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The use of “VOUS” versus “TU” — in EUROPE – Post 1 of 2 (#268)

Introduction to the use of “vous” and “tu”

A good number of the followers of this blog are Anglophone Canadians who are learning French.  Many people are following these posts to gain additional cultural insight as they integrate more and more of our Canadian Francophone culture into their English-dominant lives.

Anglophones who are learning French often have a good deal of questions regarding the use of “vous” and “tu”.  I have been giving a good deal of thought on how to describe the use of “vous” and “tu” in a Canadian and Québec context.

In Europe, there exist more concrete and tangible rules regarding their use than here in Canada.

On this side of the Atlantic, you almost have to “feel” the situation out, and make a “judgement call” as to whether or not to tutoie or vousvoie (to use “tu” or “vous”) with the person to whom you are speaking.

It’s not as tricky as it sounds if you regularly live or interact in French.  This is because the correct use of vocabulary becomes a natural reflex the more you use it (and the more you hear it being used).   Thus, for those of us who consistently interact with others in French, we “naturally” known when and where to use “vous” or “tu”.

But for those who are learning French, it must often feel like an adventure of epic proportions; one of trial and error, sometimes with a little uncertainty.

Fortunately, it need not be.  There are a number of loose rules you can use to get by until you develop a firmer feel for the “concept” (and never forget that in Canada, the use of “tu” and “vous” is just that:  a concept – thus there is a relative amount of flexibility when choosing to use of “tu” or “vous”).

Before I try to explain how and when to use “tu” and “vous” in Canada and Québec, let us first look at how “tu” and “vous” is used in Europe.   By extension, the European rules also apply in the many countries which comprise Francophone Africa (I lived and worked for a period in Africa, and I can confirm that Africa uses “tu” and “vous” in the same context as Europeans).

The EUROPEAN use of “TU” and “VOUS”

I asked the author and blogger, William Alexander, to contribute a guest post to explain the EUROPEAN use of “tu” and “vous” His works have been featured in publications as diverse as L’Actualité (the French counterpart of Maclean’s), the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times (several times), the Washington Post, Bloomberg TV, and many other prestigious media outlets.

William Alexander is also the author of the well-selling book “Flirting with French”.  His book has been featured on the New York Times best-sellers’ list.   If you have an interest in French, I’d encourage you to check out his book.

(Click to englarge)

Flirting with French

His blog can be found here:  http://www.thefrenchblog.com/

The following is William Alexander’s gracious contribution to this blog post. (Thanks very much Bill!  Much appreciated).


Guest Contribution by William Alexander

Asking me to contribute to a blog that attempts to bridge the cultural divide between French and English speakers is like inviting an arsonist to a campfire, but I’ve been asked, so I’ll try to forget the 13 months I recently spent not learning French and discuss one of my favorite topics: navigating the hazardous waters of vous and tu.

First, a little background: Until the fourth century, Latin (from which, of course, French is derived) had only one form of the third person singular: tu, as in, “Et tu, Brute?” Thus addressing other people (even those who’d just stabbed you) was easy until the Roman empire split into two, with Eastern and Western emperors ruling from Constantinople and Rome. The two emperors wanted to make it clear that, although separated by a thousand miles, they spoke with a single voice, so they each started to refer to themselves in the plural (“We decree that…” or even “We’d like a cup of coffee.”) Well, it didn’t take long for everyone else to figure out that if your boss refers to himself in the plural (however bizarrely), you’d better follow suit, so the emperors’ subjects started to refer to each emperor using the plural “you,” vos. This made the pope jealous, so he demanded to be called vos, and, predictably, the kings followed suit, and then the nobles, and the not-so-nobles, as the custom filtered down through society until (and we’ll move the story to France here) French peasants, at the bottom rung of the social ladder, demanded that their children start calling them “vous.”

France, in particular, has turned this business into a bit of a fetish, with social rules so complicated that, as Mary Blume once pointed out in the International Herald Tribune, “Foreigners can’t hope to master the intricacies of the tu and vous forms of address because the French can’t either.” But fear not: For my book, Flirting with French, I drew up this foolproof flowchart to help you navigate these treacherous waters.

Note that these rules were written for France: In Canada, you have a slightly different set of unfathomable rules, so adapt as needed — but you’re used to doing that!

(CLICK the diagram to ENLARGE)

tu versus vous


With the above introduction and explanation of the EUROPEAN use of “tu” and “vous” behind us, the next post will look at the CANADIAN and QUÉBEC use of “tu” and “vous”.

Click here for the next post:





RadioEGO – Québec’s audio equivalent of a “Talk-radio YouTube” (#267)

This post can help to provide you with additional audio material if :

  1. You are looking for various opinion-pieces to help round out your views about what many people are talking about in Québec, and
  1. If you are learning French, working to improve your French, or are are looking to improve your comprehension of (a) informal French, (b) Joual, (c) street expressions, (d) every-day colloquial accents.

RadioEGO (Ego Radio) is a website which accepts and collates submissions of short radio segments and interviews from around Québec’s world of radio – be it mainstream professional radio stations, or amateur web-based “radio” stations.   The segments are made available for everyone to listen to.

In this sense, RadioEGO could be the equivalent of a “Québec Radio YouTube”.

The website is http://www.radioego.com/

When you open the main page, you will notice it is divided into three sections.   You can chose segments from any of the three sections.   There is also a “search” option for any topic of your choice (just like YouTube).  You can open additional pages at the bottom of each of the three main sections.

Radio EGO

If you search for “culture”, for example, you will get a ton of segments.  The results can be quite varied (ie: an interview with the minister of culture, or a segment about a cut in funding to a music conservatory, or perhaps a segment about a summer concert, etc.).  The same goes for any type of topic search.

A growing number of people have started their own “amature” radio stations – and they turn to RadioEGO as a platform on which to post various segments of their radio programs.

There are also other people who are well-known to the public (such as the columnist and blogger Joanne Marcotte) who are regularly invited guests on mainstream radio stations (such as Québec City’s CHOI FM), and who also post their radio-segments on RadioEGO’s website.

Certain mainstream radio stations, such as talk radio Radio9 in Montréal, talk radio CHOI FM (Radio X) in Québec City, 93FM (Québec City), CKOI FM (Montréal) will also post segments of their radio programs (there are other mainstream radio stations which also post their segments)

What is good about this website is that you can sift through tons of radio segments to listed precise topics of interest.

Example:  Let’s say you’ve been following the Parti Québécois leadership race… you may find the radio interviews of Pierre Karle Péladeau, Bernard Drainville, or Alexandre Cloutier to be of interest (all three were leadership contenders).  The audio segments have self-evident titles “Interview with Alexandre Cloutier” or “PKP” or “Drainville”.   The date is provided, as well as the number of other people who have listened to the audio clip (ie:  if you see that 3500 other people have listened to the clip in the last week, chances are that the clip is much more interesting than one which was listened to by only 15 listeners).

Topics are all over the map:  Politics, sports, society, and economics – you name it.

A WORD OF CAUTION:  The contributors are radio columnists/opinion-makers.   None of the programs are to be considered unbiased or objective (although you will run across some interviews and programs which try to bring a more balanced approach).   The website is open to all who wish to contribute their radio programs and segments, but the tendency is that programs are most often a bit towards the right (although there are programs / segments which are a bit more in the centre, and sometimes further on the left end of the spectrum).

With that said, I think there is still something for everyone.  I’m a firm believer that it’s always good to listen to all points of view from all over the spectrum.   That’s how you round out and form your own views, thus allowing you to feel better informed and more comfortable in your own viewpoints.

Bonne écoute !!!

Gettin’ vulgar! This ain’t no picture book for the kiddies! – Part 6 (#244)

The past five posts explored our swear words in French.  In my opinion, they are one of the most unique and instantly recognizable things about Canada and Québec.

If you’d like a little visual context regarding their origins, here is a little picture dictionary I threw together (seriously… who out there does not like pictures?).

But this little picture-dictionary is not the type you’ll find on the shelves of the elementary school library.

Hopefully you found this six-part series on obscenities to be interesting… and I hope it didn’t send you into convulsions, or lead to you being struck with a lightning bolt as you read it.  (If you did get hit by lightning, sorry about that — but the new hair style is all the rage these days!)

I’ll be better behaved for the next posts (promise) 😉















Sai1 sim1







Gettin’ down ‘n vulgar! – Swears SAI to V – Part 5 (#243)

WARNING:   These few posts are not suitable for minors.  They contain quite explicit vocabulary.

This post gives the remaining list of common French swear words you’ll likely encounter in Québec and elsewhere in Canada.

At this point I’d like to share a little anecdote.  I wish to provide you with yet one more reason why it is important to understand the nature of these words and to be able to recognize them (and use them properly, or avoid using them altogether).

My university was a Francophone university in Edmonton (Le Campus St-Jean, which operates as its own university, although it was affiliated with the U of A).   A portion of the student body was made up of Anglophones, in addition to the pan-Canadian and international Francophone student body.

In our demographics course we were given a large research assignment which took a year to complete.  It was a killer of an assignment, and everyone worked themselves into the ground.  D-Day came, and the professor handed back our assignment grade results one-by-one.

One Anglophone student in our class had a fairly good level of French (good enough to do her university studies 100% in French), but she had some difficulties with informal spoken French (she spoke literary French, since that is the French she learned in school).   I recall she was afraid she was going to fail the assignment.  But when she received her paper back with an “A”, she yelled out (in French) to the professor “F*** me!! I got an “A”!  I didn’t see that coming!” (Mon câlisse de sacrement! J’ai poigné un A!! J’en reviens pas!!!)

OOOOOPS!!!!   I don’t think that’s what she meant to say.  I think she wanted to use a word which meant “WOW!” or something like that — but that’s not how it came out.  She basically mixed up the swear words and chose the wrong ones. Thank goodness she already received her grade (The professor looked less than impressed after he got over his initial look of shock).

Moral of the story:  Just because you hear other people say words which add “emphasis” on a regular basis, do not attempt them yourself unless you truly know what they mean.   In other words, become familiar with the list of words I’m providing to you before you attempt to use any of them yourself.   🙂

A short reminder before we get back into it…

NOTE 1:  In the examples below, it is difficult to give an exact translation for every word.   I’ve therefore given the closest approximates with respect to their degree of impact.  That is why I list more than one English equivalent after most words.

NOTE 2:  Underneath the main words, I also list the “toned-down / softened” versions of the words.   These are versions of the main swear word which are considered to be milder, and more acceptable to a wider audience.   In English, the equivalent might be the transformation of “F&@#” to “Fudge”, or “Damn” to “Darn” (the latter words which could be acceptable, even on television).

THE FINAL LIST: SAI to V (the end)

Saint bénisse – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saint Christ – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saint Christ – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saint ciboire – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saint ciboire aux deux étages – Christ almighty!,  Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saint esprit – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saint hostie – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saint PKP – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saint sacrament – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saint sacrifice – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saint sacripant – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saint sicrisse – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saint sicroche – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saint tabarnac – Christ almighty!  Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Sainte – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Sainte viarge – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Saintosti – Christ almighty!, Christ!,  Jesus Christ!

Salament – Shit!, Damn it!, God damn it!, Piss!

Saprement – Shit!, Damn it!, God damn it!, Piss!

Shit – Shit!, Damn it!, God damn it!, Piss!

Simonac –  Son of a gun!, Shit!, Damn!

This one is quite common (perhaps in the top 10).   You will even hear it on the radio.

TABARNAK – The King of all swear words.

This is the WORST and STRONGEST swear word you can possibly say in Québec and Canada – period.

I would even venture to say it’s stronger than the English F-word.

It is best to avoid this word altogether unless you break your toe, your dog gets ran over, you accidentally shoot your best friend in a hunting accident, or you accidentally fall down a man-hole when walking down the street.

Personally, (and contrary to what you might be thinking) I don’t swear very much, but I will pitch some of the milder swears from time-to-time…   And all-in-all, it does not bother me much when others occasionally swear (we’re all human after all).  Nor does it bother me when I hear this word in mild moderation.   But there are those individuals out there who seem to chose to insert this word between every third word from their mouth (you know the type… there are also these types of people in English who drop the F-bomb five times in every sentence – sentence after sentence).

Saying this word in excess will just make you look like the dumbest of  idiots.   If you want to be labelled a crass, uncouth and uncivilized hick, by all means feel free to use this word.   But be prepared to suffer the consequences and be judged by those around you.

My recommendation:  Use some of the “softer” versions of the word below.  Some are completely unoffensive, and are regularly heard on the radio, TV, by politicians, and yes, even Celine Dion has been heard to say them in public with a smile.   The most common one is “Tabarwatte“.  The next most common “softened” version is “Tabernouche“.

  • Barnak
  • Barnaque
  • Barnique
  • Barouette
  • Batarnak
  • Kakernak
  • Tab
  • Taber
  • Tabarnache
  • Tabarnam
  • Tabarnik
  • Tabarnouche
  • Tabarouatte
  • Tabarsac
  • Tabarslac
  • Tabarwatte
  • Tabernache
  • Tabernouche
  • Taboire

Tabarnak aux deux étages“F*** it all to hell!”   STRONG, AVOID if at all possible.

Tabarnak percé – “For F***’s sake”, “F*** it!”.  STRONG, AVOID if possible

Torvice – Shit!, Damn it!, God damn it!, Piss!

  • Torgieu
  • Torna
  • Tornon
  • Toron
  • Torrienne
  • Torrieu
  • Torvis
  • Toryabe

Trou de cul – Ass hole.

Exact same meaning, emphasis and poignancy as it’s English counterpart.

  • Trou de PQ

Vas te crosser avec une poignée de clous –  F*** off!

(litterally:  go jack off with a handful of nails)

Vas te crosser avec une poignée de clous rouillés – F*** off!

(litterally:  go jack off with a handful of rusty nails)

Vas te crosser avec une poignée de poignée de braquettes – F*** off!

(litterally:  go jack off with a handful of gears)

Vas te faire chier – Screw off!

(litterally:  “Go shit”, or “Go shit yourself!”)

Vas te faire – Screw off!

(litterally:  Go do yourself!)

Viarge – God damn it!, For Christ’s sake!

  • Vargenie
  • Viargenie

Varlope – Son of a bitch!, Shit!, F***!

Verasse – Son of a bitch!, Shit!, Damn it!

  • Véreux

Verrat – Son of a bitch!, Shit!, Damn it!

  • Vérue

Viande à chien – Piece of shit

  • Tas de merde
  • Tas de marde

—– —– —– —– —– —– —–

That wraps up the vocabulary list.  Hopefully it will help you to navigate swear words in oral French which you are likely to encounter when listening to people on the street.

I have one last post for you in this series… a “picture-post” if you will.   See you soon!



Gettin’ down ‘n vulgar! – Swears M to SAC – Part 4 (#242)

WARNING:   These few posts are not suitable for minors.  They contain quite explicit vocabulary.

Let us continue our little adventure down the road of French swear words.   They are something which certainly adds more than just a little colour to our French in Canada and Québec.

Apart from informal talk between friends and peers, you will also tend to hear them used extensively in stand-up comedy, movies (dramas, and especially comedy movies), and literature which features Joual.

You may recall the earlier post on Elvis Gratton.  When watching the Elvis Gratton movies and television series, you would almost get the impression that every third word uttered was a vulgarity in some form or another.

I find it unfortunate when I hear learners of French say they have a difficult time understanding us in French when the language level becomes a bit more informal.   Of course, one reason is the structure and vocabulary used in Joual, but vulgarities and obscenities (swear words) certainly can throw a person off if you’re not familiar with them.

Hopefully these few posts give you some context and help to fill some of the missing gaps (I actually find it kind of awkard to write about this topic… it’s rarely written about in any depth – but all the more reason for me to cover it, and for you to hopefully find it useful 😉 ).

Reminder notes:

NOTE 1:  In the examples below, it is difficult to give an exact translation for every word.   I’ve therefore given the closest approximates with respect to their degree of impact.  That is why I list more than one English equivalent after most words.

NOTE 2:  Underneath the main words, I also list the “toned-down / softened” versions of the words.   These are versions of the main swear word which are considered to be milder, and more acceptable to a wider audience.   In English, the equivalent might be the transformation of “F&@#” to “Fudge”, or “Damn” to “Darn” (the latter words which could be acceptable, even on television).


Marde – Shit!, Damn it! Crap!

This one is interesting because it is softer than “shit” in English (which is “Merde” in French).   “Marde” is also softer than “Merde” — soft enough to the extent that you will hear it on television and the radio.   It also is used in many expressions:

  1. “Un tas de marde” (a pile of crap),
  2. “C’est de la marde” (it’s crap),
  3. “Toute cette marde” (all this crap),
  4. “Marde!” (Crap!, Damn!, Shit!).

I recommend that you try your best to replace “Merde” with “Marde” as much as possible.   It sounds better and less offensive.

Maudite merde – Shit!, Damn it!, God damn it!, Piss!

Maudit – Shit!, Damn it!, Crap!, God damn it!, Piss!

This is one of the most common curse words out there…  Right up there in the top five.

  • Mardi
  • Marois grand P
  • Maudasse
  • Maudine
  • Mausus
  • Mautadit
  • Morpion
  • Morsac
  • Motadit
  • Saudit
  • Saudine
  • Sautadites
  • Zaudit

Maudit bâtard – Damned bastard / F’ing bastard!

A bit Stronger — AVOID if possible, because it is a direct insult.

Although “Maudit” is not so serious of a word when said on its own, if you add “bâtard” after it, you’re looking for trouble (especially if you call someone this).

Maudit calvaireFor Christ’s Sake!, For F’in Sake!

RATHER STRONG, Recommend not using it.

Merde – Shit!

See “Marde” above.   It’s stronger than “Marde”, and roughly the exact same meaning, impact, and degree of acceptability (or non-acceptability) as “shit” in English.   This is also one of the most common curse words (likely in the top five).

Moses – Christ!, Damn it!, Shit!

  • Mosus

Mon… XXX –  Used to form “self-curses” by placing “Mon” in front of the curse word.

In English, there are four levels of “self-curses” which are used to give emphasis.   Examples:

  1. Least offensive could be “My Goodness”.
  2. One level up might be “My bloody luck”.
  3. A level higher might be “I’ll be damned”.
  4. The most offensive level would be “F*** me!”

French also has similar levels of “self-curses”.    Examples:

  1. Mon bonjour!
  2. Mon bon Dieu!
  3. Mon ciboire!
  4. “Mon Tabar*** !” or “Mon Câlisse!”.

The rule is this:  In Canadian French, you can pretty much add “Mon” in front of any Canadian-specific obscenity (it will work 90% of the time).    The more offensive the word to which “mon” is added, the stronger the message.   Exception:  You generally can NOT add “Mon” in front of most swear words which also exist in Europe (ie:  It does NOT work to say “Mon maudit”, “Mon pute”, “Mon foutre”, etc.)

Noune – Cuss word for vagina.

It is not quite as bad as saying “C$#%” (female genetalia) in English, but it certainly is harsher than saying “Pussy”.   It’s sort of half way between.   In Europe they say “chatte” (a female cat) – which can sometimes also be heard on this side of the Atlantic.

The funny thing is that there is even a well-known, comical song parody using this word (it has gone viral in Québec).  You can listen to it by going to its YouTube link:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYcq4nGeYu0

Ostensoir – Shit!, Damn it!, Crap!, God damn it!, Piss!

Ostensoir à pédale – Shit!, Damn it!, God damn it!, Piss!

Patente à gosse! – Shit!, Damn it!, God damn it!, Piss!

Sacré – Shit!, Damn it!, God damn it!, Piss!

Sacre bleu – Shit!, Damn it!, God damn it!, Piss!

Sacréfisse – Shit!, Damn it!, God damn it!, Piss!

Sacrement – F***!, Jesus f***ing Christ!  Quite Strong.

Generally do not use this unless you are on familiar territory with the person you are speaking.  However, this word has lost much of its punch over the last couple of decades (it was considered much stronger when I was a child than what it is now).

  • Sacrement de fesses!
  • Sacarment
  • Sace
  • Sacidoux
  • Sacramère
  • Sacripant

Sacrifice – Shit!, Damn it!, God damn it!, Piss!

The funny thing is that I used to say this one quite a bit in my teens, but I don’t anymore.  I suppose the older I got, the more I realized it sounds fairly uncouth.   But I do sometimes say the softer “Saint-Sacrifice!”.

—– —– —– —– —– —– —–

The list will continue in the next post.  Hold your tongue until then !!