasse (subjonctif imparfait of essayer ‘to try’) and resiniser (‘to make Chinese again’). One of the shortest is also one of the most frequent words in French, non (‘no’). Another very important palindrome is elle (‘she’), but this one is hard to read.
Here are two of the longest palindromic phrases in French:
Et Tesio, né borné et naïf, emporte une vedette devenue trop méfiante en robe noisette. (‘And Tesio, born narrow-minded and naive, is carrying away a star who has become too suspicious, in a nut-brown dress.’)
Emile-Eric, notre valet, alla te laver ton ciré élimé. (‘Emile-Eric, our valet, went to wash your slimy jacket.’).
Other famous phrases that can be read both ways:
Et on note! (‘And we write down!’)
Ésope reste ici et se repose. (‘Aesop is staying here, resting.’)
Oh! Cela te perd, répéta l’écho. (‘Oh! That is your downfall, the echo repeated.’)
Non à ce canon! (‘No to that cannon/canon!’)
L’âme des uns jamais n’use de mal. (Medieval palindrome, ‘Some souls never make use of evil.’)
C’est sec. (‘It’s blunt.’)
Some palindromic phrases are meaningful definitions:
Etna: lave dévalante. (‘Etna: hurtling lava.’)
L’ami naturel? Le rut animal. (‘The natural friend? Animal rutting.’)
Réussir à Paris: suer. (‘Succeeding in Paris: sweating.’)
Sévère mal à l’âme, rêves. (‘Seriously heartsickening, dreams.’)
Does such duality scare you? Then you are suffering from eibohphobie, a jocular coinage which is supposed to mean ‘fear of palindromes’ and which is a palindrome itself. The longest one out there, if you take it seriously.
French also provides some surprising duos when it comes to anagrams (words the letters of which can be rearranged into other words). The fact that the anagram of guérison (‘healing’) is soigneur (‘carer’) makes perfect sense. On the other hand, it is paradoxical that endolori (‘painful’) is the anagram of its antonym indolore (‘painless’). An evil-witted linguist will equally note that the relation between police and picole (‘boozes’) may be more than a coincidence. And if you are wondering what parisien anagrams into, take an aspirine.
Playing on with the letters, lipograms are pieces of writing composed of words which do not contain a specific letter. As an illustration, institutionnalisation (‘institutionalization’) is the longest French word that does not include the letter e. Outside the dictionary we find no e among the 24 letters of constitutionnalisassions (subjonctif imparfait of the verb constitutionnaliser ‘constitutionalize’). If, on the contrary, we try to incorporate each and every letter of the alphabet in one sentence, we obtain a pangram. The shortest French pangrams are … smoking hot:
Portez ce vieux whisky au juge blond qui fume. (‘Take this old whisky to the blond judge who is smoking.’)
Juge, flambez l’exquis patchwork d’Yvon. (‘Judge, burn Yvon’s exquisite patchwork.’)
Most foreign learners will agree that French is at least as difficult as it is beautiful, and grammar does not make things easier. Just consider pluralisation: when the rules finally seem clear, one encounters simple nouns like oeil (‘eye’), which could not be any more different from its plural yeux, or os (‘bone’), which has the same form for the singular and the plural, but they are pronounced differently. Then there are nouns like ail (‘garlic’), which has two plural forms: ails and aulx. Et oui, three plurals are also possible: for ‘leasing’ there are crédits-bail, crédits-bails and crédits-baux, while a bouquet of sunchoke can contain topinambours, topinambaux or topinambaulx.
Furthermore, adjectives are problematic too: the plural of adjectives ending in –al can end in –s (fatal-fatals), –aux (radical-radicaux) or both (final-finals/finaux), and some adjectives change their plural form according to meaning: banal becomes banaux when it means ‘belonging to the village’, and, generally, banals for ‘commonplace’.
Moving on to gender, native speakers of languages like English, which does not mark this category grammatically, find it impossible to understand why, for instance, the beard is feminine and a book is masculine in French. Resorting to any kind of morphological stratagems is bound to fail: although –ette is generally a feminine ending, a handful of masculine nouns like squelette (‘skeleton’) and quartette (‘quartet’) queer the pitch. C’est la vie! To complicate things even further, délice (‘delight’), amour (‘love’) and orgue (‘organ’) are particularly ambivalent: they are the only French words which are masculine in the singular and feminine in the plural, even though few accept love in the plural. Another gender-switching word is gens (‘people’): adjectives preceding it will be feminine, whereas adjectives following it take the masculine form. In contrast, some adjectives only have feminine forms and are restricted to specific collocations in modern French: bouche bée (‘open mouth’), porte cochère (‘carriage entrance’) or moelle épinière (‘spinal cord’).
New learners of French may equally be discouraged by comparative forms: think of unlikely duos like bon-meilleur (‘good’-‘better’), beaucoup-plus (‘much’-‘more’), peu-moins (‘little’-‘less’), petit-moindre (‘small’-‘smaller’). But the ordeal of learning French as a foreign language is indisputably the conjugaison, with its manifold tenses and moods (among which the subjonctif might bring back a few memories), and forms that look nothing like one another. For instance, who would guess that suis, fûmes, seraient, fussiez and soyons are all conjugations of the same verb être (‘to be’)? Not to mention the quirky cases of verbs that have clear grammatical preferences: traditionally, verbs ending in –raire, like extraire (‘extract’), do not have passé simple forms; other verbs, like ravoir (‘regain’) or quérir (‘fetch’) are only used in the infinitive.
Spelling à la française may be troublesome as well, but it is definitely a source of linguistic delight. Take, for example, oiseaux (‘birds’), the longest word in which none of the letters is pronounced as the sound it is generally associated to. At the same time, singular oiseau is the shortest French word which contains all the vowels. You can find all the five vowels twice in ultrarévolutionnaire (‘ultrarevolutionary’), and even words aligning six vowels in a row: chaououal (‘the tenth month of the Islamic calendar’), ouaouaron (‘bullfrog’), rocouiaient (indicatif imparfait of rocouier ‘to colour with annatto’). But while the French seem to love their vowels, consonants are sometimes completely ignored. For instance, no consonant is pronounced in oeufs (‘eggs’), hais (1st person singular of haïr ‘to hate’), haient (3rd person plural of hayer ‘to fence’), aulx (plural of ail ‘garlic’). No consonant is written in eau (‘water’), oie (‘goose’), ouïe (‘hearing’). Oui. What is more, there are also several proper names containing no consonant: Aa is famous among crossword-puzzle fans as ‘the first river of France’, Ay is the name of two French rivers and a commune, Eu is a commune known as the 2-letter ‘Norman hole’, Ô is a 16th century castle, and Y is one of the shortest place names in the world, designating a French commune the inhabitants of which call themselves Upsiloniens, from the Greek letter Upsilon that resembles y.
Speaking of rare letters, u with a grave accent only appears in one word: où (‘where’). Nevertheless, the importance of ù is acknowledged: it was assigned a key on the computer keyboard. There are only two words ending in q – cinq (‘five’) and coq (‘rooster’) – and one word ending in v: leitmotiv. In contrast, other letters thrive: s is the only consonant in such a long word as Suissesses (‘Swiss women’), occurring six times. It also appears seven times in two subjunctive forms of ‘assassinate’, assassinasses and assassinassions. Now that’s a real killer! Following close behind, there are six i’s in indivisibilité (‘indivisibility’) and antiinfaillibiliste (‘opposed to the Pope’s infallibility’), and five é’s in hétérogénéité (‘heterogeneity’) and hémidécérébellé (‘having had half of the cerebellum removed’), which thus contain the largest number of accents. You may find three e’s in a row in feminine participles like créée (‘created’), délinéée (delineated) or nucléée (nucleated).
Not only is pronunciation quite different from spelling, but it also varies from one word to another: the same spelling can be pronounced differently according to meaning. This is the case of homographs, illustrated by fils (‘son’/‘threads’), est (‘East’/‘is’), reporter (‘to report’/‘reporter’), acceptions (‘meanings’/‘(we) accepted’), parent (‘parent’/‘(they) block’). All of a sudden, homonyms seem much friendlier, as they only differ in meaning: tendre (‘soft’/‘to stretch’), joue (‘cheek’/‘(I) play’), été (‘summer’/‘been’), sourd (‘deaf’/‘(it) springs’). Last but not least, anglais (‘English’) is also an imparfait form of the verb angler (‘to angle’).
For a happy ending, if you still think that French is easy to pronounce, test your phonological skills against the following tongue twisters:
Ces six saucissons-ci sont si secs qu’on ne sait si s’en sont. (‘These six sausages are so dry that one doesn’t know if they are it.’)
Tu t’entêtes à tout tenter, tu t’uses et tu te tues à tant t’entêter. (‘You persist in trying everything, you wear and work yourself out to death with such persistence.’)
Ciel, si ceci se sait ces soins sont sans succès. (‘Heaven, if this is known these cares are without success.’)
Didon dîna, dit-on, du dos d’une dinde, don d’un don du Doubs, à qui Didon a dit: Donne, donc, don, du dos d’une dinde. (‘Didon dined, they say, on the back of a turkey hen, a gift from a don in Doubs, to whom Didon said: Give, then, don, a turkey hen’s back.’)
Un chasseur sachant chasser sait chasser sans son chien de chasse. (‘A hunter who can hunt can hunt without his hunting dog.’)
Le fisc fixe exprès chaque taxe fixe excessive exclusivement au luxe et à l’acquis. (‘The tax office sets each excessive fixed tax exclusively on luxury and benefits.’)
Trois gros rats gris dans trois gros trous ronds rongent trois gros croûtons ronds. (‘Three big fat rats in three big round holes gnaw three big round croutons.’)
 If we consider infrequently used chemical formulae, the longest represents titin: its 189,819 letters can be read in more than three hours.
 They all shrink, however, before 19-letter saippuakivikauppias (‘dealer in lye’ in Finnish), the longest known palindromic word in the world.
 Aïeul has two plural forms as well, but they differ in meaning: aïeuls refers to ‘grandparents’, whereas aïeux is used for ‘ancestors’.
 If we consider y as well, yaourtière (‘yoghurt-maker’) takes the stage.
 Its counterpart bearing an acute accent occurs in extremely rare terms, such as esdrúixol, a Catalan loan designating a word the accent of which is on the antepenultimate syllable.