Unlocking French language: sounds that only French people make

Katerina Forrester 18/11/12

I’m talking about those quirky sounds that aren’t used for the same purpose in other languages, or that are used in different ways with a mixture of different phonemes.

Therefore, when you use them in another language… they just sound wrong! A bit like when English speakers of French using ‘ummm’ instead of euh when pausing between words. We try so hard to sound fluent, but we can’t help but blurt these sounds out. They’re so intrinsic to our language behaviour

I once worked as a bartender in Lyon, France, which introduced me to the most fabulous French sounds that I had ever heard. I had never used these sounds to convey the same message in English before. In fact, if I ever performed such a movement, I would most probably do it silently.  I am speaking of the sounds hop and tac.

Katerina Forrester 18/11/12These sounds just seemed so natural when used, and through mimicking the sounds of my French colleagues, I was using them within months!  Hop is used to indicate something like ‘there!’ or ‘done!’, a bit like voilà! But I would also use it when I lifted something onto a table, put something away high on a shelf, or handed something over to someone. More closely representing a little leap or push.  You can find this in the French expression allez hop! meaning ‘let’s go!’ (with a skip and a jump).

Tac seems to mimic a ‘tap’ sound, the noise your finger makes when it touches something. As if you were typing on a computer, or touching a computer screen at work. But I also used this sound when putting an item down, or putting something away; as if it I was finalising a process.

Katerina Forrester 18/11//12
I guess they are the onomatopoeic sounds of the movements that they represent. Although it would seem crazy to use sounds like this in English.

When I moved back to Australia (only a year later), I could not stop using these sounds when serving people at work. These little, practical, silence-filling sounds had worked their way into my intrinsic behaviour, and it took months to not say them anymore. Even though I was no longer working in a French-speaking environment!

Have you ever come across these sounds before?  How have you used these sounds?  They are extremely addictive!

Image Credits:
1. Image via Geektionnerd
2. Image care of Katerina Forrester
3. Image via Guardian

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Katerina Forrester

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  1. sega10028 Dec 5, 2012 at 9:14 PM - Reply

    Thank you so much for this! I think you only notice these sounds when you’ve been around French people a lot, and often they don’t even realize they’ve made them. I used to ask my French teacher what he meant by the (what sounded to me like) “up!” sound he made as he passed out handouts in class. He’d look at me like “who me? I didn’t say anything”. I later found out it was actually spelled “hop!”. I’ve also noticed the Tac sound but didn’t really know its context until now. Thanks again!

  2. Katerina Forrester Dec 7, 2012 at 7:57 AM - Reply

    Je vous en prie! That’s a great story. You’re right, you on notice these sounds when you are really immersed in French culture, and they become so addictive. I find these two sounds so interesting, as we don’t have an exact equivalent in English. Fantastic, isn’t it?

  3. soireegirl Feb 7, 2013 at 9:36 AM - Reply

    I love your articles! The one about “quand-même” was shared and retweeted quite a bit within my network – mostly by French people!

    Which bar in Lyon did you work at? I used to live there 🙂 I am going back in July for holidays.

  4. Katerina Forrester Feb 7, 2013 at 10:01 PM - Reply

    Thank you for such a kind compliment!
    I was working at the Cosmopolitan Bar near l’Hotel de Ville
    for a year, back in 2007.
    Lyon is a beautiful city to live in! Have a wonderful
    trip 🙂

  5. soireegirl Feb 8, 2013 at 4:57 AM - Reply

    Oh yeah, I know Cosmopolitan! Rue St-Catherine, right?

    I can’t wait to go back…I definitely left a part of myself in that beautiful city…

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