It’s the little things that get you: how to say “yes” in French

ta-nehisi coates french composition
Ta-Nehisi Coates tries to write in French. The red writing at the top of the page says “30+ errors.” What you have to realize is that in English, Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the most articulate people you’ll ever read–or hear. Picture source:

It’s the little things that get you.  It amazes and frustrates me that I can spend an evening sitting at home, happily reading a novel that uses the passé simple and the imparfait du subjonctif (two tenses that are used in literary French, but almost never in speaking–we aren’t even taught them in school).  But, then I’ll go to work the next day, and someone will say “good morning” to me in a way that I haven’t heard before, and I just stand there like a blithering idiot.

The Lawless French web site just posted an article that shows just how difficult the “easy” things can be.  It describes a wide variety of ways to say yes in French.  You certainly don’t have to use all of them yourself, but you most definitely do need to understand them.  And, as far as I can tell, it’s even more difficult than you would think from the wide range of yes-meaning expressions.  For example, I’m told that ben, oui (“well, yes”) can have different meanings, depending on the intonational pattern.  Say it one way, and it expresses uncertainty in your yes answer; say it another way, and it expresses confidence in your yes answer.

One of the ways of saying yes that the Lawless French web site talks about is, I suspect, one of the most common mistakes that us Americans make in France.  A thousand years ago when I was in college, I took a course on linguistic field methods–how to deal with a situation where you run into a language about which you have no information whatsoever.  We did Hungarian for ours.  We were all amazed when it turned out that Hungarian had two separate, non-interchangeable words, both of which meant yes, but which were used completely differently:

  • igen is what you might think of as the “usual” yes.
  • de is yes, but only when you’re contradicting something that someone has said.  You don’t want any ice cream, do you?  De.  (Yes, I do.)

Although we were all fascinated by this, it’s not that unusual of a phenomenon.  French also has a “usual” yes: oui.  And, it also has a different yes that you use when you’re contradicting a previous assertion: si.  Me, to my delightful office mate Brigitte (if it’s in italics, it happened in French): I can’t SSH into the server.  Brigitte: Si–if you can connect to the internal network, you can SSH into the server.  Si instead of oui because she’s contradicting what I said–I said I can’t, and her si means something like yes, you can. 

Back to the classic American mistake: in America, if we have any knowledge of a second language at all, it’s most likely to be Spanish.  Spanish has one word for yes, and it’s sí.  Remember the “foreign language buffer” that I swore I would not tell you about?  Put an American in a situation where they can’t communicate in English and the language that’s most likely to come out is Spanish, regardless of whether or not that’s the language that’s actually being spoken around them.  So: ask an American in France a simple question, and if the answer is yes, they’re quite likely to say si, even if on some level they know that the French word is oui.  I have made this mistake a thousand times, myself–I’m not any more immune to it than the next American.

So: check out the Lawless French web site for more ways to say “yes” in French than you ever could have imagined, and here’s hoping that you don’t sound as stupid as I do today.



9 thoughts on “It’s the little things that get you: how to say “yes” in French”

  1. There is an ancient form that can be found in literature and was used until the XXth century : oui da . It is used to amplify the yes, sometimes to mean “si”, sometimes to mean “of course yes” . It’s funny since as well as “si” is yes in Spanish and Italian, “da” is yes in Russian .
    I had a look at your Lawless site about yes and I’m a lil doubtful : where did they find this “ouaip” ? I never heard this in my life, and as it sounds like the US yep I suspect a gross mistake from the site writers .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Phildange,

      Fascinating–I’ve never heard of “oui da” before. I went looking for examples, and I found these in a collection of French literature from the 18th to the 20th centuries.

      La peste ! Déjà deux ou trois fois ! à tout cela répond ; et votre fille, oui da , doit le connaître à fond.

      Quant à vous, puisque vous avez décidé que ce mariage s’accomplirait, vous devez exiger qu’il s’ accomplisse. *Péponet, le saluant. oui da ! … *Vertillac.

      The search interface doesn’t tell you what the source was. I tried Googling Vertillac and Péponet, and I found what looks like a play called “Les faux bonshommes,” which seems to be a play from the 1850s, but I’m not sure that I have that right. The first quote, I have no clue about. How would you translate these two “oui da”‘s?


  2. The first one comes from a 1853 play by a now unknown author, François Ponsard . In this case oui da means indeed ! or for sure .
    The second one, from the same period by a couple of authors still more forgotten, means “Certes ! “, in Italian Certo ! . Yes you’re perfectly right, or Yes be sure I’ll do that .
    Oui da was always used to amplify the yes, in several different possible ways .
    I don’t know how your machine works, but I’m puzzled by the elements it provided you : 2 forgotten plays by unknown writers ! While if I know oui da is because I read it, sometimes in Molière’s plays, sometimes in XIXth centuries novels ( but by illustrious writers, Flaubert, Maupassant, George Sand, Balzac, etc…) . I guess nowadays only French generations who actually held books in their hands know this . Everyone born after 80 is off ha ha .

    There’s another “yes” I rather commonly use myself that is ” Certes” . I like it because it adds some meta-info to a simple “oui” and I like it more because this extra meaning can be various things, depending on the context and of course your particular intention . It’s the kind of fluidity and ambiguity that makes me like some languages, for it adds an exciting vibration to communication. Several of my memorable human encounters started with an pleasant response from the other guy/girl to this kind of multi-message .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I found those examples via a web site that has many, many collections of texts in a wide variety of languages. One of these is a collection of copyright-free French stuff from the 18th to the 20th centuries. Some of the collections are huge–hundreds of millions of words. I use it in my daily work, and occasionally also if I’m trying to learn how to use an expression in French.

      I’m going to try using “certes.” If I get funny looks, my first hypothesis will be that I have the intonation wrong. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Be careful, the Penal Code prescribes 6 months in jail for an inaccurate use of “certes” .
    Certes doesn’t mean only oui : it can mean ” of course !” with the right intonation, it can mean “I agree, but …” with another tone, it can mean “yes, I was afraid but eventually no problem “, etc…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “Si” is actually a French word meaning “yes” in the sense of “but yes”, replying to and contradicting a negative statement somebody made. I think your interpretation of putting this into Spanish is wrong – the point about US folks switching to (what they think is) Spanish when in need of a foreign language, however, is true – at least the more the more these people come from the West or the South of the US.

    About this “ouaip”: this sounds to me like a misheard “ouais”, which is an informal “oui”. As the speaker may close the mouth after saying it, it may add a very faint “p” at the end. In any case, that “ouais” is French and it corresponds to “oui” as in English “yep” to “yes”.

    Liked by 1 person

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