I’ve got a secret that’ll make you sound French as ever.
But you don’t need to keep it hush-hush.
You’re actually gonna have to make some noise.
Now, you may think you already have what it takes, thanks to your studies in school (or out of it).
Perhaps you’ve poured over newspapers, blogs and books.
You may have even spent a lot of effort mastering your French verlan and slang.
But I’m not going to consider you anywhere near fluent in French until you can gasp, sigh and make a choo-choo train noise like the real French. So here we go.
French Noises: Insanely Pleasurable, but Also Important
I’m assuming that most of you have realized at this point that academic French is not enough; you need to be able to code-switch for class and situation in spoken French. This is part of expressing yourself more exactly, and noises are a part of this too.
A well-placed hop là (see #8, below) after a near-accident expresses something succinctly in a way that no French vocabulary from a dictionary can quite match.
But let’s face it, you also want to sound as svelte as you imagine a French person to be (though see if you still feel that way after #19). French sounds can also help you sound that smooth. In fact, if you make the correct French mouth noises, you almost don’t need to learn any other French at all, as the woman on the left demonstrates in the video below (in part two, from 0:35).
The sketch was obviously produced for humorous effect, but it is only just slightly exaggerated and can certainly be considered educational. These are French noises that really are used.
Live in France for long enough, and I swear to you, you’ll start to make the same raspberries, tsks, and clucks, even—and this is the perverse part—when you’re not speaking French. Be prepared for some odd looks when you visit your home country.
Ready to start? What follows are, in my opinion, the most important and the most fun noises for any learner of French to master.
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20 Weird, Adorable and Essential Noises of Spoken French
1. Oh là là !
Yes, French people actually do make this sound, and hearing the silly thing spurted out for the first time in a French conversation will undoubtedly give you a giggle. Note that it does not, however, usually mean that the speaker has the hots for someone.
More frequently, it is employed to express surprise, disgust, dismay or disapproval. (The video above suggests that it is for expressing agreement, but this is only really true because the blond girl is agreeing with the brunette’s disapproval.) If you say it, for example, upon sampling a new wine, you are making your displeasure known.
2. Euh lô !
This is the Norman version oh là là; use it in the exact same situations when you’re in Normandy and trying to pass as a local.
A French pistol retorts with a pan, not a bang. Keep this in mind for your war simulations, or to accompany a mimed gesture while retelling a scene from the latest action movie.
The sound of a French bomb is not too far from our “boom.” You’ll see it all the time in French comic books.
This is the sound of a French machine gun. My French advisory committee has helped me spell this as best we could, but—while universally understood—it is not usually written. The idea is you start with a tuuuuuuh sound and then trill your tongue like you’re making an airy Spanish “R.” Obviously, you should also mime attempting to keep control of your large weapon, and your interlocutor must then convulse as if riddled with bullets.
This one is the sound of a large bomb or nuclear weapon going off. As with the previous sound, the spelling is up for some debate, but again, you’ll want an airy trilling of the tongue.
7. Bam, bim and claque
When French fists hit French faces, these are the sounds that they make. You can also employ these sounds to comment on someone getting a metaphorical sock to the face, i.e., when he’s been insulted or one-upped. For example:
A: Il nous ennuie avec ses diatribes contre les pesticides à chaque fois qu’il boit. Mais ce qui est sûr, c’est que ce qu’il boit c’est pas de la bière bio.
(He annoys us with his tirades against pesticides every time he drinks. But it’s quite certain that the beer he’s drinking isn’t organic.)
B: Et bim ! Dans sa face !
(Bam! You nailed him!)
French beer-drinking hipster: (looks sad)
8. Hop là !
This isn’t so much for danger as it is for showing that danger has been avoided. It’s a bit like the English “oopsy-daisy”; you can use it when you’ve just saved someone from falling down or knocking something over.
Your Renault makes this sound as it tears through the roundabout. It should be used for fast cars and those in good condition.
10. Teuf teuf teuf
This, on the other hand, is the sound of a clunker struggling down an old country lane. It’s similar to the English “putt putt.”
A French car honks like this. To English speakers it looks so sweet and innocent, doesn’t it? Traffic jams in Paris in reality sound so much angrier, with the cars’ aggressive tut-tuts accompanied by florid French cursing.
12. Tchou tchou
This is the historical sound of a French train, and could certainly still be used by French people to describe the chugging of most modern American trains. Modern French TGVs, however, are lovely, nearly silent wonders.
As a language learner, you will frequently find yourself at a loss for words, particularly at the beginning. With these fillers, you can at least sound French in such a state. Here is a good recording of these and a few other fillers.
Like the English “um…,” this is a way to fill space when you’re not sure how to respond, or thinking of what to say next.
You probably know that this means “good.” But it can also be valueless filler, as in “Bon, on va au marché.” (Let’s go to the market.”) And it can even be used to express incredulity and impatience. An annoyed, loud “Ah, bon ?” in response to an idea shows that you think it is anything but good.
This translates as “let’s see” and, like the English version, it can be used as meaningless filler. For example, you might say this while trying to figure out the answer to a problem.
This adds emphasis. Be careful as the n here is not pronounced, it just serves to indicate the nasality of the vowel, so you really have a kind of “baaaaaah” sound that goes right up your nose. A very common way to use it is Ben oui ! (Of course!) or Ben non ! (Of course not!)
Noises to Amuse French Children
17. Toc toc toc
With those rock-hard consonants, this sound for French knocking is so much more evocative of a sharp knock than our English onomatopoeia, isn’t it? You can also say it when entering a room that doesn’t have a door, in order to politely announce your presence.
Even those gorgeous French butts fart, and this is how they sound.
19. Pin pon
French firetrucks sound quite a bit different from American ones, but to me they still sound nothing like this French way of vocalizing them. Give me a break! I’ve found, however, that screeching my American wreeoooo-wreeeooo at French children just confuses them. It’s much better to use pin pon instead.
The Gallic version of glug-glug, this is the sound of drinking. You can of course use it when miming at French children to drink up their water, as well as when you’re in a bar and want to make fun of someone who’s really chugging them down.
There are many, many more sounds in France. To master them all, you may want to check out French comic books and children’s books for clues. And don’t stop watching French TV and movies!
Mose Hayward is a polyglot and has suffered noisy Paris for more than a decade. He blogs about “20-minute fluency,” drinking, dancing and romance for travelers at TipsyPilgrim.com.
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