It slips into phrases like an uninvited guest, crashing the party yet instantly finding its place.
A single letter long, it belongs to a very elite group indeed – one of the two shortest French words.
Have you guessed?
Or the Greek ‘i’ as it’s known in French – pronounced “ee-greque.”
It is both a vowel and a consonant. How cool is that? If it were human, surely it would be wearing Ray-Bans and sitting by the pool, sipping Bacardi on ice.
It’s so low profile a word that I had to check my dictionary to ensure that it really is a word, and not just an element of speech. An adverbial pronoun, it’s a word that acts like a sort of stand in – an understudy who occasionally replaces the starring role.
It has no real meaning of its own, other than that of designating a place. The closest English translation is ‘there.’ Are you going to the party? Oui, j’y vais.
It’s subtle, and elusive to English ears. Which is probably why I was hesitant to use it at first. It felt sort of daring the first time I pronounced it – moving things around in sentence order kind of goes against the natural order of things. But soon enough, expressions like these just rolled off my tongue:
Ça y est. (Sa-ee-ay) That’s it. Done!
Allons-y! (A-lon-zee) Let’s go!
When we moved to Lyon some years ago, I learned that its denizens, les Lyonnais, are known for their love of the ‘y’ – they use it far more than people elsewhere in France, adding it to phrases where normally it would not appear.
For example: Do you like it? Tu y aimes?
Want to know ‘y’? A few links for fellow grammar geeks:
‘Y’ explained very nicely in English: http://www.slideshare.net/mrash/the-french-pronouns-y-and-en
More about the Lyonnais accent (in French):