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Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Earlier this week, Julie and I went out to lunch at a café that is located close to my work in the 15ème. The lunch was great, especially considering the price, and the Coriscan wine was surprisingly good as well. However, as we were approaching the end of our meal, we could hear on the other side of the café "OH MY GOD! I KNOW! THAT IS SO TRUE!" One would have to strain themselves to be able to hear the conversation of the French coworkers sitting adjacent to us, but make no effort at all to know that some Americans on the other side of the café had just made their presence known.

We Americans are a fairly loud group. While the French tend to be more private when sharing their personal lives in a public place, the whole café would be able to learn that the Americans love France and everyone within a five table radius can collectively share their relief when they proclaim the results of their latest colonoscopy to the room. This isn't to say that I am not loud myself, as I tend to over-project when I cross over into inebriation. It's just that our general lack of volume control can stand out in places like a restaurant or the métro, especially when considering France is a country that takes their privacy seriously.

Back to the scene at the café. Julie said that she could understand most of the conversation, but occasionally she didn't pick up on something and said that in those cases the people talking more closely resembled birds jabbering away. She then asked me, "What do you hear when you hear French people talking and don't catch everything they said?"

To me, it sounds like this, "Euh...bah puis, voilà....euh....blah blah quoi...tu vois?"

On their own, most of these words actually have a meaning. However, when appropriately placed in a sentence by a French speaker, one can in turn say very little at all. These are essentially great words for one's arsenal when they have nothing to say. I'll break this down some more.

Euh is probably the most common of all stalling words in the French language, if one can indeed call it a word at all. It is the French equivalent of "uhh" and it is used for exactly the same purpose. It lets the listener know that you are thinking of something to say, yet simultaneously you don't want anyone else to step in and stop you from finishing your point. The pronunciation is fairly similar as well. The only difference is that euh comes from further back and deeper in ones mouth and throat than "uhh".

Perhaps my favorite of these superfluous phrases would be et puis, voilà. In English, this translates to "And then, there you have it". As a tour guide, I often find myself caught way off on a tangent and with little idea how to close off the subject with a bang. Most often I come up with something like this: "And...well...yeah." The sudden transition from being so passionate in one's story to ending so anti-climatically has the potential to lead to a disappointed listener. In English, we don't really have one phrase that can get us out of a jam and close off the conversation before the listener figures out that we have no idea what we are talking about. Fortunately for the French, they have et puis, voilà which can usually bail them out before leading whatever point they were making into oblivion.

Most people who have studied even a little bit of French know that quoi translates to "what" in English. However, those who have not spent much time in France are probably not aware of how often and uselessly this word is mixed into conversation. When I visited a friend from the south of France a couple of years ago, I remember how he seemed to use quoi at the end of almost every sentence. For example, "Bah oui, c'est comme ça quoi". This translates to "Well yeah, it's like that". The quoi doesn't add emphasis or anything at all, it's just there. When I came back to Paris after this trip, I seemed to notice it even more. I remember one girl I met who seemed to use it for one of every five words in her sentences. If you happen to find yourself learning French and in a conversation with someone who uses quoi gratuitously, do not mistake it for some sort of nervous tick and do your best to pick out the meaning of the conversation between quois.

Tu vois happens to be the phrase that bothers me the most. It translates to "you see", but it is akin to the excessive use of "you know" in English. What is interesting to observe is that the guilty parties are essentially the same, regardless of country. The culprits are almost always girls between 13 and 30, and those that use these phrases finish pretty much every sentence with this nonsense. Perhaps this shows that adolescent girls and those who have crossed into early adulthood are constantly looking for confirmation that other people have the same beliefs and values as themselves and feel the need to suggest that the other person should agree with them as well. But hey, I'm not a psychologist, I'm just writing a blog about all things pertaining to France.

In sum, one doesn't need to say anything close to meaningful to pull off sounding as if they have a good understanding of French. Tu vois?

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