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Arabic Words in the French Language

It’s no secret that many English words have become part of the French language. What is not so well-known, however, is how much Arabic has influenced European languages. From the Moorish occupation of Spain to the latest waves of North African immigrants, Arabs have had a strong presence in Europe. So, it’s no surprise that Arabic terms have crept into the French language. Let’s explore some of them.

 

Many of these words were adapted to sound more like French over time, so much so that French people use words of Arabic origin every day without realizing it. For example, a typical day may start with un café, derived from the Arabic word qahwa:

 

Les adultes boivent plus du café ou du thé

Adults drink coffee or tea more

Caption 9, Arles Le petit déjeuner

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Arab cuisine has also become part of the French cooking repertoire. For example, you can find the spicy Maghrebi sausage called merguez in most supermarkets nowadays. In the video below, Parisians can’t resist the smell of merguez:

 

les odeurs de merguez, de frites, euh...

the smells of merguez, of French fries, uh...

Caption 8, Manif du Mois La traditionnelle manif du 1er mai

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People even use Arabic terms when talking about routine activities, like aller au magasin (going to the store), a word borrowed from the Arabic makazin, which originally referred to a warehouse. The meaning of introduced words often departs from the original:

 

Alors, nous sommes dans un magasin.

So, we're in a shop.

Caption 24, Extr@ Ep. 2 - Sam fait du shopping - Part 3

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Other times, loanwords have remained close to the original Arabic meaning. French borrowed the term souk, which is a marketplace in Northern Africa. But the word has also become slang for a messy place and is often accompanied by an exclamation mark:

 

Quel souk!

What a mess!

 

The somewhat dated expression faire la nouba (to party) kept its Arabic sound but lost its original meaning. La nouba refers to traditional songs and dances performed by Algerian women. The term later became slang, first used in the military, for partying and living it up:

 

J’aime trop faire la nouba.

I love to party a lot.

 

While young people may not use the same Arabic expressions as their parents, today’s youth adopted their own new set of Arabic words to add to their vocabulary and complement their favorite verlan expressions. In his conversation with Anna, Louis greets her using the term wesh, borrowed directly from Algerian slang, which is equivalent to "hi," "yo," or "what's up":

 

Wesh ["salut" en arabe] Anna.

Wesh ["hi" in Arabic] Anna.

Caption 1, Anna et Louis Le vocabulaire des jeunes

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Louis also uses the word kiffer (to love). Kif originally served as a slang word for drugs, equivalent to "dope" or "hash" in English. By extension, the verb kiffer came to mean "to smoke hash." Nowadays, though, kiffer mostly functions as a general synonym of aimer:

 

En vrai, Louis, je kiffe bricoler

For real, Louis, I love tinkering

Caption 45, Anna et Louis J'ai besoin d'un coup de main

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Conversely, something that is pas kiffant is not fun:

 

Enfin c'était pas kiffant, quoi

Well, it wasn't fun, you know

Caption 14, Anna et Louis Hier soir

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Speaking of pas kiffant, you might hear someone in trouble use the expression avoir le seum, slang for being depressed, frustrated, or in a bad spot:

 

Moi, j'ai trop le seum.

Me, I'm really frustrated.

Caption 14, Sophie et Edmée Les études de médecine

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Ben, euh... moi j'ai un peu le seum

Well, uh... I'm kind of in a bad spot

Caption 8, Edmée et Fanny Les présidentielles à 20 ans

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The reason for all this seum (trouble) might be a lack of moula (moolah), which is one of several slang terms for money:

 

Pour les langages des jeunes et plus récemment: "la moula", "la moulaga", "les lovés", "les bifs" et "les waris."

In youth language, and more recently: "la moula" [moolah], "la moulaga," "les lovés," "les bifs," and "les waris."

Captions 24-26, Lionel L L'argent

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The lack of moula might well prompt the use of the Maghrebi expression c’est la hess ("it’s hell," "it’s a struggle"). Imagine a hungry teenager opening an empty refrigerator, saying:

 

Le frigo est vide, c’est vraiment la hess.

The fridge is empty, it’s hell.

 

The Algerian term hess or hass originally referred to licking the plate clean, in other words starving. 

 

As you may have noticed, many Arabic loanwords come into French as slang, and thus change from generation to generation. However, many of these words, such as café and magasin, have been part of the French vocabulary for many years, centuries even, and are not at all slang. In any case, there is no shortage of Arabic words in the French language. Watch for new ones in Yabla videos!

 
Vocabulary

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