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.