Colours in French

Colours in French : names, nuances, and grammar

Learning French colours is an easy and useful step to take for any learner of the language. Let’s learn how to express colours in French and their nuances, in a lot of meaningful ways. We’ll deepen our study a little bit further than the usual list of main colours that’s all over the web ; and we’ll take a few grammar considerations too. Let’s go !

The main colours in French

We’ll start by the most basic question, the one that might have actually brought you to this page anyways : How do you say the colours in French ? After all, learning a new language is also about memorizing vocabulary, and we might as well start with our exploration of French colours with a little list.

 

Colour in French Colour in English
Rouge Red
Vert Green
Bleu Blue
Jaune Yellow
Orange / Orangé Orange
Violet Violet
Rose Rose
Marron Maroon
Gris Gray
Noir Black
Beige Beige
Blanc White
Mauve
Raspberry
Ocre Ocre
Indigo Indigo
Pourpre Purple
Cyan Cyan
Magenta Magenta
Turquoise Turquoise
Or / Doré Golden
Argent  / Argenté Silver

Examples :

  • Cette voiture est rouge. (this car is red.)
  • Les ours ont généralement le poil marron. (Bears generally have brown fur.)

A few possible variations

Sometimes, the colour isn’t marked very much, or it’s almost not that colour. You can express this in French by adding a special ending in -âtre (only for these ones) :

Colour in French Colour in English
Rougeâtre Reddish
Jaunâtre Yellowish
Verdâtre Greenish
Bleuâtre Blueish
Orangeâtre
Noirâtre Blackish
Blanchâtre Whitish

Example :

  • Les algues donnent au rochers une couleur verdâtre. (The algaes gave thse rocks a greenish colour.)

Also, if you want to want to describe a colour that’s between two other colours, or if you’re not really sure if it’s one or the others, you can make a new word by joining the two of them with a hyphenrouge-orangé, bleu-gris, marron-jaune, bleu-argenté, jaune-doré, vert-rougeâtre

  • Je ne sais pas top si cette couleur est plutôt vert-bleu ou bleu-vert. (I don’t know if this colour is blue-green or green-blue.)

A lot of colours in French have a special name derived from something of this colour :

Colour in French Colour in English
Bleu marine Navy blue
Bleu ciel Sky blue
Vert pomme Apple green
Vert feuille Leaf green
Rouge sang Blood red

Example :

  • J’ai fait repeindre ma voiture en vert anis. (I had my car painted anis green.)

Grammatically, this is an elision : what you describe is something bleu [comme le] ciel (blue as the sky) or un bleu [de la couleur du] ciel (a blue of the colour of the sky). Some expressions, like the ones above, are widely used and have a standard name, but if you have your own poetic mind and you want to transmit the impression of a colour in your own way, there is no limitation but the pertinence of your comparison (well, if you‘re saying vert-soleil, you’ll be looked at a bit weirdly, won’t you?).

Be imaginative !

  • jaune marguerite (marygold yellow)
  • rouge ketchup
  • jaune pipi (piss yellow)
  • jaune “fromage fondu” (melted-cheese yellow)

Note that an expression like this may transmit a little more than just the colour. Consider for example that it would make little sense (or maybe only with the intention of derision or dramatization) to use rouge sang instead of rouge pizza (and vice-versa) in these two sentences, although it is the same colour :

  • Après la bataille, la colline était rouge sang. (After the battle, the hill was blood red.)
  • Jean avait renversé son assiette, le sol était rouge pizza. (Jean had dropped his plate, the ground was pizza red.)

Sometimes, you’ll find bigger elisions as the name of the colour itself is also omitted.

  • une fleur soleil = une fleur [jaune comme le] soleil (a flower yellow like the sun)
  • Passe moi le crayon aubergine, s’il te plait. (Pass me the aubergine crayon, please.)

Although generally you would express this with the word couleur :

  • une fleur couleur soleil
  • une fleur de la couleur du soleil

One last construction that you’ll most probably will hear from times to times : with the preposition de followed by a the name of something that has this characteristic colour :

  • des cheveux d’un noir de jais et des yeux d’un vert d’émeraude.
  • or simply : des cheveux de jais et des yeux d’émeraude.
  • un vert d’herbe naissante (a green of newly grown herb)

How to express nuances of colours in French

shadows of grays

When we express colours in French, like we would do in English, we often express nuances by adding a qualitative. Here is a list of the main ones :

 

In French In English
Clair Light
Foncé, sombre Dark
Délavé Washed
Pastel Pastel
Vif Bright
Saturé Saturated
Terne Tern
Pâle Pale
Doux soft
Fort Strong
Mat Mate
Brillant Shiny
Satiné Satined
Metalisé Metalized
Chromé Chrome
Irisé Irised
Fluorescent (fluo) Fluorescent
Phosphorescent Phosphorescent

Examples :

  • Sa voiture est gris métalisé. (His car was metalized gray.)
  • Le plumage irisé du colibri est magnifique. (The irised robe of the hummingbird is beautiful.)
  • Elle a les cheveux d’un noir mat et la peau brun clair. (She has a mate black hair and light brown skin.)

Wait, seriously, about the hummingbird : it’s incredibly beautiful. You need to see this.

Relations between colours

There are also a lot of words that express relations between colours in French.

In French In English
La couleur dominante, ou principale The main / dominant colour
Une touche de vert / Une pointe de vert A touch of green
La couleur de fond The backgroud colour
Le contraste entre deux couleurs
des couleurs contrastées
The contrast between two colours
contrasting colours
Des couleurs proches ou éloignées Close or different colours
Des couleurs complémentaires Complementary colours
Un dégradé entre deux couleurs A gradient between two colours
Un mélange entre deux couleurs A mixture of two colours

Examples :

  • Un dégradé du vert pomme au bleu ciel. (a gradient from apple green to sky blue.)
  • Le vert de la feuille contraste beaucoup avec le rouge du fruit. (The green of the leaf contrasts a lot with the red of the fruit.)
  • Le peintre mélange le bleu et le jaune pour faire du vert. (The painter mixes blue and yellow to make green.)

A little bit of grammar

You may know that in French, adjectives must agree with the noun they accompany : in gender (masculine or feminine) as well as in number (singular or plural). Well, Same goes for the adjectives describing colours, that we discovered at the beginning of this article :

rouge, vert, bleu, jaune, violet, rose, noir, blanc, gris, pourpre, argenté, doré…

  • Un chat noir (a black cat, male)
  • Une chatte noire (female)
  • Des chats noirs (males)
  • Des chattes noires (females)

So far so good. But when the colour is named after a mineral, a vegetal, etc… Then it’s invariable. This is due to the fact that it is actually an elision :

orange, marron, champagne, cerise, prune, émeraude, rubis,

  • des pulls orange = des pulls [de la couleur de l’] orange
    (pullovers [the colour of an] orange)

In the case of rose, écarlate, vermeil, violet and a few more, they have ascquired the status of a simple adjective over time, which explains that they behave differently although they are names of vegetals.

And when a colour is expressed by two or more words, all the words are invariable :

  • une voiture grise, but ; des voitures gris métalisé
  • des orchidées jaune foncé
  • des chaussures bleu marine

Did you know ?

In the region of France where I live, La Bretagne, the culture and language from before the unification of France by Napoléon is still very present. Out of personal curiosity, I took one year of lessons to learn Breton. An interesting fact I learnt : in Breton, the word glaz means both blue… and green. It’s the colour of the sea, of what’s alive. Of the leaves, of algaes. There is another word for green, gwar, that is used for all other types of inanimate greens : paintings, glass bottles…

How interesting is it that the way a nation sees the world is reflected in its language ?

C’est tout, les amis !

There is so much to say about colours, and I’ll make another post to talk a little bit about colorimetry. Stay tuned, and until then, if you have any question about the colours in French, I’ll answer in the comments !

Hello in french : the art of greeting and leaving

Hello in French : the art of greeting (beyond Bonjour and Au revoir)

Knowing how to say bonjour, bonsoir and au revoir is enough for any situation where you would have to greet someone – or take your leave. It might be quite a challenge to say it right at first because of the nasal sounds (you can recognize them now that you studied how to read french, right ?), but once you get it, you are covered. But as your interest in learning and understanding French is growing, covered isn’t what you’ll settle for, right ? So let’s learn about the most used (and varied) ways to say hello in French – and goodbye, too.

Greeting : saying Hello in french

Bonjour, Bonsoir

Bonsoir and Bonjour are the safest way to say hello in French. They are used for both formal and informal situation, so you’d say this to your boss as well as to your friend. Literally, you’re wishing a “good day” (bon jour) or a “good evening” (bon soir), so, as you can guess, you must to pay attention to the time of the day.

Say bonjour from early morning until sunset, and bonsoir when it’s already dark.

If you mistake one for the other, you might here your interlocutor correct you with a smile or even a laughter : Bonsoir, pas bonjour, il est déjà tard ! – there will be no offense meant, as it happens to everyone of us too by distraction, from time to time.

Salut, Hello (informal)

Salut is a very common informal alternative to say hello in French, and you’ll hear it a lot in all kind of situations, provided the atmosphere isn’t too formal : inside a family, between friends or colleagues, or even in certain circumstances with people you just met if the context allows it (like in a music festival for example). We might also use Hello as a perfect equivalent, although it’s less commonly used.

Coucou (very informal)

You might hear friends or family members say Coucou. This is a very affective way of greeting, it’s a word that we use for addressing to young children or babies ; in all cases it demonstrates some kind of affection.

Taking your leave : saying goodbye in french

Au revoir, Bonsoir

Au revoir is the safe play here, it can be told to anyone, at any time of the day. Litterally, you’re mentioning the next time you’ll meet, but you can actually use it if you don’t know whether you are ever going to meet again. It’s the perfect equivalent to “goodbye”. Bonsoir is a polite alternative when it’s already dark. Yes, it can be used for saying both hello and goodbye !

Say au revoir anytime, and bonsoir when it’s already dark.

Wishes for the day

You might hear people wish you a Bonne journée or a Bonne soirée. They’re literally wishing you a good day to come, or a good evening, so once again you must take into account the time of the day.

Actually, we often get more specific than that, and wish a Bonne matinée (a good morning), a Bonne après-midi (a good afternoon), or even a Bonne fin de matinée (a good end of the morning), a Bonne fin d’après-midi (a good end of afternoon) or a Bonne fin de soirée (a good end of evening).

We also use Bonne nuit, but it is generally a wish for a good night sleep and we use it only at the very end of the day.

All these might be understood more like actual wishes to enjoy the time to come, unlike “Au revoir” and “Bonsoir” that only demonstrate education, and it’s a good way to show you’re actually caring. You can also prefix them by Passez une… (lit. Spend a…). For example, “Passez une bonne soirée !”

Bye, Chao (informal)

Yes, we also use the English Bye and the Italian Chao. Of course, it’s very informal.

Meeting again

When taking your leave, you might want to refer to the next time you’ll meet with your interlocutor. It might be a polite way of expressing that you wish this to happen, or a kind reminder for some later date you agreed on to talk to each other.

The basic construction is À + (future date) (lit. To that date, but it means : see you on that date), which you can basically fill up with any date, but here are a few commonly used cases that you will hear a lot :

  • À bientôt (see you soon)
  • À demain (see you tomorrow)
  • À plus tard (see you to later)
    (or only À plus, in a very informal context)
  • À toute à l’heure (see you later) – but you’re referring to later today
    (or only À toute, in a very informal context)
  • À la prochaine (see you next [time]) (quite informal)

Adieu

Adieu is not a word that you’ll use or hear often hopefully, it means goodbye with the idea that you’ll never meet or be met again. It is literally a recommendation “to God”.

We also use it in a less dramatic way, bidding farewell to anything that’s ending and gone for good : a station, a love, a grief, holidays, a work, worries, anything :

  • Adieu les soucis ! Goodbye worries !
  • Adieu les vacances ! goodbye holidays!
  • Adieu l’hivers, voici le printemps ! Farewell winter, here comes the spring!

∗∗∗

Et voilà ! You learnt all the different ways that we say Hello in French, and also goodbye.

Au revoir, passez une bonne journée (ou une bonne soirée), et à bientôt sur language-easy.org !
Goodbye, have a good day (or evening), and see you soon on language-easy.org !

Learning the French Alphabet

French alphabet isn’t all you need to read French correctly

Have you ever tried to read French and had this sensation that it is more complicated that it should be ? The French alphabet is the same as the one you use to write in English, you familiarized yourself with the differences in the pronunciation, you can even sing the French Alphabet song by heart… This shouldn’t be harder than this, right ?

Still, your French mother-in-law still doesn’t get it. I guess you would feel frustration, and it’s perfectly legitimate. Sometimes, what’s written and spoken, it’s just not the same. As a native French speaker, I was taught how to do it from a young age, and hundreds of thousands of words read later it looked perfectly simple and straightforward me, so much that I had lost contact with that feeling of not understanding why, oh why, do we complicate ourselves so much ?

Until I had this conversation with my Romanian girlfriend who explained me that in Romanian, they simply wrote everything as it was pronounced, and that there were hardly any exception (except maybe with some words originating from… French). Well, I did the experiment and tried to read some pages in Romanian (which was absolute Chinese to me) after she explained to me how to pronounce the â (yes, it’s not even in the French alphabet, and the corresponding sound is weird). Even if I didn’t know what i was reading it resulted quite simple to me and perfectly understandable to her.

With any other language I came across, I realized it was more or less the same. Some of them (like Hindi) are literally written phonetically. I started to wonder how non-French speakers should learn to pronounce written French, and what a big mistake it would be to learn the French alphabet and read it as it is. Just don’t.

 

And that’s how I decided to make that small guide :

How to read and pronounce French if you don’t speak it yet !

I intentionally simplified things a bit, because my goal is to give a medicine for the headache and to show the basics on how to read unknown words in French without feeling insecure. My approach is to allow approximations and make the exceptions part of another existing rule instead of having to learn many different cases. And, forget the French alphabet as a reference, but take the sounds to be read as a reference instead.

Familiarize yourself with the new sounds

In order to be able to read French correctly, you will have to familiarize yourself with these new sounds, hear them, feel them, and be able to reproduce them. These new sounds are :

  • The closed “u” /y/ like in “le but” (the goal)
  • The guttural “r” /R/ like in “la mer” (the sea)
  • The nasal sounds “on” /ɔ̃/, “an” /ɑ̃/, “in” /ɛ̃/ and “un” /œ̃/ like in “un ancien mont” (an ancient mount)
  • The “gn” /ɲ/ like in “la montagne” similar to the Spanish ñ

Use the International Phonetic Alphabet as a reference, listen to a native speaker, try to reproduce and ask someone to correct you.

Take the good attitude

In French, some sounds are represented by a group of 2, 3 or even 4 letters. This happens quite a lot, more than in English, and unlike with the intonation or accentuation, you can’t miss those ones if you want to be correctly understood. If you don’t recognize them, instead of one sound, you might pronounce two different other sounds and get it all wrong. In the case of the vowels, for example : “ai” should be read /ɛ/ and not /ai/… This is the main reason why you shouldn’t rely on knowing the French alphabet and its pronunciation.

When you don’t know word, instead of reading the words letter by letter, you should recognize the sounds and their possible representations.

Knowing how to decipher new words sound by sound is a necessary thing, and the object of this guide, but later, when your vocabulary expands, you will have the option to recognize similar words and patterns, and reading will feel more easy and flowing.

The good attitude is to recognize the words and patterns you already know and remember how they are pronounced.

Don’t be hard on yourself : French speakers aren’t

French uses a monotone tone of voice : accentuation in words are not that important, and there is no real difference between short and long vowels. As an English speaker, you’ll probably be smiled at for your accent (in a nice and respectful way though) ; so if you make a “a” too long or too short, it’s OK. The use of the French alphabet doesn’t include long or short vowels, so you’ll be understood anyways.

There are also disparities in pronunciation even between native speakers from different regions of France, and some subtleties in pronunciation (like the use of /ɑ/ or the choice between /ɔ/ and /o/, /œ/ and /ø/) would only introduce a lot of rules, exceptions and cases that would complicate things for you now, while at the same time we French people are not always respecting them so much, depending on where we’re born.

Relax. In this guide we’ll concentrate on not making mistakes when reading. You’ll tune your accent later.

Another example , in the region of Paris, people don’t make a difference between “on” and “an”, or between “un” and “in”. They use sounds in between ; and being myself a southerner, my ear doesn’t understand poetry from a Parisian singer who makes “demande” rime with “monde”.

The vowels of the French Alphabet… And the other ones

The vowels in the french alphabet are the same as in the English alphabet. There is a big difference though : all vowel letters can also be altered by one of the four possible accents : the acute accent (“é“), the grave accent (“è“), the circumflex (“ê“) and the diaeresis (“ë“). That makes 24 possible alterations for the vowels, but we can simplify a lot, since most of the alterations only serve for silent reasons of etymology, to differentiate in writing words that are pronounced the same, or to change in the pronunciation in a minimal way that brings more confusion than anything for the beginner (while introducing subtleties that even French speakers mistreat sometimes).

So just consider things like :

Ignore any alteration except “é“, “è” and “ê

And about the diaeresis :

The diaeresis breaks the grouping of the letter in the representation of a sound : “” is now pronounced /ai/, “oi” /oi/, etc…

So, now that we have introduced all the necessary information, here is the list you’ll want to refer to, or learn :

a /a/ or /ɑ/ un chat (a cat)
e, eu, œ = oe, œu = oeu /ø/ or /œ/ le bleu (blue), un œuf (an egg)
é /e/ mangé (eaten)
è, ê, ai, ei, ay, ey /ɛ/ un élève (a pupil), le maire (the mayor), la reine (the queen)
e followed by a double consonant /ɛ/ un verre (a glass), une pelle (a shovel), une dette (a debt)
i
y not followed by a vowel
/i/ bicyclette (bicicle)
o, au, eau /o/ or /ɔ/ au bord de l’eau (at the edge of the water)
u /y/ pur (pure)
ou /u/ pour (for)
oi, oy /wa/ la loi (the ley)

Also remember the representation of the nasal vowels, a vowel followed by an m or an n, but only if not followed by another vowel :

on, om /ɔ̃/ un son (a sound), but : bonne (good, f.), bonus (bonus)
in, im, ain, aim, ein, eim /ɛ̃/ le vin (wine), but : devine (guess)
un, um /œ̃/ un article (an article), but : une exception (an exception)
an, am, en, em /ɑ̃/ le nouvel an (new year), but : la banane (the banana)

The special /j/ sound and the “y”: a semi vowel in the French alphabet

The “y” is considered a semi-vowel in the French alphabet, because when placed before another vowel, it becomes a consonant and represents the sound /j/ (like in the English “yes”). As you saw before, this doesn’t happen when it is placed after a vowel : in this case we would another form of writing it : “ill”

y followed by a vowel /j/ Un coyote (a coyote)
ill /ij/ une fille (a girl)
eil, eill /ɛj/ un orteil (a toe)
ail, aill /aj/ la paille (the straw)
oeuil, euil, euill /ɔj/ le feuillage (the leaves)
ouil, ouill /uj/ rouillé (rusted)

Mute letters and liaison

In French, there are a lot of cases where we write letters that shouldn’t be pronounced at all. They usually are the marks of specific grammatical constructions (like feminine and plural) or conjugations when the pronunciation is similar ; or they come for etymology reasons, as French words can originate from a variety of distinct old languages such as Greek, Latin, Italian, German, English, or even local ones like Breton. And sometimes, they also change the pronunciation of the letter they follow.

Here are the patterns at the end of a word :

s, –x, –p, –t, –d, -g
ts, –ds, –gs
Usually not pronnounced les époux (the brides), trop (too much), les dents (the teeth)
e, -es Not pronounced, or only softly un article (an article), des poules (chickens)
ent in the case of verb conjugation at he 3d plural, not pronounced, or softly as /ø/ ils parlent (they are talking)
er, –ez /e/ vous parlez (you talk), un fermier (a farmer)
et, –ets /ɛ/ un robinet (a tap)
el /ɛl/ un courriel (un email)

And at the beginning :

h Not pronounced un haricot (a bean)

Then, we have the liaison rule :

When the following word starts by a vowel (including, not “h“) pronounce the last letter to make the transition sound better.
If this last letter is an “s“, pronounce it “z“, If it is a “d“, pronounce it “t“.

For example : “les enfants” (the children) /lezɑ̃fɑ̃/, “trop aigu” (too acute) /tRo pegu/, “les haricots” (the beans) /le aRiko/

This is not an absolute rule, you might have to consider the usage. Pronouncing “les enfants” without the liaison would sound as weird as making the liaison in “un long été” (a long summer) or in “un blanc ardent”. Also, “des nuages obscurs” (dark clouds) can be pronounced equally with or without the liaison (poets use this possibility to add or remove a syllable from a verse to adjust its length to fit the constraint of the poem, a process known as synaeresis and  diaeresis).

And now, let’s learn the consonants

The consonants of the French Alphabet are pronounced mostly the same than in English. Here are the ones that differ :

ch /ʃ/ Le chat (the cat)
gn /ɲ/ La montagne (the mountain)
f, ph /f/ Un téléphone (a telephone), le fil (the weave)
t, th /t/
g followed by a, o, u, or a consonant
gu followed by e, i, y
/g/ gu (acute), un ogre (an oger)
un guide (a guide)
j
g followed by e, i, y
ge followed by a, o, u
/ʒ/ joli (nice)
un orage (an orage)
rougeâtre (reddish), la geôle (the prison)
k
c followed by a, o, u, or a consonant
qu
q
/k/ court (short), un crime (a crime)
la traque (the hunt)
le coq (the rooster)
z
s between two vowels
/z/ Un zèbre (a zebra)
une usine (a factory)
s in the other cases
c followed by e, i, y
ç followed by a, o, u
/s/ Le sel (the salt)
les sourcils (the eyebrows)
la leçon (the lesson)

Et voilà !

And now to put in practice all that you’ve learnt today. I suggest that you invite your mother-in-law for a tea and read her a special sentence that we have :

Portez ce vieux whisky au juge blond qui fume.

Did you get what’s special about that sentence ? Yes, it contains all the letters from the French Alphabet !

What if I’m single ? =)

If you don’t have a French mother-in-law to whom proudly demonstrate your new skills, don’t worry, we can provide one for you !
Well, maybe not exactly… But at least we have native teachers here who will be happy to hear you, congratulate you, give you some advice, and go deeper into the grammatical or etymological aspects if you are interested…

Try it now