Here we’ve rounded up the nine mostly commonly-used sounds that you will hear in conversation.
Best used, obviously, with some expressive hand and arm gestures to really help you blend in.
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Contempt, disdain and scorn can all be expressed via one simple noise in French. Photo Aron Amat/Depositphotos
It might sound (and look) a bit silly but this word is a staple of French conversation and used in the right way, it will give your spoken French a bit of native attitude.
Pfff often goes hand in hand with a facial expression that exudes boredom or dislike because it is used to convey contempt, disdain and scorn.
The French use it when somebody is saying something they consider to be stupid, ridiculous, pathetic so much so that they are at a loss for a real answer and are reduced to saying pfff.
There isn’t an exact translation in English, but it could be compared to sighing loudly when someone is speaking and some might even make a similar noise to the French pfff to go with it.
Here’s an example of this noise in use: Pfff, elle n’avait rien d’exceptionnel cette femme. – Pfff, there was nothing exceptional about that woman.
Or, Pfff, c’est n’importe quoi – Pfff, whatever.
Remember that while it is very common, it is still colloquial and is certainly one to avoid using in front of your boss.
Aïe is a sound you will hear a lot around France and it may be one that moves you to ask the person who utters it if they’re ok.
The action that goes with this word is a deep frown or perhaps even a wince of pain, because it is the French equivalent of ‘ouch!’ or ‘ow!’ in English.
So for example you might say: Aïe! Je me suis piqué le doigt. – Ow! I pricked my finger.
Or Aïe! Aïe! Aïe! Je viens de me couper. – Ouch! I just cut my finger.
It can also mean ‘oh’, ‘oh dear’, ‘oh no’ or ‘oh my’.
In this case, you might say: Aïe! Que se passe-t-il? – Oh my! What’s happening?
Bah will make you sound as French as the French, particularly if you deliver it with your eyebrows raised, your hands turned palms upwards and your mouth formed so that both corners are pointed to the floor. Or with your eyes wide open and an expression of complete perplexity.
Bah can mean ‘I know everything’ or ‘I know nothing’, it all depends on the delivery and context.
Say it quickly and you can sound dismissively confident. However, you can also say it quickly to sound genuinely surprised. It can also be stretched out to demonstrate just how sceptical and incredulous you are. Or indeed how dubious you are. Everything depends on your facial expression.
Baaaah oui…. ‘But of course, you are a fool for asking this question’. Or ‘I think so….’ (showing your hesitation)
Bah oui! ‘Yes!’ (showing the answer is blatantly obvious)
Bah oui? ‘Goodness me! Is that really true?’
This is one of those French words that you’re unlikely to be taught in school and it can really throw a spanner into the works when people start using it in informal conversations.
And if your name is ‘Ben’ then you’re even more likely to be confused… particularly when you see it written down.
But the main translation for Ben isn’t exactly a word.
The equivalent in English would be ‘er’ as in the noise you make when hesitating or playing for time at the beginning of a sentence.
For example, Et tu sais à quelle heure revient ton frère? – Ben, j’en sais rien. (And do you know what time your brother got home? – Er, I don’t know anything).
If you’re surprised it can also mean ‘well’.
Or, J’ai gagné €10,000 à un jeu à gratter! – Eh ben, t’en as, de la chance! (I won €10,000 on a scratchcard game! – Well, you’re lucky!)
It can also translate to ‘of course’, such as Et tu vas à l’anniversaire de Pascal samedi? – Ben oui! (And you’re coming to Pascal’s birthday on Saturday? – Of course!)
You could also say Ben ça alors! to mean ‘well, well, well!’
5. Blow a raspberry
Difficult to spell, this is the noise that babies make when they blow out their cheeks, or the noise of someone making a farting sound.
Unlike in British and Americans cultures, though, in French this is not rude, it’s simply a way of saying ‘I have absolutely no idea’. It can be used as well as or instead of a shrug if you’ve asked something that is simply impossible to answer.
If you’re feeling demotivated, indifferent, or want to engage in the traditional French pastime of avoiding being positive (being honest) about things, this is a need to know word.
Plus it’s a French classic, right up there with pfff, exaggerated shrugging and oh la la.
Historically it’s thought that this word might be linked to the acronym of Boeuf, Oeuf, Fromage. All three foods were rationed during the German war-time occupation in France and black marketeers became known as BOFs. Overtime bof has lost this unscrupulous association and come to mean something quite different.
Bof is a spoken interjection that translates more as a feeling of disinterest or mild unhappiness than an actual word.
It’s nearly always used as an indifferent or slightly negative response to a question, for example, – Que penses-tu de ce film? – Bof. Pas terrible. (What did you think of the film? – Whatever. It wasn’t terrible.)
Similarly bof could also be the response to ‘Don’t you think the film is great?’ (Tu trouves pas que ce film est génial?) or ‘Do you want to go to the cinema? (Ca te dit d’aller au cinéma?), meaning an apathetic ‘not really’ in both cases.
It could also be a slightly depressing reply to ça va? meaning ‘not great’, ‘ok’, or ‘meh’.
Considering that a normal reply would be ‘fine’ or ‘good thanks’ (bien, merci) saying you are just ‘alright’, ‘ok’ or bof actually implies that you feeling a bit miserable.
Finally, if you’re going to use this classic French sound you might as well go the whole hog and Frenchify your gestures too; bof is often said with an indifferent expression and dismissive shrug of the shoulders.
9. Oh là là
And let’s finish on a French classic. Any caricature of the French involves someone saying Oh là là and the best thing about this cliché is that it’s actually true.
Living in France you hear it at least once a day, probably more, and after a while you find yourself saying it almost as much.
There are several meanings for Oh là là and to work out which one you’re hearing you’ll need to rely on context.
One important thing to note is that unlike in English (when we say ‘Ooh la la‘) when the French use this expression it is never intended to express that someone is sexually attractive.
Here’s a look at the different ways it is used.
Then there is the bad Oh là là. Perhaps predictably, the French often employ the bad Oh là là, used more in the sense ‘Oh my god that’s freaking annoying’. .
For example: a car burns through a pedestrian crossing nearly knocking you over or just doesn’t stop to let you cross the road generally or the cashier at the supermarket tells you je ferme ma caisse, moi (I’m closing my till) even though the queues are huge.