A Crash Course in Beninese French: Part II

As I already discussed in the first part of this writing, Beninese French is often used in a different way than European French. Here are some more useful tips for visitors of Villa Karo and Benin.

As words such as “bonsoir” sometimes find new meanings, expressions may also take new forms. That is the case of the exclamation “doucement!”. Literally this means “gently”, but the expression translates perhaps best into “behave yourself“ or “be more careful” in English. Whilst in France the phrase would be most often used by a authoritative figure such as a teacher to give immediate negative feedback to a raging pupil, that is not the case in Benin. Remember, that when you hear that word, it doesn’t mean that you’ve done something wrong. It’s merely something to say when, for instance, your napkin falls down from your knees. “Woops” would perhaps be the best translation. No need to apologize when you here it!

Phrases actually tell a lot about mentality. One of my favourites is the friendship- or deal-sealing “on est ensemble!” (Eng. “we are together!”). This one has multiple uses. It’s almost a substitute for goodbye. It’s a phrase to say when negotiations are going in a bad direction as a reminder that everybody want this deal to happen. It sometimes means “no problem” if you apologize for some harm that you’ve caused.

Another one I personally like very much is “le sang est rouge” meaning literally that blood is red. It has got something in common with “on est ensemble”, but this one is used when white and black people are doing business together. I’ve heard it as I’ve been bargaining at the market, in Grand-Popo, or discussing the rent with the landlord. Sometimes it is wise to state something that has real relevance: human beings come in many colours but blood is always red.

A Crash Course in Beninese French: Part I

La Francophonie, the community of French speaking people, is worldwide. French takes different forms all over the globe as over 250 million people speak it as either first or second language. For those of us who have learned to speak French in Europe, the Beninese version of the language has some interesting elements. Let’s take a look at the French spoken in Grand-Popo’s streets.

Although I suppose that “bonjour” is probably the most well-known French word in the world, you won’t hear it often in Grand-Popo. For a curious reason the locals prefer to employ the expression “bonsoir” at all times. And it’s almost always “good night” in Grand-Popo, even at 8 o’clock in the morning!

“Comment?” is the question you often hear in Benin when you meet somebody you know. Of course, this is a shortened version of the common phrase “Comment ça va?” (Eng. how is it going?). As you answer to the person by saying “ça va bien” or even “très bien” he or she may pursue with other questions that tend to be as short as the first one: “et la santé?”, “et la famille?”, “et madame/monsieur? “et le travail?” (Eng. “and health?”, “and family?”, “and the husband/wife?”, “and work?”).

But before asking you any questions, the person will greet you. If he or she is not using the typical “bonsoir” and especially when you arrive somewhere, you will probably hear the words “bonne arrivée” instead of the typical “bienvenu” (eng. “welcome“). Directly translated in English this means “good arrival”. Sometimes, in the morning, you may also hear people ask you if you’ve slept well or if you have woken up alright (Fr. “Bien dormi?”, “Bien réveillé?”). What a bunch of nice questions! According to Herman Rechberger’s French-Mina dictionary these are cases of the main local language, Mina, influencing the official one.

“Tu as fais un peu?” is a something you’ll hear when the day’s work is done. A literal translation in English goes “have you done a little bit?”. It’s always heart-warming to hear that the premise is that one has only time to do a little work during one day.

Last but surely not least comes “yovo”. Every person in Grand-Popo with light skin will very, very soon become very, very familiar with this word. Yovo is from Mina And Ewe language and it’s used to describe white people. Some say it also means “guest”. The word is part of a lilt probably known by heart by EVERY BENINESE CHILD (and some adults as well): “yovo, yovo, bonsoir, comment ça va, merci!” If you ever go to Grand-Popo or Benin, you’ll hear it.