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Why do French women (and some men) inhale their ‘oui’?

Have you ever heard French women, or men for that matter, gasping for a "oui"?

Why do French women (and some men) inhale their 'oui'?
Photo: Audrey-Anne Godin/ 500px

Spoken French is full of hundreds of tiny sounds and inflections that carry a whole lot of meaning. One phenomenon is to do with some French women and their peculiar way of saying “oui”.

Halfway through a conversation with a French woman, you might hear her suddenly inhale sharply, and think she’s gasping in shock.

It might sound like “whhhoui” or “wheeee” (we have no idea how to spell it).

No, she’s not aghast at your comment that French cheese smells too strong, it's just the strange way that many French women (and far fewer French men) say “oui”, which of course means “yes”.

Basically, the word is said on the inhale rather than the exhale.

These short whistling gasps sometimes punctuate interactions like conversational hiccups.  

READ ALSO: Solving the mystery of why only French women suffer from 'heavy legs'

If you still don't know what we're talking about then watch the video below.

So why do they do it?

Perhaps you've never noticed it. Some French women who do it don't even notice.

Many have no idea why they inhale “oui”.

“I do it, but I have no idea why though,” language expert Camille Chevalier-Karfis from the site French Today tells The Local.

Is there a real reason for the breathed-in “oui”? It's a question bloggers in France have struggled to answer in the past.

“I don’t understand it and they ALL do it, even on TV. What is with that?” wrote “Emilie in Paris”.

Luckily, there’s a whole field of study on noises we make on the in breath. 

“Although it is used in slightly different ways in different countries, there seem to be some common reasons in most places,” world expert on the subject, Robert Eklund, told The Local.

“Basically it’s ‘paralinguistic,’” Eklund said, that means “it doesn’t signal any meaning, but rather signals attitude”.

In Sweden, an inhaled “ja”, “yes” can be used to change or close a conversation topic, but in Norway, it shows annoyance says Eklund.

In fact, a video on Swedes breathing in their “jas” went viral in 2015

So what attitude is a French woman showing?

Well, saying “oui” on the inhale can mean many things but likely depends on the person.

Some French women told The Local they use it when surprised, stressed, reacting automatically, or even when they're cold .

Academics studying the subject of inhaled words found that French women often inhale when saying “oui” to show a doubtful or complaisant yes.

Another researcher suggests that the inhaled “oui” among French women shows reluctance or caution. 

So if a French woman or man responds in this way, perhaps they are not totally convinced by what you are saying.

How can I breath in “oui” too?

If you really want to disguise yourself as a French woman, the next time a French person is talking about something you’re not sure you agree with, like “UHT tastes just the same as fresh milk”, or “French drivers are the best in the world”, start clearing some space in your lungs ready to breathe in quickly.

The “oui” needs to be short and sharp intake of breath, like you’ve accidentally touched a hot stove (just don't use any expletives).

Although bear in mind you might want to use it with caution, because it appears it can get on the nerves of some locals.

“I laugh at people who do it,” one young Frenchman told The Local.

Hit French YouTuber “Norman” even included the inhaled “oui” in his top 13 “worst” French expressions (jump to 1 minute 13 seconds).

According to him the inhaled “oui” is “ugly”. He says it makes you sound like a “secretary” or a “Madame Pipi” – a popular French term for (female) toilet attendants.

But he helpfully points out that it just doesn't work for other words in French. So don't start inhaling you “non” or your “bonjour”.

What do you think? Have you heard any French women doing this? Or do you do it yourself? 

By Rose Trigg

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For members


Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.


Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty


Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 


And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  


Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.