Everyone who is trying to learn French knows that the language is full of phrases and expressions that are used by French speakers in a variety of situations.
It’s worth knowing what these mean since, as many of them are idiomatic, a word-for-word translation is not always straightforward. Such phrases and expressions can have different uses: they can be employed in different registers or in a range of communicative situations.
But which of them are absolutely essential to master?
These are phrases that French people use naturally on a daily basis. “Comme ci, comme ça” or “couci-couça” are used to put a situation or frame of mind into perspective. If you’re not really on top form or have only partially understood what someone’s just said to you, these phrases are the equivalent of “more or less”.
“Oh là là !” and “Ouh là là !” are two expressions much loved by French speakers which can, depending on the context, express astonishment, enthusiasm or shock.
Essential phrases can be those basic phrases required to communicate on an everyday basis. They are vital as soon as you start learning French, and give beginners a way out of embarrassing situations.
“Comment allez-vous ?” (“How are you”), “Comment dit-on … en français ?” (“How do you say… in French?”), “Vous auriez l’heure, s’il vous plaît ?” (“Could you tell me the time, please?”), “Que se passe-t-il ?” (“What’s happening?”), “Puis-je aller aux toilettes, s’il vous plaît ?” (“May I go to the toilet, please?”), “Auriez-vous de la monnaie sur 10 euros ?” (“Do you have change for 10 euros?”), “Je suis désolé d’être arrivé en retard” (“I’m sorry I’m late”), “Désolé, ce n’est pas de ma faute” (“I’m sorry, it’s not my fault”), “Je n’y suis pour rien” (“I had nothing to do with it”), “Je me suis perdu, pouvez-vous m’indiquer la direction de …. ?” (“I’m lost, could you tell me where… is?”), “Je ne peux pas venir demain, j’ai un empêchement” (“I can’t come tomorrow, something’s come up”), “Avez-vous du feu ?” (“Do you have a light?”), etc.
Other phrases require a higher level of language proficiency and belong mostly to the informal register. For example: “Ça y est” (= “all done”, “that’s it”), “Ne t’en fais pas !”(“don’t worry”),”J’en ai marre” (“I’m fed up”) or “Je m’en fiche” (“I don’t care”).
French phrases that are known throughout the world are often quotations from history as well as politics, literature, music and cinema.
Many famous words that have gone down in history came from France’s kings, including Louis XIV’s immortal “l’Etat, c’est moi !” (“I am the state”). The purpose of this pithy utterance was to remind people that the Sun King did not permit any form of opposition, making him a perfect example of absolutism.
“Paris ! Paris outragé ! Paris brisé ! Paris martyrisé ! mais Paris libéré !” (“Paris! Paris abused! Paris shattered! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated!”). These were the words of General Charles de Gaulle that marked the liberation of Paris on 25 August 1944. He was saying that despite the wounds suffered during the war, the capital had succeeded in regaining its freedom.
Similarly, the cinema is a hotbed of famous expressions, such as Arletty’s words in Marcel Carné’s Hôtel du Nord: “Atmosphère ! Atmosphère ! Est-ce que j’ai une gueule d’atmosphère ?” (“Atmosphere? Atmosphere! Do I look like an atmosphere?”). With her legendary insolence, the actress expresses her anger in a quintessentially Parisian accent which simply begs to be listened to!
How do you express your feelings for your loved one in French? What sweet nothings do French speakers like to hear?
They are certainly not lacking in inspiration in this area. If this is your kind of thing, I’ve come up with a whole host of essential phrases which you’ll need should you happen to meet the love of your life in France (well, who knows?): “Je t’aime plus que tout” (“I love you more than anyone else”), “Tu es mon rayon de soleil” (“You are my ray of sunshine”), “Sans toi, je ne suis rien” (“Without you, I am nothing”), “Tu es la personne que je chéris le plus au monde” (“You are dearer to me than anyone else in the world”), “Sans toi, la vie ne vaut pas la peine d’être vécue” (“Life is not worth living without you”), “Il n’y a rien que je puisse faire sans penser à toi” (“I can’t do anything without thinking about you”), “Ma vie a commencé quand nos routes se sont croisées” (“My life began when our paths crossed”), “Tu es l’astre qui illumine ma vie” (“You are the star which lights up my life”), “Les mots me manquent pour te dire à quel point je t’aime” (“There are not enough words for me to tell you how much I love you”), and so on.
Informal or colloquial language is important if you intend to live alongside the French or to come into contact with this linguistic register in films, songs, books, and so on.
“Etre crevé” (“to be done in”), for example, is a phrase you might use when you’re extremely tired, while “avoir la dalle” (“to be starving”) is used when you’re hungry. If you ask someone for a “clope” (“fag” or “ciggy”), it means that you want a cigarette. “Bouquin” is an informal word for a book, and “caisse” is slang for a car. When it comes to people, a “flic” (“cop”) is a policeman and a “gosse” (“kid”) is a child. If a French speaker tells you that you have “un poil dans la main” (literally “a hair in your hand”), it means he thinks that you are lazy. And if you’re feeling down and a bit depressed, you can say: “J’ai le cafard”.
Verlan is a more specialist type of language used by some groups of young people, although it is less common these days. The word verlan comes from the phrase “à l’envers” (“backwards”), because it involves reversing the syllables of a word to produce a coded language (the permutations become more complicated with long words, however).
So the verlan phrase “Cet homme est ouf mais il n’est pas chanmé. Il écoute seulement de la zicmu très zarbi” thus means “Cet homme est fou mais il n’est pas méchant. Il écoute seulement de la musique très bizarre” (“This man is crazy but he is not mean. He just listens to very strange music”).
But if you think that verlan is a recent invention from the country’s poor suburbs, then you’re completely wrong! Back in the sixteenth century, the Bourbons (France’s then royal family) were already being referred to as the Bonbours, and in the eighteenth century, Voltaire also employed the inversion of syllables to designate particular individuals. So, for example, Diderot assumed the code name Monsieur Tompla simply because in private, the author of Candide had got into the habit of calling him Platon (Plato).