Why French is Hard to Understand, Reason 17 of 428: Fake English Words

The real reason why French is hard to understand for English-speakers is the numerous liaisons (that I mentioned recently) and lack of junctures between words. English tends to pause more often between words and exhibit open juncture, while French pauses between phrases and links sounds between certain word boundaries so that determining individual words is rather difficult unless one already knows French phonology. In addition, English is a stress-timed language that gives prominence to stressed syllables and reduces the unstressed syllables, whereas French is a syllable-timed language that gives equal prominence to all syllables, with the so-called “stressed” syllable always being the last.

Nevertheless, I would like to add another reason why French is hard to understand: the transformation of English words in the French language.  I have nothing against borrowing since it’s a natural part of language evolution and change, but English-speakers are at a slight disadvantage when trying to learn vocabulary in French. We basically have to learn a new Frenchified version of the English words, along with the pronunciation based on French phonetics.

English or French or both? news, people, look, relooking, fun, clip

First of all, the borrowed words are often changed slightly so that they are not exactly the same as the original English word. Fortunately, they are quite easy to understand in writing and are usually easier to change from French to English than English to French because many times French drops the end of the phrase. However, the pronunciation of these words can be radically different and so understanding “English” words spoken in French can be a challenge.  This is also true of names and titles – it took me a good 5 minutes to understand Sons of Anarchy when I first heard it pronounced in French.  Usually it is the stress on the last syllable in French – which rarely happens in English – that makes the word so unrecognizable for English-speakers. Finally, since most of these words are recent borrowings and considered too informal, they are often missing from textbooks and grammar books. So once again the only way to learn them is to listen to native speech in everyday situations that has not been produced specifically to teach the language (and therefore stripped of all cultural and informal vocabulary.)

If you teach English to French students or pay attention to the mistakes that French people make when speaking in English, you may notice that they simply use the French form of the English word and assume it is exactly the same as in English. Every single one of my students thinks camping is the correct way to say campground or that bowling is the sport and the location where one bowls. So on the other hand, French students learning English are also at a disadvantage because they need to re-learn the English vocabulary they thought they already knew.

Here are some examples where the French “English” is shorter than the real English:

trench coat: un trench

parking lot: un parking

campground: un camping

bowling alley: un bowling

fast food restaurant: un fast-food

drive-thru: un drive

bodysuit/onesie: un body

e-mail: un mail

volleyball: le volley

basketball: le basket

Other French “English” words are usually easy enough to figure out even if they are rather different from the original:

sneakers: des baskets

cereal: des cornflakes

rollerblades: des rollers

lip-synching: le play-back

facelift: un lifting

celebrities: des people/pipol

schedule: un planning

bartender: un barman

tennis player: un tennisman

Though some of them are a little harder to figure out:

dry cleaner’s: un pressing

blowdry: un brushing

walk-in closet: un dressing

political rally: un meeting

makeover: un relooking

channel surfing: le zapping

hit song: un tube

music video: un clip

style: un look

lounge chair: un relax

And others have a much more complicated etymology:

tuxedo: un smoking

station wagon: un break

One tip for learning this type of vocabulary is to check out celebrity magazines online (like Closer or Public) or some TV/radio stations (like MTV or NRJ) for videos or audio. They use a lot of English words because they are geared toward young people and they want to seem cool.

Pronunciation of the above words, as well as many more “English” words used in French, can be found at French Tutorial VII.

Some of these not-really-English words are used in other languages as well, not just French. Lifting is also used in Italian and Spanish to mean facelift, though in German it means to take the ski lift uphill. Wikipedia has a page on pseudo-Anglicisms if you want to learn more of them.

  • Katie

    I always cracked up when my students would tell me that they were wearing “baskets”. Really? Paniers? You sure 'bout that?

    I'm so, so grateful that my first few French teachers (starting in seventh grade) had authentic accents (one was French, the other spent 10 years as a translator in France and Francophone Africa). I was miles ahead of many people (in terms of accent, anyway) when I went into college.

  • I've noticed the same thing tends to happen in Spanish.

    A “boliche” is the bowling alley, and also the name of the sport. And “smoking” and “camping” have the exact same meaning in Spanish as in French, though I've no clue why a tuxedo is called a smoking.

  • The hardest thing then is to make French students pronounce those words correctly in English ! As you said Jennie, they are so used to hearing them with the wrong pronunciation that it is really hard work !
    But we have the same problem with French words that English-speaking people use: it's hard to recognize your “déjà-vu” or “à la mode” or “bête noire” or “crème brûlée” when they are pronounced the English way. ( Also the spelling is different in French, with the necessary “accents graves , aigus or circonflexes” !)
    And some words don't have the same meaning in French : no one wants to live in a cul- de-sac in France ! We have “maîtres d'hôtel”,We don't have any maitre d' , nor double entendre. We don't use en suite or petite like you do.
    Getting back to borrowed English words, the one I really can't stand is “people” ! Les people, absolument insupportable ! Celui-là, c'est ma bête noire.

  • I’ve always found it interesting that the W in Francophone Scrabble is worth so many points (10) because so many French words containing W are borrowed from English: http://scrabble.chez-alice.fr/files/ficheODS4-lettrescheres.pdf . K and Y seem to follow the same trend to a lesser extent. Many of your examples have a K in them.

  • Zhu

    Growing up in France, I never noticed, but after using these fake English words a couple of times in Canada and receiving blank looks, I understood, trust me! 😆 Now I really can't stand when French speakers use English words to sound cool but mispronounce them. I have become a pronunciation Nazi, even though I know I probably still have a French accent (but apparently not, since people can never ever guess where I'm from).

    Now, in Québec, people talk of “chiens chauds”, “planche à neige” and the movie “Trainspotting” was translated as “Ferrivopathe”… which I find equally disturbing.

    Oh, and don't you love the way French people (mis) pronounce brand names such as Levis (Lévisse) and Nike (Nikeu) 😆

  • Zhu

    Oh, and as Anne mentioned, it is difficult to recognize French vocabulary here too. I cringe every time I hear “maitre d'”. Really? Master of… what???

  • ielanguages

    It seems like a lot of English words are similar in many European languages. German also uses smoking, and Italian also uses lifting, etc.

    I've heard that smoking comes from smoking jacket, which is really a dinner jacket in Britain and that somehow got changed into a tuxedo. Apparently people who are/were dressed nice like to smoke a lot! lol I absolutely hate “smoking” and I make sure my students know that they can never say he is wearing a smoking. So ridiculous!

  • ielanguages

    I know what you mean! I hate the “French” words used in English too because of course the pronunciations are completely wrong, and sometimes the meanings (a la mode means with ice cream, what?? why??)

    “People” gets on my nerves too. I feel that it is very insulting to anyone who isn't a celebrity. Like those who are rich and famous are the only real “people” in the world.

    And LOL at cul-de-sac. I refuse to say it in English now because I picture what it means in French!

    • iAnonGuy

      A lot of the French vocabulary in English isn’t from Modern French, but Old French. French has gone through reforms to re-Latinize the language, as well as some reforms to spelling and word meanings have changed over time. It’s why “actually” and “actuellement” no longer mean the same thing. This can explain some of the meaning inconsistencies. The English meanings are based on 10th and 11th century meanings, when the words were imported into the language from Old [Norman] French.

      For example, we have fete (circumflex on first /e/) and feast. The circumflex on fete means that the /s/ after the first /e/ was removed. The old French word was “feste,” and this is where the English word “feast” derives. Nowadays, “feast” in English means a large mean. “Fete” in French means party or celebration. The meal (in English) can be at a party, but it doesn’t need to be. This is a rift in meaning over time, causing the French word and the English word that derives from it to grow apart in meaning.

  • ielanguages

    Ha, the literal translations from English into Québecois are a bit weird too. I would never want to eat a chien chaud!!

    • Tapas

      I’m Canadian and I’ve never heard chien chaud (unless the person was being sarcastic)! It’s probably a failed attempt to come up with a French equivalent. Same thing with hambourgeois which I’ve seen written, but nobody uses it! 

  • ielanguages

    I purposely have my students try to make sentences using “English” words that I know they will use wrong just so I can yell at them and make sure they know it is wrong to say “I wear baskets” or “I work at a fast food” or “There is a dressing in my room.” But maybe I'm just mean.

    • Amelie

      Wow. just, wow. That’s how you teach?? Instead, try to understand them. You’re in a world where everything is in freaking english and if you don’t speak the langage, you’re considered ”uncool.” I’m french canadian (from Quebec) and we speak frenglish. It’s not ideal, but what can you do when you have the whole USA right below you? And basket and dressing is all in france, so just try to show them the right way to learn, or teach to english people- god knows they need to learn another langage, especially in the USA.

  • ielanguages

    w, k, and y are not as common as other letters in French, but with the invasion of English they will be someday… though most of these English words don't really appear in dictionaries yet because they're too new or informal. Same thing for Italian, especially with the letter j.

  • If you think French is bad, try Japanese. You could probably get by in Japanese entirely with English-origin words and the Japanese verbs “to do” and “to be”. It's so bad at times that grandparents can't understand what their grandchildren are saying.

    In any case, my experience has been that it's easier for me to remember words with links like those described above than for completely unrelated words. Once you make the mistake of using in the 2L a word in your 1L with 2L origins and find that it doesn't work at all, that word becomes pretty easy to remember, and le smoking is a great example. I wonder if it's easier to do that than to remember a 2L word that is totally unrelated to the equivalent word in the 1L.

  • That's funny about Italian. Their Scrabble doesn't even include a J (or KWXY). You're right; very very few words with those letters are in Zingarelli, and players have to designate a blank tile in order to play them. JAIS, BOXE, and YOLE appear in Zingarelli I think (do you know if those are loanwords? I honestly don't). I just love that they can't be played naturally. 🙂

  • Great post, Jennie! This stuff drives me nutso. It's so hard to teach people that these words either don't exist or aren't used in english. What's worse, because there are so many invented words now in English and French alike, a group of my students gave a presentation the other day for a new broom (for curling) and their slogan was “for your brooming pleasure”. I said that “to broom” is not a verb, and they replied that they knew, and wanted to be more authentic by inventing their own words. AAGH!

    Have you heard of “le fooding”? this is the new one that really grinds my gears. I'm not sure if it means something beyond gastronomie, but I refuse to use it. And my students try to describe something as “speed” or “class” is equally vomit enducing.

  • ielanguages

    Grandparents not being able to understand their grandchildren is just sad!

    I wish my students would learn from their mistakes when using English words. I purposely added a lesson on these “English” words used in French because all of my students were making the same mistakes over and over again, so I'll see in a few weeks if they remember the real English words or not!

  • ielanguages

    Ah, I hate le fooding. I don't even know how to define it in either French or English. I read a Master's thesis on -ing words in French a while ago, and fooding was in it, but I'm still confused about what it really is!

  • claudius

    I've often wondered why French borrows English words/phrases when a French equivalent would work just as well. Even a literal translation of the word or phrase would appear somewhat more dignified. I don't mind borrow, per se. However, when I learn another language, English borrowings look out of place. It's weird clash of familiar with something that had been approached as a different structure. I wonder if French people feel the same when they encounter terms like cul-de-sac or carte blanche in otherwise all English writing or speech

    I laughed when I learned “French” words like “le weekend” and “le parking”. Do French people actually use such terms on a regular basis?

  • claudius

    Broom can be a verb (meaning “to sweep”), though that use is uncommon and perhaps a little archaic.

  • claudius

    I've often wondered why French borrows English words/phrases when a French equivalent would work just as well. Even a literal translation of the word or phrase would appear somewhat more dignified. I don't mind borrow, per se. However, when I learn another language, English borrowings look out of place. It's weird clash of familiar with something that had been approached as a different structure. I wonder if French people feel the same when they encounter terms like cul-de-sac or carte blanche in otherwise all English writing or speech

    I laughed when I learned “French” words like “le weekend” and “le parking”. Do French people actually use such terms on a regular basis?

  • claudius

    Broom can be a verb (meaning “to sweep”), though that use is uncommon and perhaps a little archaic.

  • Tam

    Like my friend who says ” c'est space ” (space pronounced in English) which I guess means that something is weird. Also “open space” to say cubicles and all of those you already said, just wonderful to guess what he is trying to say when he uses English words.

  • Fabien

    Hey, historically about 30~50% of English words come from French words! (“The Story of French”, 2006).
    And they are also altered, more or less, sometimes in a weird way. But some words are nearly the same like cereal, celebrities, style or station in your list.
    For example for “music” I don't know if it's more largely just latin or precisely french, there are so many latin words in english (they have often non-latin equivalent) but it's difficult to make difference between them.
    These days there are less french words borrowed but cliché, rendez-vous, déjà-vu are examples of them.

    Though, as French I also think the invasion and (above all) not clever tranformation of English words are a bad thing, and overmuch (even if I'm “young”). But as someone told before me, it's worse with Japanese.

  • Fabien

    Oh and I forgot:

    “e-mail: un mail ; volleyball: le volley ; basketball: le basket”

    We use the proper english words too for these ones, either first and second are “French” (ahah).

  • big roly

    Oh, these things don't just happen in French… French people would be amazed at the English use of the word “porte-manteau” for example, the (invented) expression “double-entendre” and the appalling mispronunciation of “coup de grâce” as “coup de gras”.

  • ielanguages

    And don't forget cul-de-sac! LOL

  • Hello!

    I think these things happen with pretty much all languages, it's just that it sound funnier in some rather than in others, I believe 😉 In Portuguese (I'm Brazilian) a hot dog is called “cachorro quente”, a literal translation. Volleyball, meaning the sport, now has a totally official “vôlei” equivalent in the dictionary (just like basketball, which has become “basquete”). Of course, the same has happened with tons of French-borrowed terms, such as “abat-jour”, which has become “abajur”, “fermeture (fecho in Portuguese) Eclair” which has turned into “fecho ecler”, and truly countless others.

    In Italian (I live in Italy) they use “hot dog”, mispronounced as usual thanks to the fact that Italians are completely unable to pronounce either the “h” sound or words that end in a consonant sound, so it sounds like “ot-dog-a”, with that half-vowel-thingie added just to make it pronounceable in Italian. I remember it took me MONTHS to figure out what the heck “la oll-a” meant – it was simply “the hall”, Italianized. Just thinking about it still cracks me up.

    Then you have this misuse of English words you mentioned: here they also use “un bowling” meaning a bowling alley, “una mail” as “an e-mail”, and so on. My favorite ones are, of course, the invented pseudo-English words such as “footing” (meaning “jogging”) and a few others. “Smoking” as in a tuxedo is used in both Italian and Portuguese and there's a pretty simple explanation for that, actually.

    What I'll never understand, however, is the misuse of “peperoni” in American English… 😉

  • Pingback: Why French is Hard to Understand: Reason 17 of 428()

  • Zasti_quent

    Guys, now let me set the record straight! A certain lack of culture is really striking in SOME of the comments here. Some of you need to make a proper distinction between:
    – the language of French lower classes or French people who unluckily haven’t had the opportunity to receive decent education.
    – and the language of the other French people who know their language, its history and the impact it has on other cultures, that is to say people from a normally (not necessarily highly) educated background.

    So, just because you have seen a little part of the population using Frenglish or improper French doesn’t mean you have to lump ALL the French together. In my personal case, I am myself a French person, I have a normal level of English (not too good, not too bad), I am just 20 years old and I’m far, far, far from being a language purist who wants everyone to speak THE proper French language, I’m pretty much cool and open-minded about that, and YET, I feel considerably indignant at the way you perceive French people and the relation they have to their language. I honestly do not recognise a fair description of the French in your comments and I think your conceptions lack objectivity.

    My dear pessimists of the French, there are plenty of reasons why you shouldn’t feel so desperate: think a bit more about the 1994 Loi Toubon, a campaign waged by the French Culture Ministry to ban the use of English words when there is a French equivalent, and this was very much appreciated by many, many, many French people (including young people!). Think also about the field of technology: ordinateur, logiciel, souris, clavier, disque dur externe, etc. Aren’t these words French? We French people do not use the English equivalents to these words. However, native speakers of many other languages do! Do your own research, you’ll see! Also, don’t forget many French people consider their language as the key element of the French identity and as a big part of the French culture. So yeah, we reject the hegemonic English language in many ways, trust me. I talk to enough French people to be aware of this national conception! Hope this will help you look at things through different eyes. Move a bit more, enquire a bit more, and only then, you’ll allow yourselves to say you know the French!

  • Lisa

    Hey “Zhu”, I lived in Quebec for one year and it’s mooore than somewhat enough for me to realise they use horrible Frenglish slang. French people from France in comparison take considerable care of their language and wow, that’s admirable. I’ve been studying in France for 3 years now, so I can say it! I do agree thoroughly with Zasti_quent concerning the high consideration many French people have for their language, as well as the funny thing about their rejection of the “hegemonic language” 🙂 That’s very visible in the French society. It’s been ages since I learnt French and the 3 examples of words I usually love to give as evidence for their loyalty to their language are: saynète (diminutive form of scène), télécharger and bande-annonce, which are the words used by the French to mean: “TV sketch”, “download” and “film trailer”. Haha, I simply love these words. There’s a German girl who also studies in France in the same university who told me if you want to sound like cool and trendy in German, it’s way better to use these English words instead of their German equivalents in daily speech. Honestly, what’s the point? Fortunately, it’s not the case with French people who do not need, and also do not want, to use English words systematically to sound cool! (ok, except the pure computer freaks I’ve met here maybe, haha!). I mean, the French are quite fond of their own words, and that’s a good point they should keep forever! Seems like it’s part of their culture and that’s what I love ‘em for! 🙂 Zhu, you gotta go back to France cuz maybe the France you once saw is no longer the same you would see nowadays! 🙂

  • gatch

    Vive la langue française! U know, even if french contains some anglicisms, most of them haven’t been borrowed by us French people. On the contrary, some of them been imposed on us! They are mainly due to the import of American products and firms into France, like McDonalds, Quick or types of sport like Basketball or Volleyball. And obviously, as we dont consider these things as belonging to French culture, we haven’t attributed French names to them, as a consequence the American terminology has been kept (hamburger, fast food, burger king, etc.). So we prefer keep American words to show that the elements related to these words are not french, instead of finding french equivalents to words that have nothing to do with our culture, otherwise this would show we integrate these things into french thinking! haha! No way!

    And another reason for some anglicisms: for a long time, we have even been blamed a lot for having an unduly pure language, so what did we do? With the pressure of the others cultures who said we were too french, we’ve changed this! Since then, we have not replace every single english words with french words! Shame really… Because if we hadn’t the pressure of outside countries, I think we wouldn’t have kept too much english words.

  • Alice

    Yes, I really agree that that is my problem! Even though I’ve been living in Paris for 5 months now, I’m still having so much trouble understand the French. What can I do to learn and understand these sounds as an effect of enchainement and liasons?

  • Good lord, what a disaster, and I know that most of those have perfectly good French words, too, why would they do that?  Does English really have that high a status IN FRANCE?! (of all places)

  • Aussieinfrance

    Very interesting and so true. You left out training, jogging and footing, the last of which has now been replaced by the second. I was mystified when I first came to France and heard people say they were doing a “footing”! One very interesting one is “le management” which refers to “personnel management” only. My husband comes home from work with them all the time. As a translator I’m constantly having to explain to my clients that their English borrowed word is not the appropriate term in English! 

  • Éric Côté

    your french translation are mostly french from France but doesn’t actually reflects the french Canadian really 🙂

  • dasajhlgj

    Just learn English and everything will be ok.

  • Lunatique

    Un article super funky ! (yes i know you hate ^^) But don’t forget that many french words remains in the english language, and oftenly it’s awful to hear “rendez-vous” from an english speaking people ^^.

    If anyone want to translate this for fun : http://linculture.wordpress.com/2012/11/28/lorigine-de-fravimal-partie-2/

    You will understand the funny concept of néologisme, enjoy ! (and sorry for my bad english)