The coolest word in the French language

Creative Commons, LaughingSquid.com
Creative Commons, LaughingSquid.com

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?

It’s ‘y’.

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
http://french.about.com/od/grammar/a/pron_adverbial.htm

More about the Lyonnais accent (in French):

http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parler_lyonnais

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0DiCYpsJAc

11 thoughts on “The coolest word in the French language

  1. Yes it means there in “j’y vais” but it often means “of it” or “to it” , as an indirect object pronoun : “j’y pense” = I think about it or of it ( though never used for a person ). “Peux-tu arriver à faire ça ? – Oui, j’y arrive .” In this case “y” replaces “à faire ça”.
    As a matter of fact, the best spelling should be ” ee-grec”, as letters are considered masculine in French ( un d, un a, un i ) and in “grec” the final “c” is pronounced anyway .
    I didn’t know that lyonnaise custom but there is an incorrect and frequent national use of the “y” as a substitute of “il” : “y pleut pas”, “y a personne”, “qu’est-ce qu’y veut celui-là ?” …

    1. Hello, I don’t think that your last three examples are exactly the same thing.
      In “Y a personne”, y is normal. It’s just that orally we drop Il n’… : Il n’y a personne. But nobody would write “Y a personne”, except when writing a dialogue in a novel for example to convey the oral aspect of the conversation.

      In Y pleut pas / Qu’Est-ce qu’y veut ?, I’d say it is just a transcript of what people pronounce, as you said. It is quicker to say “y”. But it is not the “real” y” and after all, we could have transcribed it as “i”. But i alone doesn’t exist, unlike “y”. So we adopted “y” in those “oral” texts.

      1. OK, 1-nil for you . And what about this rural way in some unfortunate North-of-the-Garonne parts of France : “ça va-t-y aujourd’hui Madame Michu ?”

        More seriously, let’s mention the odd use of “y” in ” Bon, j’y vais” to mean “Je m’en vais”, where “y” doesn’t refer to any place, just making the difference between “I go” and “I go away” .

    2. Point taken on the ee-grec! (instinctively it just felt feminine to me…) And you’re right – the phrases it replaces are much more than ‘there’ although that’s often given as the definition of the word in English. Thanks for your comments!

      1. It’s not what I would call a passionate debate, this one, unlike others . When I was 7, I had the misfortune to undergo a daily lesson in the whole summer holydays ( and by this time they were the real French school holydays, 2 ans 1/2 months ) . My father judged the decadence of French school teaching, and taught me THE French Grammar, whose arcanes will remain a mystery for every barbarian foreigner, except a handful of geniuses . With this background you can play passionately when you meet pals of the same tribe .
        It’s atrociously funny to think that my father judged the level of school lessons very low in 1966 compared to his youth . Since the 70s, the power conscienciously degraded the level of French school system, in a never ending process, to the point of now, where I hesitate between a mass muder or an exile to another planet .

  2. Phildange, I am sorry if I came across as arrogant. I certainly didn’t mean it !
    Mel – by the way, is it Mel ? – you are absolutely right about French people and French grammar ! Thanks for pointing out our quirks in your posts and comments.

  3. Your post today (Feb 9 2017) led me here – I always loved just KNOWING that y was ee greque! I find it a bit like the silent ‘the’ or ‘t’ in Yorkshire – for example, it sounds like ‘to village’ when in fact there’s a hint of a ‘t’ in between that foreigners (non-Yorkshire folk) just can’t seem to hear or imitate 🙂 In fact it means nothing like the same thing 😉 but it has, imo, the same sort of feel to it.
    I’ll just shut up now 😉

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