Little touches like the ‘hein?’ can help you sound more French, but what does it actually mean?
Hein? is widely used in colloquial French to mean ‘isn't that so?’, ‘isn’t it?’ or ‘agreed?’.
Depending on context it could also be translated in English as ‘eh?’, ‘right?’, ‘ok?’, or ‘what?’.
But if you want to sound formal it is better to replace it with something like comment, pardon or n’est-ce pas.
It comes in useful in many situations.
One French colleague joked that its common meanings include: ‘what do you think about it?’ or ‘do you agree with me’, or, especially (but not only) in the south, ‘Please be so good as to excuse me, I did not fully understand what you have just said; please be so kind as to say it again’.
Here are some typical examples of how to use it in a phrase:
- Ce film est très beau, hein? This film is beautiful, don’t you think?
- Hein? Que dis-tu là? Eh? What did you just say? (expressing surprise or doubt at something said)
- Il ne faut pas recommencer à faire ça, hein? You must not do that again, ok? (reinforcing an order or warning)
- Hein? What? (If someone has said something vague and you need more clarification)
To pronounce it authentically you should not say the ‘h’ at the start.
It is just a single sound, a nasal ‘ain’ sound, said as in the department l’Ain or in the words vin or pain, made emphatically and usually with a slightly rising intonation to the voice.
Here are some examples of French people saying it.
According to wiktionnaire.com it has been used in various forms since the 12th century and has had its current spelling since the 17th in the plays of Marivaux.
It is thought to derive from hem in Latin.
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