March 21, 2011 | French

Bathroom Vocabulary

I am afraid to ask where the bathroom is.

My days have been filled with French Pimsleur lessons, French grammar exercises, and French vocabulary drills. I am trying to do as much skills rejuvenation as I can, as fast as I can, before I unleash my semi-French-speaking self on unsuspecting New Yorkers again. I am almost ready.

Lots of Languages Could Be Heard This Weekend...

Lots of Languages Could Be Heard This Weekend… the Architectural Digest Home Design Show

…at the Architectural Digest Home Design Show

Questions keep arising. For example, I have been informed that one says la hauteur (height) and not l’hauteur. Is that true, and if so, why? You don’t actually pronounce the h, do you?

I learned that la musculation is “weightlifting.” That is one cool word.

Some of the vocabulary I have been coming across in my books is not very relevant to my daily life. I’m not blaming the books; the experience is just kind of underscoring that I have a pretty urban lifestyle.

For example, maybe this will be shocking to some people, but I can’t come up with the word for female horse (“mare”) in English without doing a Google search, so I am unlikely to need the French word (jument) either. And, although most of the time I can remember that a female pig is called a “sow,” I never, ever say it. So I probably won’t be using la truie, the French equivalent, a whole lot.

A nightmare (cauchemar): learning genders of 50 American states so that you can pick the right preposition when you want to say you are in one of them. For example, I believe it is Je suis en Pennsylvanie (a feminine state), but Je suis au Delaware (a masculine state). At least there are only two genders in French, and most states are male, but still! There are benefits to genderlessness.

I am just realizing I have a little bit of a phobia that I will unintentionally be rude, or crude, in asking for a bathroom in a foreign language. Think of how many words for bathroom there are in English, each with different associations and applications! We have:

  • bathroom
  • restroom
  • washroom
  • toilet
  • women’s room
  • ladies’ room
  • men’s room
  • powder room
  • john

Bathroom vocabulary seems to be pretty complex in most languages. I just read that in French, les toilettes is equivalent to “restroom,” while a salle de bains is a full bathroom, complete with shower or tub. But at a restaurant, am I really supposed to ask, “Où sont les toilettes?”

To my English-speaking ear, that sounds very, um, specific. We are big on bathroom euphemisms in English. I have also seen a third bathroom option, cabinet, so I am filled with uncertainty. Help.

I have now finished Level III of Pimsleur. There are just 10 lessons left. I really wish there were more.

Comments (7)

Luda • Posted on Thu, March 24, 2011 - 10:42 pm EST

the ‘h’ in la hauteur is called an ‘aspirated h’ (or at least it is in French) and hence acts like a normal consonant. There are quite a few words like this. Le hibou, le haricot etc. Most are normal though and act like a voyelle. The aspirated h is marked in dictionaries. Hope that makes it a bit clearer. Also yes, when I ask where the loo is, I always ask for ‘les toilettes’. Bon courage with your challenge!

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Thu, March 24, 2011 - 10:54 pm EST

Merci beaucoup, Luda. I forgot “loo” on my bathroom-vocabulary list. I saw something about “aspirated” before, but I don’t hear any aspiration! That’s why I get confused.

Manon • Posted on Thu, March 24, 2011 - 11:01 pm EST

Yes, we really do ask “Où sont les toilettes?”, even in a restaurant!

As for the “h” thing, it is a little complicated, even for us French speakers!

The letter “h” at the beginning of a word is either “aspiré” or “muet”. Although, it doesn’t mean that you have to pronounce the “h” as you would do in English.

If the “h” at the beginning of the word is “aspiré”,it’s simple: you don’t have to do anything.
For example: the “h” at the beginning of “hauteur” is “aspiré” which means that you would say “la hauteur”.

On the other hand, with words like “hiver : l’hiver” (winter) you have to make the elision (“l’” instead of “le”) and you have to make the phonetic liaison if the word is plural “les hivers”. This means that you’ll have to pronounce a “z” sound between the article and the noun. You wouldn’t do that with words beginning with a “h aspiré”. For example, when saying “les hauteurs”, you wouldn’t pronounce the “z” sound.

I hope that it’s clear! And don’t worry, we have a hard time with this “h” thing too!

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Thu, March 24, 2011 - 11:18 pm EST

I had no idea about not pronouncing the “z” sound in “les hauteurs”! Thank you, Manon, for this explanation!

Luba • Posted on Fri, March 25, 2011 - 12:23 pm EST

Two different genders of the names of the states?
Well, in Russian there are three genders for them:)
So, New York is masculine, Florida is feminine, and Colorado is neuter, and so on…
well, it’s actually pretty straightforward and depends on the form of the word, but, I guess, it can be quite shocking for the Americans studying Russian

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Fri, March 25, 2011 - 1:50 pm EST

I don’t think I ever got to the American states when I was doing Russian, but three genders would definitely complicate things! It is pretty funny to me, as an English-speaking American accustomed to 50 genderless states, to contemplate whether a given state is male, female, or something else altogether. Speaking for myself (though I would think this would be true for many people), I just don’t think of states as having a gender!

Julie Threlkeld • Posted on Fri, March 25, 2011 - 3:55 pm EST

Hot topic, toilets. These are the things that matter.

I’ve found in my European travels that if you say “restroom” or any of the our equally prudish, veiled terms that no one knows what you’re talking about. Difficult as it is, base as it is, crude as it is, I train myself to say “toilet.”

I can’t bring myself to say “loo” or “WC” because then I just feel like a total poseur.

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