14 April, 2015

Different “Yous” & Other French Particularities

French Grammar Books and Dictionaries
French Grammar Books and Dictionaries
This post originally appeared on my first blog in 2006
One of the things in French that I still struggle with is the utilisation of the polite and familiar “you”. Luckily having learnt Spanish before I was familiar with the general idea: there is one way to say “you” to a person you know well, like your husband, friends and family for example ( “tu” ) and another way to strangers, your boss, people you don’t know very well etc (“vous” pronounced voo). Sounds simple enough right? Wrong!
Where it starts to get difficult is that the word “vous” is also the plural you. So if you’re talking to more than one person you have to use vous. Add to that the task of learning all the different conjugations for each verb and it becomes a total mess.
And of course there are the grey areas as always with French. In my French class I was taught that you automatically use “vous” with people you meet for the first time because it is considered very rude to use “tu”. Except of course most people under the age of 30 tend to use “tu” automatically, so that really confused me for a while. Also I’m pretty sure that Lucas uses “tu” with his boss, but I don’t know his boss well, even though we have been skiing together twice so where does that leave me? In situations like these I just avoid addressing anyone directly until I am sure. Because I tend to be over careful with the use of “vous” to ensure that I’m not offending anyone I have even addressed Lucas as “vous” once or twice! That always gets a good laugh out of whomever we are with at the time.
I am learning that it’s important to find out what the custom is depending on the situation. For example at my place of work last year everyone used “tu“, from the cleaning staff right up to the General Manager, but one of my friends works in a small office of 4 people where they all use “vous“. Visiting with neighbours of my in-laws Lucas pointed out to me that he noticed they used “tu” with him, since they have known him since he was three, but “vous” with me. I hadn’t noticed it because when they said “vous” I automatically assumed they meant the plural “vous” (see why this gets confusing?). Luckily I was doing my famous not-addressing-anyone-directly trick, so I avoided being rude (I hope).

Another peculiarity that I struggled with (the application that is) is the two different “yeses”. Yep, there are 2 ways to say yes in French. The first which most people are familiar with is “oui” (pronounced wee), but there is a special yes “si”, that is used in particular cases, it’s used to contradict a negative statement. For example:

T’as mangé tout le gateau? (You ate all the cake? Note the familiar “you” since this is an imaginary conversation with Lucas)

Non! (No !)

Mais si! Je t’ai vu! (yes! I saw you !)

See how that works? (if you speak French you might pick up some other errors in there but my focus is on the yes, no, yes idea so bear with me ok?)

I never got that right until recently, I always used oui to contradict and got those weird looks (I’ve gotten very used to weird looks the last 2 years), but last week when we had a friend over for dinner I did it totally right to contradict something Lucas said. I can’t remember what is was so lets just pretend it was the cake conversation. Since, according to Lucas, I contradict him quite a bit, I may be well on my way to getting this nailed.
What funny stories do you have about learning a new language?
  • Hmm … the mistake I made with Italian wasn’t as innocent as yours. In my mania to learn as much Italian as I could the last time I was there – for about 2 1/2 months, I was doing language exchange conversations every week day, sometimes 2 or 3 meetings in a day. The first meeting scheduling was done by text or phone. Usually, although this wasn’t intentional, I would meet with ambitious, young men, hoping to improve their language so they could seek work outside of Italy’s unfortunate economy. Speaking on the phone was a challenge, because there was no body language to read, and sometimes it was difficult to hear exactly what they were saying. So needless to say It was nerve-wracking speaking to these Italian men on the phone, in my struggling Italian. The most infamous conversation went something like this –

    Italiano: Dove ci incontriamo? (Where do we meet?) Hai una preferenza? (Do you have a preference?)

    Me : Non, mi piace scopare nuovi posti !

    Italiano says in English in serious manner: I don’t think you mean to say that!

    Me (frightened) – Che ti ho detto? (What did I say to you?) I thought I said – I like to discover new places!

    What it turned out is that I mixed the word scoprire – which means – to discover, with scopare – which literally means to sweep, BUT is used as slang to – imagine the worst possible thing I could say to a strange man – unless I wanted him to pay me for services rendered, to put it politely.

    So I basically told this strange man that – I like to —– in new places.

    Oh, dear.
    We had a good laugh, at least!

    • Oh dear! I’m having a good laugh too! I would have been mortified! I’m glad he was a good sport about it.

      And I really understand the difficulty with phone conversations. Once my French was manageable I had very difficult conversations with my father-in-law, who would call and spout out rapid fire French at me. Baptism by fire!

      How often do you get to Italy?

      • Yes, his was a good sport. In fact, I think he enjoyed the mistake. : /
        I hope to get there this summer for a short trip, and then for 6 weeks to 3 months around the beginning of next year. I fell in love with Florence, and game plan is to figure out how to live there at least half the year. I was surprised at how affordable Florence is, compared to some American cities I have lived in – New York, San Francisco, even Seattle. Even with the exchange rate, I could find a room in the city center for around $400/month utilities included. The problem is working. I figure an internet business would be the best bet, but since I don’t have one yet …