Tuesday, August 23, 2011

French Phrase Books: Slang? Colloquial?

Miss Bee, bless her darlin' heart, just spent an academic year -- or is that "academic" year? -- in France. I dare say her French got more fluent. She was a language assistant at a French lycée through the wonderful French Government program.

But as is the case with many young people who have fun carousing with their French peers, the language skills she acquired aren't necessarily 100% fit for polite company. The Berlitz-type phrase books didn't really give her a leg-up in conversing with other 20-somethings. On the other hand, the slang dictionaries didn't exactly help in terms of understanding the appropriateness of the language.

Her first adjunct phrase book, Dirty French, she purchased at Urban Outfitters. It is, she admits, "kind of raunchy," and doesn't give the reader any sense of the social context of when any of the phrases should be used. Witty and hip, perhaps, but "cool slang," "funny insults" and "raw swear words" were not exactly what an American in France needed for understanding colloquial French and, more particularly, for spouting them in la Belle France. (I remember a story told to me by a sweet American college student who, driving with her French beau and his parents to their weekend house, exclaimed, "Waouh, Christophe, t'a vraiment niquée, celle-la!" when he sped past a car on the narrow route nationale. His well-bred parents in the back seat were mortified at her foul mouth. She thought she was simply saying "Good job! You passed him!")

Recently, Miss Bee has acquired Merde! The Real French You Were Never Taught at School. This phrase book, she says, is imminently more practical and useful. It gives ratings as to appropriateness of all those phrases she learned and parroted back. Basically it gives you a rating scale of social context between being polite and bien élevé, a dweeb and having a gutter mouth: very important distinctions when conversing in France.

Good to know. Any other recommendations?

13 comments:

Ksam said...

KatiaandKyliemac.com do a similar thing via podcast, where every week they deconstruct a French expression, give both English & French equivalents, and then say with whom it can be used.

And it's not quite the same, but it could maybe interest some of your readers. C's uncle just wrote an advanced French exercise book. I haven't seen it yet, but apparently it's all in French and is designed to help high-level speakers perfect their French spelling & grammar. http://tinyurl.com/3wn6r7y

Anna said...

I had one that rated phrases by offensiveness. But apparently it wasn't completely accurate. The only word it gives a maximum rating to is the "c word" in English. So once I had suggested "ta gueule" as a manner of saying "shut up" which I think the book only rated one exclamation point. But my friend said that someone would punch me in the face if I said that (apparently they still would even though I'm a woman). So I suppose "shut the f*** up" would be more accurate.

Another difficulty is I have some US shows dubbed in French and I frequently hear words that I've been told translate to the "f word" in English (like the verb baiser) which of course we never air on regular TV :-/

Autolycus said...

I'm a great fan of Geneviève (and the follow-up book Merde Encore!) - but the problem about slang and swearwords is that usage changes so fast. I wouldn't mind betting there are people who will say that these books are already out of date in some respects (my edition is from 1984!). I'd use them as a guide to understand an unfamiliar phrase, but not risk using them myself, since it may depend on all sorts of social context to which we don't have the clues, not having been brought up in a French environment.

Jennie said...

My PhD research is on the lack of colloquial words in French textbooks and their resistance to teaching informal spoken French instead of simply the prescriptivists' idea on how people should speak (hello l'Académie française...) which is proven again and again by corpus linguistics.

The best book I've found for learning to comprehend (and not produce because that should only be reserved for very advanced learners) informal spoken French is Le Francais Familier Et Argotique: Spoken French Foreigners Should Understand by Pierre-Maurice Richard. It's out of print but still highly valuable, in addition to the internet for the newest words and sayings, of course.

dburlison said...

Best of luck..Well done site-very interesting/informative..

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Julie said...

I've read this one, it's really interessting! I highly recommend!

Jessica said...

Hilarious and helpful! I love French slang. I look forward to checking your blog!
www.pasasparis.com

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Thanks for great insights and recommendations. Of course I ADORE Katia and Kylie Mac, and heartily recommend their podcast. Such fun!

And Jennie, I'll check out "Le francais familier et argotique." sounds like a great resource.

Keep those recommendations coming! Merci!

Sophie said...

Sounds like the French version of our American Urban Dictionary! Yeah, such dictionnaires and general guides to casual talk are definitely useful. Heh heh.

Anne Touraine said...

Love your blog ! It's really fun.
My American friends and I have tried many times to decide about the best translation for dirty words in English and in French. May I say that it's sometimes more difficult to translate some words or phrases than to translate Shakespeare.
Oh m... I shouldn't have said that but it's true).
All the best et bonne journée !

Nadia @ The French Life said...

Really useful and interesting blog! Will definitely be back to check up on your latests posts (as well as the phrase books) :)

Alexandre Fabbri said...

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Alexandre Fabbri
KIESLOWSKI'S WORLD

Safia said...

See this:
http://www.amazon.com/Talk-Dirty-French-Beyond-francais/dp/1598696653/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1323935237&sr=1-5

After preview-reviewing most of of the french slang books displayed on amazon, i've found it's the only one truly resembling our everyday malparler. As Autolycus pointed out, the books by Geneviève has quite a lot of obsolete stuff. It's correct, but we just don't use some of 'em anymore.

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