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French vocabulary - tricks for English speakers

by Geoffrey Barto

English as a springboard to French.

The connection between English and French becomes pretty obvious when we look at a word like "rouge". In French, it means "red"; in English it's the stuff you put on your cheeks to make them red. Few English speakers have much trouble learning the French word for "red" once they've made the connection.

Connecting French and English words that are spelled identically is usually easy (though beware the false cognates). But what do you do with a word like "chat"? You could spend all day trying to figure out why the "chat" was chasing the mouse. But if you knew that a lot of words start with "ch" in French when they start with "c" in English, you could try changing the "ch" to "c" in order to get "cat". Such tricks are not foolproof, of course, but when they work, they give you an easy way of associating a word in French with a word you already know in English. This not only helps you figure out words giving you trouble; it gives you an association of the sort that will make learning French vocabulary easier.

In the long run, of course, serious students of French will simply think of a cat when they see the word "chat" - there will be no conversion involved. But on the way to having the word down pat, it's a lot easier to think "chat... that's almost like cat" than it is to look it up. And having the association will make it enough easier to remember that the word will come automatically with far less effort.

This page is intended to teach English speaking students of French how to puzzle out French words that are giving them trouble and build strong associations for remembering them later. Remember, the tricks aren't foolproof, so confirm your hunch before you hand in your French homework. But if your hunch was right, you'll have a stronger association with the word the next time you meet it and a better way of remembering it the next time you meet it.

A final note for teachers (and students) ever fearful of doing things the easy way. These aren't really tricks. These tips represent a simplified, practical application for what historical linguistics has taught us about the interrelation of French and English at different points in history. Our first tip - about the circumflex - works because of the way medieval monks copied manuscripts to stay true to Latin while accurately representing the language of the common people. The monks put in a circumflex where the emerging French language left out a letter that had been there in Latin or early French. Since English got a lot of words from Latin or Old French, restoring the "s" gives you the word the way it was when English took it on.

Enough of theory though. On to the tricks:

(Note that in the examples, "v" represents an unspecified vowel.)

The circumflex ("^"): Put an "s" after the letter with a circumflex.
hôpital = hoSpital, pâté = paSty

-MENT becomes -LY:
rapideMENT = rapidLY, fataleMENT = fatalLY

-(ISS)ANT becomes -ING (-ISSANT may become -ISHING):
aidANT (helping) = aidING, regardANT (watching) = regardING, finISSANT = finISHING

"CH" becomes "C" at the beginning of a word:
CHat = Cat, CHapeau = Cap

"É" becomes "S" at the beginning of a word:
École = School, Étudiant = Student

The "U"s and the "L"s: When you have a vowel or vowels followed by "u", the "u" (and sometimes, some of the preceding vowels) becomes "l".

  • "U" becomes "L":
    veaU = veaL, peaU (skin) = peaL
  • v1v2U becomes v1L:
    CHâteaU = CaSteL (the old spelling of castle)
  • vUX becomes vLS:
    nationaUX = nationaL(S), CHâteaUX = CaSteLS

Note that the interplay between U and L also explains why the handsome suitor is a beaU, his lovely lady is a beLLe, and the two of them are possessed of beaUty ("beauté" in French).

-ER and -IR and other endings drop giving an English word:
regardER = regard, quittER = to quit (to leave), partir = part

-IR and related endings become -ISH:
ternIR = tarnISH, finIR = finISH, ravIR = ravISH

-IR and related endings change to -E to give a French adjective. Decode the adjective:
brunIR becomes brunE (brown) so brunIR means "to brown" or "to turn brown".
rougIR becomes rougE (red) so rougIR means "to turn red" or "blush".

-FIER becomes -FY:
justiFIER = justiFY

G/GU becomes W:
Garde-robe = Wardrobe, GUerre = War

dangerEUX/EUSE = dangerOUS, libellEUX/EUSE = libelOUS.

actEUR = actOR, vendEUR/vendEUSE (salesperson) = vendOR

actRICE = actRESS, séductRICE = seductRESS

-vIT/-vIRE = vCT:
faIT = faCT, conduIRE (drive) = conduCT
(NB: parfaIT = perfeCT, séduIRE = seduCE)

For more decoding tricks, see the second lesson.

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