Getting to know the family in French


Mother’s Day at the end of May is soon followed by Father’s Day in June. The French don’t need prompting. Both days are opportunities to gather all the family together for Sunday lunch at a favourite restaurant.

Meals, as everybody knows, are sacrosanct in France and most families usually eat the daily evening meal together. Occasions when the extended family can be together for a special meal are therefore particularly prized.

When invited to one of these meals as an outsider, or when first introduced as a potential future member, it can all be a bit overwhelming though. Who is who? Who is married to whom? Which children are whose? Your smile may become somewhat fixed as you try to construct a family tree in your head as you are introduced to everyone. Luckily, that revision session with a family member in the car on the way to the restaurant will give you a head start, as will knowing the French words for the different family relationships.

Father, introduced as ‘papa’ or ‘mon père’ by one of the children, will refer to his wife as ‘ma femme’ or ‘mon épouse’, the latter term being more formal. Mother will be ‘maman’ or ‘ma mère’ and she will introduce her husband as ‘mon mari’ or ‘mon époux’.

Siblings will introduce each other by first names and the explanation ‘mon frère’ or ‘ma sœur’ or by using the slang terms ‘mon frangin’ or ‘ma frangine’. Sometimes they will release a little more information, ‘mon frère aîné’ or ‘ma petite sœur’ which will help you establish the pecking order.

Aunts and uncles, ‘ma tante’ and ‘mon oncle’, nephews and nieces, ‘mon neveu’ and ‘ma nièce’ and cousins, ‘mon cousin’ or ‘ma cousine’ are easy, as long as they come in reasonable quantities. Note that, if an occasion is specifically for cousins to get together, it will be referred to as ‘une cousinade’. So far so good?

Ahead lies a potential minefield. Is ‘ma belle-mère’ really someone’s mother-in-law or a stepmother. The French term doesn’t make the distinction. Similarly, ‘mon beau-fils’ or ‘ma belle-fille’ can be either a son-in-law or a daughter-in-law or refer to stepchildren. When families are now often ‘des familles recomposées’ it’s best to be circumspect. You can be grateful therefore to the person who uses the term ‘mon gendre’. That is definitely a son-in-law. ‘Mon beau-frère’ and ‘’ma belle-sœur’ are also clearly brother-in-law and sister-in-law, otherwise it would be ‘mon demi-frère’ or ‘ma demi-sœur’ if they were half-brother or -sister.

Be careful not to repeat the term ‘la belle-doche’ if somebody uses it for a mother-in-law, it’s not particularly flattering. Be aware too that ‘mon beauf’ is also a familiar way of referring to a brother-in-law and doesn’t only mean a middle-class, narrow-minded person as in general usage.

Be quick as well to pick up on a woman introducing her partner as ‘mon compagnon’ or a man referring to‘ma compagne’. It means they are not actually married although they many have been together for many years. Same-sex couples will also use these terms to introduce their partners.

As for grandparents, ‘les grands-parents’, you will hear the younger generations introducing them as ‘ma grand-mère’ and ‘mon grand-père’. They will refer to them directly in a variety of ways ranging, for grandfathers, from the somewhat formal ‘grand-père’ to the more usual ‘papy’ or more old-fashioned ‘pépé’. Nowadays, grandmother is usually ‘mamie’ or is called by an affectionate nickname.

Those who have married into the family are often collectively and mockingly referred to as ‘les pièces rapportées’, literally inserts or patches. If you are to become one of them, you will be referred to as someone’s ‘copain’ or ‘copine’. But then again that could just mean you are simply a friend. ‘Mon petit ami’ or ‘ma petite amie’ makes the relationship clearer, but the terms are now less used by younger people. Of course, if the relationship has been formalised then you will be ‘mon fiancé’ or ‘ma fiancée’.

Once you have sorted out who is who, you will have progressed considerably, but the battle is not over. You will also need to work out when to use ‘tu’ or ‘vous’. Play safe and use ‘vous’ to everybody other than children. If somebody of your own generation uses ‘tu’ with you, you can respond in kind, but if an older person does, then it’s best to carry on using ‘vous’ unless they request you to do otherwise.

Family members usually use ‘tu’ to each other, although the older generations may use ‘vous’ to those who have married into the family and vice versa. The degree of formality varies from family to family. In general, the greater the generation gap, the more likelihood that individuals who have married into the family will stick with ‘vous’, particularly if they are addressing grandparents or indeed any great-grandparents, ‘les arrière-grands-parents’, who may still be around.

When that is the case, it means that not only will you need to identify the grandchildren, ‘les petits-enfants’, but also the great-grandchildren, ‘les arrière-petits-enfants’. At that stage you may decide that the nuclear family is not such a bad thing after all!

You can learn more about French families and when to use ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ in ‘Meeting the French’, a Kolibri Languages Practical Guide, available in print.

Pam Bourgeois


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