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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

The 16 French proverbs to drop into any conversation

From howling with the wolves to spotting grey cats - sooner or later in French conversation proverbs will rear their head. Here French language coach Llyane Stanfield introduces some of the most common.

The 16 French proverbs to drop into any conversation
This cat may look grey, but so do all cats at night, according to the proverb. Photo: AFP

French proverbs are usually recognised primarily by their form: they are short, quick, and most importantly, they have rhythm, like a free-form poem.

Their feel is musical, which makes them easy to remember and they are full of lexicons and cliché, built into the language as phrases or jingles. Most proverbs have a long history but they are far from being ruins and frequently pop up in everyday conversation.

Here are some of the most popular proverbs that live to this day in French.

Après la pluie, le beau temps – after the rain, the good weather.  In other words the cheering sentiment that happy times usually follows a period of misfortune.

La fête passée, adieu le saint – the festival ends and goodbye to the saint. The timely reminder that we quickly forget to whom we owe a happy moment.

Chacun voit midi à sa porte – everyone sees noon at his door. You're basically saying that each person may have a different perspective on something, so it's a handy one to wheel out if you're desperately trying not to get bogged down in a controversial topic.

You will notice that quite  a few French proverbs involve animals. Here is a few examples of commonly used ones.

Wolves are frequently the bad guys in French proverbs. Photo: AFP

Quand on parle du loup on en voit la queue – speak of the wolf and you'll see his tail. This means that when you're talking about someone (usually speaking ill), that person suddenly shows up and is similar to the English phrase 'speak of the devil'.

Les loups ne se mangent pas entre eux – wolves don't eat each other. The evil people sympathise and support each other, again this one has a devil equivalent in English – the devil takes care of his own.

Il faut hurler avec les loups – we must howl with the wolves. Finally a wolf saying in which wolves are not the bad guys – this simply means that you must adapt to the customs of the people you hang out with.

Petit à petit l’oiseau fait son nid – little by little the bird makes its nest.  Alternatively, we must have patience and perseverance if we want to get results.

La nuit tous les chats sont gris – all cats are grey in the night. In certain circumstances, everything looks the same. It basically means that in a complicated situation, it is difficult to judge so is handy if you want to express a non-committal opinion on Benjamin Griveaux or any other French sex scandal.

But there are plenty of more general proverbs on the subject of relationships and human behaviour.

Too much kissing is bad for your productivity, who knew? Photo: AFP

Qui trop embrasse mal étreint – He who kisses too much is badly hugged. Not specific to kissing, this means that a person who undertakes too many things at the same time ends up succeeding at nothing.

Il ne faut jamais dire 'Fontaine, je ne boirai jamais de ton eau' – Never say 'fountain, I will never drink your water' or more generally we can’t say we’ll never need someone’s help.

Il faut laver son linge sale en famille – dirty linen should be washed in the family, very similar to the English phrase about not washing dirty laundry in public, it means that domestic issues should not be dealt with in public.

Ce que femme veut, Dieu le veut – what woman wants, God wants. Slightly sexist perhaps, it means that it is hard to resist women’s desires.

Prudence est mère de sûreté  Care is the mother of safety, so we must act cautiously even when we feel confident.

La parole est d’argent, le silence est d’or – speech is silver, silence is golden. Another familiar sentiment in English – silence is safer than words.

Les murs ont des oreilles – the walls have ears. Familiar from spy movies, the phrase means you have to talk quietly because someone may always hear what you say.

Il vaut mieux parler à Dieu qu’à ses saints – it's better to talk to God than his saints, or for more secular times it is best to talk directly to the most important person.

 

As a trained actor and language coach, obtaining a good French accent is a focal point for Llyane Stanfield’s online classes, in addition to conversation fluidity. Passionate learner, Llyane likes to put herself in her students’ shoes, and she is currently in training for holding the Higher Education Teaching Certificate at Harvard University. She offers private classes by Skype/Zoom, which you can preview in her free French Crash Course for Easy Conversation guide. Find out more 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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