1. The French accent
In this technology dominated day and age, it’s likely that your first words in French will be via a computer keyboard – meaning that you don’t have to worry about typing accents, right? Wrong! You really have to try and keep accents in your written French, as they generally indicate a change in pronunciation, particularly with the letter ‘e’. Take away the accents and you risk big communication issues. Here are some examples of ways that could lead to confusion:
Make sure to distinguish between 'ou' (or) and 'où' (where). Admittedly this one is tricky - even native speakers slip up sometimes here.
The religious among you need to be a bit wary of 'pêcher' and 'pècher', as they are pronounced identically. However, ‘je vais aller pêcher’ means ‘I’m off to catch some fish’ whereas ‘je vais aller pécher’ means ‘I’m going to sin’ – big difference!
Much more harmless than the alternative
What would you rather – a task, or a stain? A simple accent changes the meaning of these words completely; ‘une tache’ is a stain or mark whereas ‘une tâche’ is a task or job.
It gets a little harder now; ‘dû’ is the past participle of ‘devoir’, and the only conjugated form to have an accent on it. Yet ‘du’ just means ‘of’ (sing. masc.).
Finally, if you go to a French restaurant I would definitely recommend ordering a plate of ‘pâtes’ and some ‘biscuits salés’, instead of a full plate of ‘pâté’ (not that it isn’t delicious… just the quantity might be a bit of an issue) and some ‘biscuits sales’. ‘Pâtes’=pasta ; ‘pâté’=pâté. ‘Sales’=dirty; ‘salés’=salted.
2. Capital letters
Not the easiest thing to get the hang of – in French, you never capitalise the names of languages. Unlike English, in French, only names of countries and people take a capital letter. The names of religions and all adjectives are never capitalised.
Correct: un Français, un Américain, un Wolof, un Bruxellois, un Tutsi, un Grec… (nationalities, tribes, inhabitants of a city…)
Correct: un médecin français, un président américain, un temple grec… (adjectives)
Correct: le français, l’espagnol, le breton, le latin, l’espéranto… (languages)
Correct: le christianisme, le bouddhisme, le judaïsme… Exception: l’Islam (religions)
3. Offensive animals
Animal lovers, take care! Talking about your lovely female kitten in French may end up causing quite the stir with your French friends. Saying ‘ma petite chatte’ is… inappropriate, to say the least (literally ‘my little pussycat’). Even more so ‘ma petite chatte toute mouillée’ or ‘ma petite chatte poilue’, even if said cat did get caught in a rain shower or is peculiarly hairy (you get the drift). So heed my advice - be very careful when talking about cats!
Seems innocent enough - but surprisingly easy to make a gaffe with this!
Messieurs, be careful with ‘une biche’ – this could be applied to your gorgeous female coworker/neighbour/friend (not in front of her, of course) as well as to a doe (female deer).
Whatever your opinion on hunters or farmers, 'canard' has nothing to do with jerk
Less obvious is the confusion between ‘connard’ and ‘canard’. Whatever your opinion on hunters or farmers, a duck (‘canard’) has nothing to do with a jerk, jackass or bastard (‘connard’).
And finally, the lethal letter: do you prefer soup of ‘poisson’ or poison? Order the first and you’ll get some nice fish soup; the latter will get you carted off to hospital.
4. Gender of nouns
Nouns are either masculine or feminine, and are therefore preceded by the corresponding article: ‘un/une’, ‘le/la’, ‘du/de la’, etc. In the heat of conversation, any slight slip-ups you might make will most likely not cause any problems - with the exception of some words that are homonyms (the same writing and pronunciation, but with a different meaning due to the gender). For example:
- ‘Un livre/une livre’ (a book/a pound)
- ‘Un critique/une critique’ (a journalist writing a critic/a critic itself)
- ‘Un mémoire/une mémoire’ (an essay/a memory)
- ‘Un mort/une mort’ (a dead/a death)
- ‘Un page/une page’ (a servant/a page of book)
- ‘Un politique/une politique’ (a politician/a policy) [la politique in general = politics]
- ‘Un secrétaire/une secrétaire’ (a piece of furniture/a secretary) [un secrétaire can be a male secretary, though]
- ‘Un espace/une espace’ (a space, a gap/a blank [typography])
- ‘Un carpe/une carpe’ (carpus [anatomy]/a carp [fish]
If you are interested, you can find more examples here.
5. Pronunciation mistakes
Now you might think it impossible for there to be any confusion when talking about submarines. Well, that’s where you are wrong! Hilariously, I read a story about a guy, who, talking about his work, mentioned how he loved working as a ‘suce-marin’ (a sailor sucker). Of course, what he really meant was ‘sous-marin’ (submarine!)
These sorts of misunderstandings do occur, and become even funny when they go against social taboos such as sex, bodily functions, politeness and someone’s love life. Here are a few common goofs made by French learners:
To chastely kiss your sister: OK, bit weird, but still fine. But translating it literally as ‘baiser ma sœur’ would be disastrous. To kiss is ‘embrasser’ or ‘donner un baiser’. ‘Baiser’ used as a verb is for a more explicit context (I don’t need to go into details, do I?)
English speakers will no doubt get ‘excited’ about an upcoming party, football match or holidays. But ‘être excité(e)’ or saying ‘ça m’excite’ is risky business, meaning that you are sexually aroused (though I can’t blame you if discussing French grammar has made you ‘excité’ – you are only human after all).
So there you have it – French isn’t quite as simple as you might think. Just make sure to get your ‘saluts’ and ‘salauds’ right and you should have no trouble at all in l’Hexagone!