French you don’t learn at school: quoi

Jolly nice day for a quoi, what what?

21 March 2020
By Connexion journalist

The current scourge of the English language for many traditionalists and upholders of linguistic correctness is the increasingly frequent use – notably, it has to be said, among the younger generation – of the dreaded “innit” at the end of a sentence.

Does mainstream spoken French have its own horrifying equivalent?

Well, of sorts, though their version is not exactly likely to send members of the Académie Française into a self-righteous tailspin.

Quoi is a multi-meaning word with two more obvious usages in everyday French. It can be employed alone to enquire “What?”, perhaps if you misheard someone, while you may also hear a more
surprised or annoyed “What?!”.

It is also commonly used to simply ask “What is that?” – “C’est quoi ça?”.

However, when the word is used at a phrase’s conclusion, it becomes – like so many of the ‘filler’ words that we examine in this column – a something-and-nothing, throwaway item that is merely a kind of slangy affirmation or emphasis tool, rather than anything meaningful. It is a way of concluding your sentence much like we might use “you know?” or “eh?”.

So if you overhear a group of kids talking, you might hear “Il faut partir bientôt, quoi” (“We need to leave soon, eh?”) or “Il est mignon, quoi” (He’s cute, isn’t he?).

The amusing element of all this is that in English the use of “What?” to end a sentence is now seen as fuddy-duddy and outdated – imagine a village cricket match in the 1930s: “Jolly good shot, what?”

So perhaps the “innit” brigade are just trying, in their own way, to bring back the good old days, quoi?

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