Ask a Frenchman Posts

September 4, 2011 / / France and the World

(asked by Carina from Portugal)


Dear Frenchman,
I’ve just discovered your blog and I’m finding your answers much more engaging than I was expecting to. In a matter of minutes you’ve managed to stimulate my curiosity concerning France in a way I didn’t think possible until this very moment and that, obviously, had as consequence an explosion of questions inside my mind, so I just couldn’t keep quiet, could I? As a well behaved reader, instead of storming into asking a bunch of questions you could have already answered, I made a little research and, much to my amusement, I found this “I cheer for France only when they play teams I hate (Italy and Portugal mostly, because they can’t play without cheating)” – the word I searched for was “Portugal”, being that I am Portuguese and, therefore, was intending to ask something related to my country – anyway, what I find so amusing about your statement is that when it comes to football, most Portuguese people think exactly the same thing about the French team (oh! The irony!). From what I know, in Portugal, this opinion applies only to football, but I couldn’t help but wonder if your statement extends to Portugal in general. What do French people think of Portugal/Portuguese people? Do they think of us, at all? I am particularly interested in this topic, because in the seventies France was flooded by Portuguese immigrants and I wonder if you think of us as an annoyance. The only thing I happen to know is that some Frenchmen claim that Portuguese women have mustaches! I had mixed feelings when I heard that, but mostly it made me laugh, seriously, what kind of women have they met?
Anyway, I really like it here, so I’ll pass by often.
Portuguese Woman Without A Mustache (shame, they are so in nowadays)

August 16, 2011 / / Language


(asked by Jennifer from the US)

I have been to Paris several times and I make an attempt to speak French whenever possible. Apparently, my pronunciation is very good; they are invariably surprised that I am American. However, I am terrible at comprehending anything beyond a simple response, for example “ça coûte 25€” or “les w.c. sont là.” So what happens is that I will say something, they will respond in rapid-fire French, and I freeze, because I’m not actually fluent. I will respond with something like, “désolé, mon français est terrible, est-ce que nous pouvons parler anglais?” Usually they will smile and switch to English but I wonder what they really think.

Should I not speak French at all if I can’t understand anything more than simple responses? If they answer in French and I don’t understand it, what should I say?

July 24, 2011 / / Culture
July 16, 2011 / / Living in France



Seth is moving to Paris (although to be fair, I got this e-mail months ago, he may have moved there already) and he has a few questions and concerns. Here they are:

I am an American (I’m a single male, and in my mid 20’s if that helps you conceptualize me), and I have been given a great professional opportunity within the company I work for. As you might have guessed, this opportunity involves me moving to Paris. I know that there are about a million Americans out there thinking how lucky I am, but I have some serious concerns over the move. My hope was that you could give me your thoughts on some of my main trepidations.


Ok, I’ll do that.


Paris by Night

However, first of all, my first advice would be to stop putting two spaces after each period. This is a pain in my ass while I’m editing your text.

June 25, 2011 / / Habits

(asked by Nicolette from California)

I was in a relationship with a French guy. The relationship was very good here in CA. So, he invited me to France to spend Christmas with his family, meet his parents, etc. I was excited about this, and accepted.
I arrived to meet a very wealthy family.
During my seven week stay (in their secondary house) I was invited into the big house for 2 meals with them, a lunch on my 5th day there, and the Christmas meal.
That pretty much sums it up for social time with his family.
There were no conversations with me. I stayed for five weeks after Christmas.
I may have taken this personally if they had come to know me AT ALL, but that didn’t happen. (…) So, basically, I want to know if this was a cultural “norm” for this social class in France. Was this a cultural difference? What should I know here? Any cultural explanation you can give on this topic is greatly appreciated.

June 20, 2011 / / Habits


(asked by Anat from Israel)

I’m a single mom of 2 boys ( twins), 6+ years old. (I’m divorced but their father isn’t active in raising them)
I’ve worked in hi-tech for many years and recently was suggested to relocate from my work to Paris for 2 years. (I live in Israel)
Beside the amazing work opportunity for me and the great experience for the kids, I worry about being a single mom in a foreign, maybe even hustle environment.
My question is what do you know about the French people/government approach for single mom, liberal ? conservative ?

Thanks in advance

Mother and Child (source: Wikimedia Commons)Hi Anat,

First of all, a little side note about being careful (you, me and everyone else) with “general political terms” when talking about different countries. What I mean here is that words like liberal and conservative have very different meanings from country to country (one can add socialist, republican, democrat, libertarian and many more to the list).

In France, the word conservative is very rarely used (in a French context that is) while the word liberal means only one thing and that is economically liberal, that is in favor of a society that is as capitalistic as possible with as little government involvement as possible, in other words conservative in an English-speaking context!

That being said, I’m not sure what your definitions of those words are, but I will assume that in the Israeli context, liberal means “normal sane people” and conservative means “religious nuts”.

In that case, rejoice, we have very few religious nuts in France. I definitely think that there are way too many, their number seems to be growing by the day, but it’s still way below what you can encounter in many countries, Israel included.

June 2, 2011 / / Habits
May 26, 2011 / / Language

I was always curious how this can be that so much would be borrowed from French if English has 1 million words and French has, what, maybe 100,000 tops? Rome invaded England before France did, and there were also the Danish, Norwegian, Greek and Dutch influences, and also English is a Germanic language itself, closest to the endangered language Frisian.

(asked by Diane)

Well, we’re straying away from French stuff here as we’re going to talk about the English language mostly, but as it’s a topic that I love, bear with me.

William the Conqueror
William the Great Importer of French Words in the English Language (source Wikimedia)

Let’s start by getting your numbers correct. Whoever told you that English has one million words was clearly delusional (or a bit too biased?). While it’s hard to count the number of words in any language, especially with languages like English that can create new words easily by linking two words (is “hot-dog” one word or two?), here is what the Oxford Dictionary has to say about it:

“171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries.”

A few lines later, after having added a few types of words (technical terms and such) they conclude by “a quarter of a million distinct English words”.
I feel that this is a realistic number. Of course, I’m sure one can get to one million when adding concatenated words (that’s “hot-dog”), words from dialects (which are clearly not English as they’re dialects), words from old English and whatnot, one can get to a million, but let’s stay realistic here and let’s stick to English (no dialects) and contemporary English (no obsolete words), and let’s say 250,000 words.

Among those words, a conservative estimate for the number of words from French origins is about 50% (although the truth may be closer to 60% if not 70%, but let’s stay conservative on this topic). And no, I don’t separate French words and Latin words as some statistics do, for two reasons:

  • Latin words came to the English language through French and France  during the Middle Ages. French was simply the everyday language while Latin was the scholarly language, but they were spoken by the same people (that’s the ones who were educated) and those are the same people that brought both to England.
  • This separation obviously comes from the fact that there’s a will to diminish the importance of French (and of France) in the English language as well as the will to make English closer to Latin. Funny how Centuries later, Latin still has this aura of superiority and whatnot.

As far as French is concerned, it seems harder to find an accurate number. The very web 1.0 French Academy’s website stays as vague as it can and mentions the number of words found in dictionaries (a number which has nothing to do with the actual number of existing words), other websites here and there give numbers ranging from 30,000 to 100,000. This huge discrepancy comes most likely from the fact that French language Talibans would rather blow themselves up than accept words like “parking” as French words.
In any case, it’s a fact that French has fewer words than English, and yes it is true that English is most likely the language that has the highest number of words in the world.

Don’t get too cocky though, this doesn’t mean anything in terms of richness of a language and let’s not even think about going in the direction of “superiority”.

What it tells us is one thing and one thing only: English is a “mutt language” finding its origins from many other languages; also it is one of the languages that accepts the most easily foreign words and brand new words in its lexicon.

However, in the end of the end of the day, the average English speaker can spend his/her entire life using only 3,000 to 6,000 of those words. Same goes for the average French speaker and the average speaker of many languages.

I know, I haven’t really started to answer the question yet. I’m getting there.