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Le Havre, Le Mans: How do these French place names work with à or de?

We look at the rules on contracting city and town names with articles and delve into their linguistic origins

Would you go ‘au Mans’ or ‘à Le Mans’? Pic: Prostock-studio / Shutterstock

Reader Question: If I were going to Le Mans, would I be going ‘au Mans’ or ‘à Le Mans’? A village near us is Les Graulges and I’m never sure if I should say aux Graulges. I’m pretty sure I have heard both options! Which is correct please?

This question was answered by the Académie Française, the official custodians of the French language, on its website in 2013 to put an end to mistakes made not only by non-natives but also by French people themselves. 

Le’ and ‘les’ articles contract when preceded by ‘à’ and ‘de’, becoming ‘au’, ‘aux’, ‘du’ or ‘des’ depending on the structure of the sentence.

A le’ becomes ‘au’, ‘à les’ becomes ‘aux’, ‘de le’ becomes ‘du’ and ‘de les’ becomes ‘des.’

In the example, the phrase: ‘Je vais à Le Mans’, (I am going to Le Mans) would turn instead into ‘je vais au Mans.’ 

Other examples include: ‘je vais aux Jets’ (French ski station resort), ‘je vais aux Mureaux’, a commune in the Yvelines department, or ‘je vais aux Etats-Unis’ (I am going to the United States, with an à/les construction).

The rule also applies to other places like going to the woods (‘je vais au bois’), to the field (‘je vais aux champs’), the zoo (‘je vais au zoo’) or the attic (‘je vais au grenier’) and French expressions like ‘tomber des nues’ (to be flabbergasted / dumbfounded).

Since the village is called Les Graulges, the correct grammatical structure is ‘je vais aux Graulges’ but other regional language traditions may have supplanted the rule or proven more acute to people living in the region.

Popular ‘90s comedian troup ‘Les Nuls’ (The Idiots) poked fun at this particular grammar rule in various sketches, reminding the audience that their pieces were ‘de Les Nuls’ (by the Les Nuls group) instead of ‘des Nuls’. 

This more or less translates as them saying that their sketches were “by the The Idiots”, instead of just saying by The Idiots. 

In another sketch, two of the comedians play news anchors on a CNN broadcast and refer to “the official sponsor of the Gulf war.” However, the French translation reads ‘sponsorisé par la Guerre de le Golfe’ instead of the correct ‘la guerre du Golfe.’

The cities of Le Mans (Sarthe) and Le Havre (Seine-Maritime) are the most common examples of this rule, although linguistic customs surrounding Le Havre are easier to follow than those of the trickier Le Mans. 

Most French people understand Le Havre as meaning ‘the harbour’, since ‘havre’ means harbour in French. However, the case of Le Mans is less clear cut as ‘Mans’ has no particular meaning, and some people forget to contract the ‘le’ with ‘à’ or ‘de’. 

More than 2,300 French villages, towns and cities start with the article ‘la’, ‘le’ and ‘les’. The reasons behind the use of an article before the name of the location lies depending on different regional, historical, geographical or cultural explanations. 

The name of Le Mans is believed by historians to date back to the Gallic Cenomani settlers with the roman name slowly shifting from Cenomannis to Celmans with cel- used as a demonstrative. It was later substituted by ‘le.’

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