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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Oh là là – How to really use the best three words in French

If there are three words you need in France they are "Oh là là" (nope not Ooh la la), explains our guest blogger, because they can be used in so many ways.

Oh là là - How to really use the best three words in French
How to use Oh là là properly. Photo: AFP

It’s one of the biggest clichés about the French. 

In addition to wearing Breton stripes (which happens surprisingly frequently), riding bikes carrying baguettes (which happens more often that you’d expect) and wearing berets, any caricature of the French will inevitably involve an oh-so sing song “Oh là là”. 

The best thing about this cliché is that it’s actually true. Living in Paris you hear it at least once a day, probably more, and after a while you find yourself saying it almost as much.

It comes in many different forms and its beauty is that it’s used by all – women, men and kids alike.

There is the 'traditional' method, most known to foreigners and often (though not exclusively) used by women, which is the prim and proper “Oh là là”. This is used to express admiration, almost in the same way we anglophone girls of a certain age use the phrase “Oh my god”.

For example, you show someone your new ring and they say “Oh là là c'est trop jolie!” (“Oh my god it’s so pretty!”). It is high, light and happy. This is a good “Oh là là”.

Then there is the bad “Oh là là”.  Perhaps predictably, the French often employ the bad “Oh là là”, used more in the sense “Oh my god that's freaking annoying” (“Oh là là ça me saoûle !”).  

For example: a car burns through a pedestrian crossing nearly knocking you over or just doesn't stop to let you cross the road generally; a biker rings their bell at you (don't they know it’s OK for me to do it when I’m on a bike, but not them?); someone cuts you off in the cojean line; the cashier at the supermarket tells you “je ferme ma caisse moi” (“I’m closing my till”) even though the queues are huge; you have to wait more than 3 minutes for a Metro (“Oh là là – 4 minutes ?!”); people start getting into the Metro before letting you out; the Metro driver says the train will be stopping for a moment for the “régulation du traffic”, etc.

SEE ALSO: Sacre Bleu! Do the French really say that? 

This “Oh là là” (or even “Ho là là”) is low, baritone and disapproving, often muttered under your breath. I use it a lot. Note to self: I should really stop taking the Metro.

Then there is the pièce de la résistance (which, incidentally, is not something the French say.  Go figure.) – the “Oh là là là là là là”. Yes, that’s right. Six “”s – no more, no less – in quick succession. This is bad. This is very bad.  Not to be bandied around lightly, this is reserved for those head-in-hands, all hope is lost kind of moments which, again perhaps unsurprisingly, happen in Paris more often than you think.

This is used when the French miss a crucial goal in the (soccer/rugby/other ball sport); when you get halfway home from CDG and realize the cab driver doesn’t take carte blue; when you are told the musée will take no more entries for the day even though you've already spent an hour in line; when the sandwich guy (that’s him in the photo below) at the Marché des Enfants Rouges says there's no more parsley so he cannot make the sandwich you want (he will only make a sandwich if he has ALL the necessary ingredients, or else he would not do it justice.  

Begrudging respect for the principle, (but I want my damned sandwich); when your downstairs neighbours come home at 6am and start testing their sub-woofer sound system; when you spend half an hour on the phone listening to crappy music waiting to be connected to someone at [insert name of French administrative body here] and then the line just cuts out.

Chez Alain Miam Miam nearing the end of his parsley stock.

These are the moments when “Oh là là là là là là” is really the only way you can express your frustration/anger/hanger (hunger + anger). It is satisfying. If you live in Paris long enough, it will become your reflex.  And that's when you'll know you're turning Parisian.

This article originally appeared on the blog “You know you’re turning Parisian when…”  It's a blog about those moments when you realise you’re turning that little bit more Parisian.  You can find more posts here

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

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.

Masculine

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

Feminine

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 

Plural

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 

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.

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