Sh*t the French Say: A Guide to 8 Noises You Will Definitely Hear in France

When I came to France, I knew that I would encounter cultural differences; that’s just a fact of expatriate life. However, one thing I was not expecting is just how different the most common noises are. Every language has noises and expressions that you hear frequently; in English, for instance, you are likely to hear things like “hmm,” “um,” “well,” “like,” and “huh” on a daily basis. I never really gave any of them much of a thought before, but I have discovered that these noises are not universal; for example, you will never hear “um” in a French classroom, but you will definitely hear “bahhh” or “euhhh”! I have therefore put together a list of the most common noises that you will hear in France, as well as a guide on how to use them. Heed this information and you will be speaking comme un(e) Français(e) in no time!* 

*Or, you know, just having more fun when you eavesdrop on French conversations and inevitably hear most of these at some point 🙂

  1. Bonjour!

You might think it is: The French way of saying hello.

Actual use: To get people to do things for you, or to chastise others for their rudeness.

To be clear, bonjour is the French way of saying hello, and yet it is so much than just a greeting. In France, the importance of saying bonjour cannot be underestimated. You say bonjour to someone the first time you see them each day (although you’re not supposed to say it more than once per day, apparently), you say it to the salesperson the minute you walk into a store, and you’d sure as hell better say bonjour to someone before you ask a question or put in a request. Basically, one of the most important rules to keep in mind in France is this: no bonjour, no service! If you forget to say bonjour to someone, you will be met by an offended look, or you will be ignored, or the person with whom you are trying to speak will bonjour at you until you respond with a bonjour of your own! This is perhaps understandable in smaller towns in the French countryside, where there are few tourists and people might not realize that saying “hello” first is not expected in every culture, but I always get a bit irritated when I see French people working at big tourist sites like the Louvre and Versailles who insist on a bonjour before giving assistance. It’s always good to familiarize yourself with the local culture before you travel somewhere, but not everybody learns about the bonjour rule before coming to France and a little bit of patience and understanding goes a long way!

~ Example Conversation ~

Tourist: May I please have a map of Versailles?

Lady at the information desk: Bonjour!

Tourist: May I have a map of Versailles, please?

Lady at the information desk: Bonjour!

Tourist: Bonjour, may I please have a map of Versailles?

Lady at the information desk: Sure.

belle-bonjour-gif
Bonjour: your key to social success in France.

2. Mwah!

You might think it is: A kissing noise.

Actual use: … it is a kissing noise.

The reason that kissing noises are so common in France is, of course, because French people greet each other by faire-ing la bise, or kissing each other on each cheek. The number of kisses varies from region to region, but usually it’s one kiss on each cheek. Some people plant actual kisses, and some people just do air kisses; however, regardless of the number and method, the kisses are always accompanied by a smacking, smooching noise.

This can be a bit weird for Canadians like me, not to mention a little bit inconvenient. When I’m walking through the lycée, there are times when the hallway is completely blocked because my students are stopping to kiss every friend they come across! I also remember one time that I went see a movie in Bagnoles-de-l’Orne with one of my teachers, and the movie was just starting when I was startled by some very loud smacking noises behind me. Some people had arrived late and were joining a group of friends, so of course each new arrival had to kiss everyone they knew before sitting down, even though it was dark and the movie had already started!

~ Example Conversation ~

Student: Bonjour, Manon (mwah, mwah) … salut Océane (mwah, mwah) … coucou, Killian (mwah, mwah) … salut Vincent, ça va? (mwah, mwah) … 

3. Quoi.

You might think it is: The French way of saying “what”?

Actual use: Good question.

“Quoi” might be one of the most difficult words to translate into English, but the best way of describing it is probably by comparing it to the English “like,” simply because it appears so frequently in oral conversation. Nevertheless, the meaning of “quoi” isn’t the same as the meaning of “like”; in English, I would say that “like” is used as a pause to give the speaker time to compose the next part of the sentence (“It was, like, probably the best concert I’ve ever attended”) and can appear anywhere in the sentence, whereas “quoi” only ever seems to be tacked onto the end of sentences. I don’t know if it has a meaning, per se, but it seems to be used by French speakers to soften the impact of declarative sentences. And let me tell you, they use it all the time.

~ Example Conversation ~

Roommate 1: Have you seen the inside of Julia’s room?

Roommate 2: No, I never go in there, why?

Roomate 1: I went in there this morning to borrow her flat iron, and you should see it … c’est le bordel,* quoi!

*It’s a mess!

4. Bahhh … / Euhhh …

You might think it is: The noise that a sheep makes.

Actual use: To indicate that the speaker is currently lost for words, but is also reflecting and may yet come up with something to say.

This is one of the more common noises that you will hear in a French school, particularly when the teacher (or assistant) asks a student a question. As a general rule, most questions that require more than a one-word answer are usually met with an initial “bahhhh …” (which may or may not be accompanied by a shrug), but fear not: an attempt to answer the question will usually follow. The sound “euhhh …” is sometimes used in the place of “bahhh …” and has the same meaning, but I usually hear it on the radio and not so much in the classroom.

~ Example Conversation ~

Teacher: [Insert student name here], can you tell me why people might have been protesting the death of Cecil the Lion?

Student: Bahhh … … … … because … they like lions? I guess?

umm-gif
This face + “bahhh” = the reaction whenever I ask my students a question …

5. Bah oui!

You might think it is: A sheep saying yes.

Actual use: A more emphatic way of saying yes.

I haven’t quite figured out if “bah oui” is used just used to express extra enthusiasm (see below), or if it can also be used to indicate that something is evident (ex. “Duh, of course!). I suspect that both are correct, but one thing I can tell you with certainty is that you’re more likely to hear a “bah oui” in France than you are likely to hear a sad, unembellished, solitary “oui.”

~ Example Conversation ~

Person 1: Hey, do you want to go see the new Star Wars movie with me on Wednesday?

Person 2: Bah oui!

6. Pfft!

You might think it is: A fart noise.

Actual use: To show disdain.

I haven’t heard this one so much in Normandy, but I remember it fondly from my time in Dijon. Every time I heard anyone talking about France’s various political/economic/social problems (which, between my teachers and my host family, was ALL THE TIME), any disparaging comments about the current situation were inevitably preceded by a loud and disdainful “pfft”!

~ Example Conversation ~

Me: But don’t you think that legalizing gay marriage is a good thing, since people who love each other will be able to get married and it literally will not affect anyone else?

French Person Who Will Go Unnamed: Pfft! What next? Will President Hollande want to legalize polygamy? And what about the poor children? They need a mother and a father!

Me: Sigh.

7. Ppppppffft.

You might think it is: A louder fart noise.

Actual use: To indicate that the speaker has no idea what to say, and also has no intention of coming up with something to say.

This is the favourite noise of some of my more stubborn students, especially at the lycée, where there are a couple kids that just do not like to speak English at all. Unlike “bahhh,” when you hear “ppppppffft,” you know that there is no hope of waiting for the speaker to say anything more. That’s it. Conversation over. Although it is something that you definitely don’t want to hear when you’re an assistant, the plus side is that it really does sound like fart, so at least it’s kind of humorous. The noise is best accompanied by a blank, bored, or rebellious expression for full effect.

~ Example Conversation Actual Conversation with a Student ~

Me: [Insert student name here], if you could travel to any country in the world, where would you go, and why?

Student: Ppppppffft.

Me: Somewhere in Europe? Somewhere exotic?

Student: Ppppppffft.

Me: Ok, how about a country that you would never want to visit?

Student: Ppppppffft.

Me: If you’re not sure how to respond in English, you can tell me what you’d like to say in French and we can work together to translate it.

Student: Ppppppffft.

Me: You know, I’m not marking you or anything, this is just an opportunity to practice speaking. Nobody’s judging you and it’s not a problem if you make a mistake!

Student: Ppppppffft.

Me: [Screams internally]

8. Oh la la (la la la la …)

You might think it is: An expression used to show admiration and/or amazement.

Actual use: To indicate dismay or disgust.

I don’t know where English speakers got the idea that French people toss around admiring “ooh la las” all the time, but for some reason this expression seems to be cemented in the Anglophone consciousness as the quintessential French noise. Well, I don’t know about “ooh la la,” but I hear “oh la la” all the time, and not once has it been used to express admiration! On the contrary, “oh la la” is the go-to French expression to indicate dismay and even the deepest disgust. Your kids are behaving badly? Oh la la! The bus is delayed? Oh la la! Some darn tourist didn’t say bonjour before asking a question? Oh la la!

The greatest thing about this expression, in my opinion, is that is is so adaptable, so completely customizable depending on the situation. From what I’ve been able to observe, the number of “las” that follow the “oh” is directly related to the level of dismay that the speaker is currently feeling. For example, spilling your coffee might merit an “oh la la la,” while finding out that your train is cancelled due to a strike would likely provoke an “oh la la la la la la!” I also notice that people modify their intonation as well: while an “oh la la” indicates mild dismay, an “oh la LA” really emphasizes the emotion. The longest and most impressive “oh la la” I’ve ever heard was an “oh” followed by no less than ELEVEN “las” (uttered by a bus driver who kept getting cut off), and with syncopated intonation to boot! It went something like “oh la LA la LA la LA la LA la la LAAAA” and was truly impressive.

Out of all of these noises, this is the one that I have had the most success (and the most fun) incorporating into my oral French. It’s just so much fun to say!

~ Example Conversation ~

Train conductor: M’sieurs dames, we regret to inform you that the train is going to have to make a ten-minute stop to let another train pass. SNCF apologizes for the delay.

Train passengers: Oh la la la la!

OohLaLaLa
Oh la la: not to be confused with ooh la la.

Fellow assistants and francophiles, have you noticed these noises in your day-to-day French lives? Do you have any more to add? Let me know in the comments!

7 thoughts on “Sh*t the French Say: A Guide to 8 Noises You Will Definitely Hear in France

    1. Thank you! And oh yeah, I can’t believe I forgot that one! I only picked up on it recently, but now I hear it all the time!!

      Like

  1. Great writing! I laughed so hard. These sounds hold a dear place in my heart– especially the never-ending “Oh la la” and the huge farting noise (“Pfft”). One time, during a serious convo. with my bf’s family, his dad let out the most humongous of all exagerated Pfft’s, and I just couldn’t help but crack up. My abs hurt. Everyone (all French except me) looked at me like I was crazy.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s