1. Funny mistakes in pronunciation
How could one possibly be misunderstood about submarines?? I was puzzled when I read this story of a guy being mocked up, speaking about how he loved working as suce-marin. A “sailor-sucker” ?? Of course, he meant sous-marin (submarine)!
Funny misunderstandings happen when you go against social taboos: sex, bodily functions, politeness, love life… Here is some common goofs made by French learners:
Kissing chastly your sister: OK. Litteraly “baiser ma soeur”: not OK ! This is the biggest mistranslation you could ever do. To kiss = embrasser or donner un baiser. Certainly not baiser as verb (to fuck, to shag)…
English speakers are used to be “so excited” about the coming party, football game, holidays or whatever crosses their minds. But être excité(e) or saying “ça m’excite”will mean that you’re sexually aroused… (Well, you might be, after all, who knows ?)
As you know, French language differentiates u and ou: listen to the 7 videos hereafter:
I presume you were a good boy/girl last year, so I reward you with a review of some French voice synthetizer. Try the first of the ranking!
Who’s able to make the difference ?
– joli cul / joli coup
– merci beaucoup / merci beau cul
– cheveux / chevaux
– salut / salaud
2. Genre des noms
Nouns are either masculine or feminine, hence are preceded by the right article: un/une, le/la, du/de la, etc. In the heat of the conversation, most of your mistakes will be cause no misunderstandings… with the exception of some words that are homonyms: same writing and pronunciation, but different meanings due to the gender.
Un livre / une livre (a book / a pound)
Un critique / une critique (a journalist writing a critic / a critic itself)
Un mémoire / une mémoire (an essay / a memory)
Un mort / une mort (a dead / a death)
Un page / une page (a servant / a page of book)
Un politique / une politique (a politician / a policy) [la politique in general = politics]
Un secrétaire / une secrétaire (a piece of furniture / a secretary) [un secrétaire can be a male secretary, though]
Un espace / une espace (a space, a gap / a blank [typography])
Un carpe / une carpe (carpus [anatomy] / a carp [fish]
A no-brainer in French, although natives speaking English do more and more often the mistake: never capitalize the names of languages. Unlike English, only names of country and people take a capital letter. The names of religion and all adjectives never take it.
RIGHT: un Français, un Américain, un Wolof, un Bruxellois, un Tutsi, un Grec… (nationalities, tribes, inhabitants of a city…)
RIGHT: un médecin français, un président américain, un temple grec… (adjectives)
RIGHT: le français, l’espagnol, le breton, le latin, l’espéranto… (languages)
RIGHT: le christianisme, le bouddhisme, le judaïsme… Exception: l’Islam (religion)
4. Offensive animals
Animal lovers, take care! Speaking about your lovely female kitten in French will probably spark bursts of laugh in your audience Mesdemoiselles, please be informed that ma petite chatte is just… inappropriate, to say the least (my little pussycat). Even though your cat just went under the rain or is peculiarly hairy, should I insist on ma petite chatte toute mouillée or ma petite chatte poilue being extremely vulgar ? (my little wet pussycat, my little furry pussycat) Be very careful when talking about cats -^_^-
A less obvious confusion: connnard/canard. Whatever your opinion on hunters or on farmers, a duck (canard) has nothing to do with a jerk, jackass or bastard (connard).
Messieurs, une biche applies as well to your gorgeous female coworker/neighbour/friend (not in front of her, of course)… as to a doe (female of the deer).
The lethal letter: do you prefer a soup of poisson or poison ? The first tastes simply like fish (poisson), the latter sends you to demise.
5. French accent
In those times where your first words written in French will probably pass by a keyboard, you may find it difficult to type the accents. Pleeeeease keep in mind this simple phrase: accents are not optional! They indicate a different pronunciation of the letter (specially the E).
Pay attention to distinguish between ou (or) and où (where). Uneducated or unattentive natives make the mistake, too: don’t imitate them!
The churchgoers will be attentive to pêcher/pècher (however pronounced identically): je vais aller pêcher means I’m going to catch some fish, while je vais aller pécher means I’m going to sin…
Do you prefer get a task or a stain ? The answer is one accent away: tache is a stain, a mark, a spot of color, while tâche is a task, a job.
Quite seldom, you can meet dû : the past participle of devoir, and the only conjugated form to have an accent on it. Du means simply “of” (sing. masc.).
Finally, in restaurant I would definitely recommand to order a plate of pâtes and some biscuits salés, instead of a full plate of pâté and some biscuits sales… You might enjoy it more! Pâtes=pasta; pâté=pâté. Sales=dirty; salés=salty. Big thanks to Corentin at Lexiophiles for the insight!