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Why French Language Can Look So Weird

 

March 20th is the « Journée internationale de la francophonie », or “International Francophonie Day.” What better way to kick-off the celebrations than by demystifying a couple things about French language that can look strange or bizarre to someone who doesn’t speak French.

Often times, we’ll get translation requests from clients who are not familiar with the language they’re getting their documents translated into. Makes sense, right? They don’t know the language, which is why they call us to help. Sometimes, that can lead to confusing and funny situations. When the language you know follows certain rules and looks a certain way on paper, it can be quite shocking to see it be done in a different way. French is no exception to the rule. French is a crazy and complicated language, it changes its mind out of nowhere for no good reasons. Have you ever tried learning French verb conjugation? Then you know the struggle.

So, because French is so unique and – dare we say eccentric (oh, oui) – we’ve built up a list of grammar rules look strange to a non-French speaking eye. Also, please keep in mind that some rules can differ with Canadian French and European French. We are mostly referring to Canadian French for the purpose of this article. Let’s get started!

 

Quotation Marks

First off, one of the questions we get asked probably most often when returning a French translation is in regards to the quotation marks. Yes, even the darn quotation marks are different. French uses “guillemets” – ah, shoot! No, not those guys! It uses « guillemets » (ah, there you go). Also, you may have notice there’s a space before and after each mark, no mistake there.  The quotation marks are separated from the expression by a non-breaking space.

English
“To be or not to be”

French
« Être ou ne pas être »

What’s a non-breaking space?

A non-breaking space is your best friend if you’re writing anything coherent in French. They are used before and after many punctuation signs. These can also look tricky to a non-French speaking eye as they may look like a space introduced by mistake.

English
For example:

French
Par exemple :

Accents

There are several different types of accents that are used when writing in French. In most cases a French accent is used to change the sound of the letter it is added to. Depending on the type of accent, and the letter it’s attached to, the effect it has on the word can change. The accent aigu “´”, the accent grave “`”, the accent circonflexe “ˆ”, the accent tréma “¨” and the cédille “¸” are the different types of accents you will find in French.

English
Student, French, corn, soon, theme

French
Étudiant, français, maïs, bientôt, thème

Dollar Sign

In English, when writing money amounts the dollar sign always comes before the amount and is not separated with a space. But in French, the dollar sign comes after the amount with a non-breaking space separating both. Also, decimals have no place in numbers that are written in French.

English
$20

French
20 $

Decimal Points

In English, a period is used as a decimal marker while a comma or a space is used to separate three numbers. But in French and many other languages, a comma indicates a decimal. When writing in or reading French, this is important to know because a misplaced comma can seriously change what you’re trying to say.

English
0.75

French
0,75

Capitalization

French and English capitalization is quite different. Many words that are capitalized in English aren’t actually capitalized in French. While the English language capitalizes the names of days of the week and months of the year, French does not.

English
January

French
janvier

This also applies to geographical words and languages.

English
Mediterranean Sea

French
la mer Méditerranée

French adjectives that are referring to nationalities aren’t capitalized, but proper nouns are. The names of most religions, their proper nouns and their adjectives are not capitalized in French with a few exceptions.

English
Christianity

French
le christianisme

Cognates

When translating a document from English to French, you may notice some words that are spelt, sound and look like English, but in reality, the words are French. These are called cognates.  Cognates are words that have similar pronunciation, spelling and meanings in two different languages. So, you might think there’s an English word in your French document but trust us here at wintranslation, there isn’t.

English
Accident

French
Accident

E dans l’o

Something that always seems strange to non-French speakers, is when the letters “o” and “e” are stuck together like, “oe.” In French, the two letters are combined together and form a single syllable. To those who don’t speak French it may look strange, but in French it would be weird if it wasn’t there.

English
Sister

French
Sœur

Another thing to keep in mind is that most of the time when translating a document from English to French, the length of the documents may change. Typically, the French translation will end up being longer than the source English text, this can be explained by the rules in French and the complexity of the language. Similarly, though less common, the French version can also be shorter. We’d give you an example, but we don’t want to make it too long for you!

So now that we’ve cleared up a few things, your French translation should look a bit more “normal” to you. Let us know what else you’ve noticed that may have looked strange to you at first glance that we missed. Still not sure? Let us know how we can help!

 

Frédérique Mantha

Frédérique Mantha is a graduate from the University of Ottawa, from which she holds a BA in Translation with Specialization in French-Spanish-English. As an Account Manager, she manages several French and multilingual clients. Frédérique also continues to translate into her mother tongue French; she does volunteer translations for TED among other projects. She also dedicates some of her time to writing blog articles and creative content. Before joining the team at her current position, Frédérique completed a Recruitment Internship at wintranslation, having gone through the experience herself, today she effectively manages our growing internship program.

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