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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

From ‘natel’ to ‘ça joue’: The Swiss French words which help you sound like a local

From “schmolitz” to “panosse”, some words and phrases common in the French-speaking part of Switzerland are different from their equivalents used in France. Here is the vernacular you should master if you live in Suisse Romandie.

From 'natel' to 'ça joue': The Swiss French words which help you sound like a local
No, the chalet is not crazy. Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

Each of Switzerland’s main languages – German, French and Italian – are shared with a larger and more influential neighbour. 

These three languages – when added to the unique Romansh language – makes for a diverse linguistic spectrum. 

It might come as a relief to foreigners living in one of the French-speaking cantons that differences between the Swiss version of the language and the one spoken in France is much smaller than the difference between standard German and Schwyzerdütch.

Except for some specific words and expressions, people in France understand their counterparts in Romandie much easier than is the case between Germans and Swiss-Germans.

READ MORE: ‘Just so fun to say’: Are these the best Swiss-German words to learn?

The Local recently asked its readers what are the most important Swiss-French words to know.

Which parts of Switzerland speak French?

Geneva, Vaud, Jura and Neuchâtel speak only French, while Valais and Fribourg speak predominantly French but also German. 

Bern, the seat of the de facto capital, is also bilingual, but with more German than French speakers. 

From the answers we received, several respondents mentioned the numbers. 

As anyone who has tried to learn French will tell you, the numbering system is particularly difficult – especially when you get in the double figures. 

The Swiss French numbering system is different to that of original French, with Swiss French using the words septante (seventy), huitante (eighty) and nonante (ninety). 

The Romands decided to simplify these words from their original French versions: soixante-dix, quatre-vingt, and quatre-vingt-dix, which literally translate to ‘sixty-ten’, ‘four twenties’ and ‘four twenties-ten’. 

However, regional differences are also at play here: Geneva uses the French version of these numbers, possibly because of its close proximity to France.

Some readers also mentioned the expression “ça joue”. Literally translated it means “it plays”, but in the Suisse Romande it means “yes, it’s alright”.

Other words and expressions mentioned in the reader survey were: “carnotzet” (a small bar), “bonap” (Bon appétit – enjoy your meal), “si jamais”, (if ever), vélo (bicycle), “ouais” (slangy oui – yes), and “tout de bon” (all the best).

READ MORE: Have your say: What are the most important Swiss French words to know?

Suisse-Romande versus France

Aside from the numbers mentioned above, some words and phrases used in this part of Switzerland are uniquely “Romand” and if you use them in France, chances are you will be met with a quizzical look.

Natel: Mobile phone (“téléphone mobile”)

French-speaking Switzerland: Seven life hacks that will make you feel like a local

Panosse: A wet broom (“serpillière in France)

Y a pas le feu au lac: Literally, this means “there’s no fire in the lake”. But what it actually means “there is no rush, no urgency.

Faire schmolitz : Wine drinking ritual in which two people decide to befriend each other by passing from the formal “vous” form to the more casual “tu”.

Schmoltz! Photo by Monstera from Pexel

Etre déçu en bien: Be pleasantly surprised (être agréablement surpris in France)

Ça va, le chalet?: Are you crazy ? (ça va pas la tête ?)

Tchô bonne: Have a good day /evening (bonne journée /soirée)

Lolette: a pacifier for babies (tétine in France)

Quart d’heure vaudois: This means a slight delay, not only in Vaud but in other Romand cantons as well (être en retard” in France). Please note that a similar expression doesn’t exist in the German-speaking cantons, and for a good reason: Swiss-Germans are rarely late.

‘The pleasure of punctuality’: Why are the Swiss so obsessed with being on time?

Tenir les pouces: Just like in Anglo countries, crossing fingers brings good luck in Suisse Romande. But in France, you’d have to “croiser les doigts”.

Tenir les pouces: universal sign of good luck. Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

Lost in translation?

If you are not totally familiar with the intricacies of the French language, keep in mind that these expressions have a different meaning in French than in English. Or, they may not mean what you think they might:

Préservatifs: No, these are not artificial food additives (“conservateurs”), but condoms. The latter is commonly found in food, the former usually isn’t.

Hors-ligne: This is often seen on buses in the Suisse Romandie. This doesn’t mean the bus is transporting horses; it does mean it is not in service.

Voilà, there you have it: some typical expressions you are bound to hear in the French-speaking part of Switzerland.

Tchô bonne! 

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READER INSIGHTS

‘My vegetarian crêpe was covered in crab and lobster’: Stories of going meat-free in France

Being vegetarian or vegan in France is not always easy and not always understood. While this can be frustrating it also leads to some pretty memorable and funny experiences a our readers attest to in their accounts here.

'My vegetarian crêpe was covered in crab and lobster': Stories of going meat-free in France

Boeuf bourguignon, coq à vin, confit de canard – all classic French foods with one thing in common: meat. The French are known for taking immense pride in their cultural cuisine, much of which involves meat…but what if you are in France and you do not eat meat? We asked our readers to tell us about their most memorable experiences being vegetarian and vegan in France.

For Penny in Annecy it was hard to come up with only one “worst” experience:

“Just one? Asking for a pizza without cheese. First time it came out with cheese, I sent it back. Second time, yep still got cheese, I gave up and picked it off and ate the crust. Same restaurant, not being allowed to order a spaghetti with tomato sauce that was on the kid’s menu. Only option for adults- a green salad and fries – what I call the vegan’s delight as it is often the only thing I can order on any menu. Five years later I tried this restaurant again, the waiter happily asked the kitchen if I could have a pasta with tomato sauce – no problem. Things are better than they were!” explained Penny.

Penny’s sentiment that things are improving was echoed by over half of our respondents (66 percent) who reported that finding vegan and vegetarian options in France is, indeed, “getting better.”

A graph showing respondents’ feelings on vegan and vegetarian options in France (credit: The Local)

But does this mean that all of the advice columns and blogs dedicated to ‘surviving in France as a vegetarian’ are wrong? Well, the short answer is no. Almost a quarter of readers still feel like it’s not worth even bothering eating out because French restaurants do not offer “good vegan or vegetarian food,” for a number of reasons.

Flexible interpretations of vegetarianism

Many readers had one negative experience in common: restaurants and cafes failing to understand what falls under the umbrella of vegetarian, and more importantly, what does not. Several of our readers recounted their experiences finding some surprise bacon bits (lardons) in their supposedly meat-free salads: “After explaining to a waiter that I was vegetarian and being offered and accepting the proposed salad I was not happy to find it covered in lardons. When I queried this I was told that they were a garnish!” said Chris Welch, who lives in Strasbourg. 

Meanwhile, for others there were a lot of misconceptions about seafood. “Many french restaurants still think vegetarians eat fish!” explained Penny, who lives in Annecy, France. Another reader remembered ordering a vegetarian salad and then finding prawns scattered over it.

One couple had a pretty serious seafood-being-vegetarian miscommunication when they arrived in Bretagne:

“My wife and I arrived late at a town in Côtes d’Armor and found a crêperie open. We asked the proprietor if she could make a vegetarian crêpe, and she replied with an enthusiastic “Bien sûr !” The crêpes that came out almost 30 minutes later were a work of art: piled high with a colourful assortment of crab, lobster, and oysters. We couldn’t pretend they were OK; she stood and waited to watch us enjoy her masterpieces. We told her as nicely as possible that we couldn’t eat them, and she instructed us at length on the difference in meaning between the words “végétarien” and “végétalien.”

To make up for her disappointment, we bought about 50€ worth of her jams sauces, on display by the register,” said Daniel New. 

The proprietor’s comment might be a tad confusing, as the primary difference between “végétarien” and “végétalien” is that the former translates to vegetarian in English, and the latter is the formal French way of saying ‘vegan,’ though most French people just stick with végan these days. So either way, the couple probably should not have discovered seafood in their crêpes.

After this experience, Daniel New’s advice is always to “check your food before you dig in, to be sure the chef doesn’t regard poulet as a vegetable.”

Geography

A lot of our readers explained that geography plays a big role in whether or not you will be able to find good vegan and vegetarian food. Not surprisingly, small towns are trickier than big cities. When asked whether eating out in France as a vegetarian or vegan, most people replied “only in big cities.” One couple that lives in Bayonne explained that they have had to adapt: they cook vegan at home and eat vegetarian when they are out, in order to have more options:

“The Saturday market is a vegan paradise,” they explained. “To have a social life and meals out with French friends you must still eat butter and cheese. American vegans will be annoyed by this but we also believe in eating sustainably which means eating local ingredients. Lots of ingredients used in vegan cooking aren’t easily found in small French towns (eh hem, avocados).” 

One reader, Shane Routledge, said that he has found it harder in the South than in other parts of the country, which could be due to the region being more rural generally. His tips for veggies or vegans in France? “Just hope there are places where you are that have entered the 21st century.”

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