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.