If you're learning French, you've probably had to cope with the meaning of interjections like "bof", "bah", "ben", "euh" and others.
You've probably found yourself in puzzlement, trying to make out exactly what the French speakers across from you meant as she used one of these words, whether standalone or as part of a longer sentence.
Well, you need not be scared any more. In this article we're going to deep-dive into those dreaded spoken French interjections, and shed some light on them.
After going through this article, not only will the meaning of these words become much clearer, but hopefully you'll also dare to use them in your own spoken French, getting one step closer to French fluency.
We'll start with "bof", a word that causes much confusion and questionning among learners of spoken French, and for good reasons : the uses of this word are as varied are they are context-dependent.
The mysteries of bof in French
It's no secret than the French way of thinking can't really be described as upbeat and positive. French culture has a tendency towards pessimism and skepticism, and native French speakers often complain or see the glass half empty.
A typical example of this gloomy state of things is the expression "c'est pas trop mal" : in French, you often say "it's not too bad" when you actually mean it's quite good. Likewise, "c'est pas faux" is sometimes used in lieu of "c'est vrai".
"Bof" can perhaps be seen as the incarnation of the skeptical and pessimistic aspect of French mentality.
For example, suppose you ask a French person about a trip to Africa they just returned from :
"Alors, c'était bien ton trip ?"
Here's an answer you will hear often :
"Bof, ouais c'était pas trop mal ... Mais il a fait super chaud."
The person starts the answer with "bof", which in this case is like saying "Well kind of ..." :
"Well kind of ... it wasn't so bad ... But the weather was really hot."
The person seems to have mixed feelings about his experience. But her final assessment is that the trip was pretty good - in spite of the heat.
Coming from a French person, such a response may actually reflect a positive outcome. French people are traditionally quite reluctant to give positive feedback and opinions.
School teachers, for example, will typically hold back on writing very good comments for students who do well, because according to French thinking, the student will then think too highly of himself and stop making efforts.
But let's go back to the uses of bof in French.
Bof in French : lukewarm feeling
Consider this exchange :
"Le film t'a plu ?" (did you like the movie ?)
Here, "bof" has a value of "so so", "not so good", average.
He's not saying the movie was bad - if that were the case he might have said something like :
"C'était nul" (it sucked)
Here it's just "bof", i.e. not bad but not good, not so great, could be better. The word also carries a nuance of desillusion and often, some bitterness.
Another example :
"Ça va ?"
"bof ..." (not so good, kind of, average)
The word "bof" is typically accompanied with shoulder shrugging.
Bof in French : I don't care
Here's a somewhat different use of "bof" :
"On fait quoi ?" (what shall we do ?)
"bof, j'sais pas ..." (I don't know)
In this case, "bof" has a meaning of "whatever", "I don't know, I don't really care".
Here's another example :
"Tu préfères diner chez toi ou chez moi ?" (would you rather have dinner at your place or mine ?)
"Bof comme tu veux..." (as you like)
Here, the meaning is clearly one of "whatever".
Bof in French : being modest
Suppose your friend has just completed a fantastic painting. You say to her :
"C'est super ce que tu as fait !" (what you've done is awesome)
Here again, "bof" has a meaning of "not so great", but in this case the painter may just be showing modesty : she may in reality think her work is good, but she won't admit it, instead, she acts as if it's mediocre work.
In French culture, for people to like you, you should come across as a modest person, even putting yourself down a bit. Bragging, or just being proud of yourself, is a capital offense that greatly annoys people, and can even make them sarcastic or aggressive. People will say about you :
"il / elle se la pète" (he/she thinks too highly of him/herself)
Sometimes, such "modesty" behavior extends to the point of actually hiding your skills or talents from people to avoid appearing like you're bragging.
For example, in some circles, people who speak English fluently without accent choose to hide it, and prefer to deliberately take a French accent (e.g. "ze" instead of "the") to avoid being ostracized and laughed at as a person who thinks he/she's better than the others.
What it comes down to is the "Egalité" part of the French motto "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" : everyone should be like everyone else, not better, not worse. That's probably one of the reasons why the French don't like rich people.
Of course, this sometimes goes against the "Liberté" component of the motto.
Anyway, if someone compliments you on something, if you follow French social etiquette, you may respond with a "bof..." to indicate you're a humble person and don't think too highly of yourself.
bof in French : nah
This one is simpler to explain :
"Tu veux une part de gâteau ?" (want a piece of cake ?)
"Bof, non, merci."
Here, "bof" has the meaning of a "nah". It's like saying, "hum I don't know ... nah thanks".
It may also be used as a filler word to make some time when thinking about a reply :
"Tu veux venir avec moi ?" (want to come with me ?)
"bof ... non, je crois que je vais rester ici." (hum ... no, I think I'll stay here)
Bof in French : not interested
Another nuance of "bof" can be seen in the following example :
"Ça te dit d'aller à plage ?"
"Oh bof !"
In this case, the reply would come with a frown on the speaker's face, indicating s/he is not interested at all in the proposition.
So a "bof" spoken with a frown is different from a "bof" with a shoulder shrug : while the latter shows lack of interest or care, the former clearly indicates unwillingness, disapproval, refusal.
Bah in French : hesitation (vs. bof)
Let's turn our attention to another interjection French speakers use all the time, "bah". What exactly does it mean ?
Essentially, it's a deformation of "ben", which itself derives from "bien" or "et bien".
There are a couple of common uses of "Bah". Look at this example :
"C'est loin d'ici le centre ville ?" (is the city center far from here ?)
"Bah... Non pas trop loin." (no, not too far)
Here, "bah" indicates the person is hesitating, thinking about her answer. It's pronounced with a long "a" : "baaaaah", marking the hesitation.
Another example :
"Tu veux aller prendre un café ?" (want to go have coffee ?)
"Baaaah ... OK allons-y." (OK let's go)
So "bah" is used as a filler word while the person is making up her mind.
Note that in the last example, she might have used "bof" instead, but the meaning would have been slightly different :
"Bof... bon OK allons-y !"
Using "bof" here, the initial thought was going to be a "no", i.e. the person was about to reject the proposition, but hesitating, then changes her mind and accepts it. The added "bon" here helps with the transition from a "no" to a "yes".
So to recap, we might say that "bah" indicates hesitation between "yes" and "no", whereas "bof" (in this context) marks hesitation for going from "no" to "yes".
Bah in French : obvious
The other main use of "bah" is to suggest that something is obvious :
"Tu as pris de l'argent sur toi ?" (you brought money with you ?)
"Bah oui !"
Here, "bah" is pronounced with a short "a", unlike in the previous context (hesitation).
What the person is saying here is, "of course I brought money, obviously !" The "bah" answer is often complemented with "évidemment!" :
"Bah oui, évidemment !" (obviously)
Depending on context, such a "bah" may even mean, "that's a dumb question" or "what are you stupid ?" or "what are you blind ?". Example in a clothes store :
"Tu crois qu'ils vendent des chemises ici ?" (you think they sell shirts here ?)
(pointing to a bunch of shirts) "Bah oui !"
In this case, the second speaker raises her eyebrows and looks at the first one in a way that spells "can't you see ? there are shirts right here in front of you !"
He might add "ça se voit !" (it's obvious)
Bah in French : what are you talking about ?
This is a related yet slightly different use of "bah". Suppose your kid comes to you screaming there's a huge bug in the bedroom. When you get to the bedroom, you don't see anything. You say :
"Bah y'a rien là !" (there's nothing here !)
This "bah" is very short, and has a meaning of "what are you talking about !"
Here's another example :
"Regarde ! J'ai une grosse tâche sur le visage ..." (look ! I have a big spot on my face)
"Bah non, je vois pas de tâche..."
Again, this is like saying "what are you talking about, I don't see any spot ..."
In certain situations, you may just say "bah!" alone to express surprise or puzzlement. For example, your friend gives you the key to her apartment so you can stay there for one night while she's away.
But when you get in the apartment, you see no furniture at all, the place is empty. You say :
"Bah ! " (very short "a")
You may also say : "bah alors !" (sort of like a question)
You might say it even though you're all alone. You're expressing out loud your utmost suprise and confusion to find the apartment empty when you expected to find a fully equiped place for you to spend the night.
Bah in French : no big deal
Here's an example of yet another common use of "bah" :
"Tu as eu de mauvaises notes à l'école ce trimestre." (you had some bad grades at school this quarter)
"bah ... je ferai mieux le trimestre prochain !" (I'll do better next quarter)
Here, "bah" has a meaning of "that's no big deal". In fact, it's often followed by a phrase like "no big deal" :
"bah, c'est pas grave !"
You can also alternatively say "ben c'est pas grave".
Another example :
"Mais qui a cassé ce miroir !" (Who broke this mirror !)
"Bah ! on en achètera une autre !" (we'll buy another one)
Here again, "bah" conveys the idea that it's not a big deal - the mirror can be replaced.
Bah vs. ben in French
You may wonder if "bah" and "ben" carry the exact same meaning, since "bah" is a derivative of "ben".
Unfortunately, not always - that would be too simple ! Depending on context, each one may have it own nuances.
For example, suppose someone asks :
"Tu crois qu'il va faire chaud demain ?" (you think the weather will be hot tomorrow ?)
Answer 1 : "ben oui, sûrement"
Answer 2 : "bah oui, sûrement ..."
In answer 1, the person is pondering the question and gives her personal opinion. "Ben" is equivalent to "eh bien", "well".
In answer 2, depending on the way "bah" is pronounced, the person is saying it's obvious the weather is going to be hot (perhaps because it's summer time, or because of current weather conditions or geographic location).
So, subtle differences, which probably take quite a bit of conversation practice before you can fully grasp them.
Euh in French
Let's end this review with a brief look at the interjection "euh".
In many cases, "euh" can pretty much translate to "um" in English :
"Vous avez l'heure s'il vous plait ?" (do you have the time please ?)
"Euh oui, il est 16h30" (Um yes, it's 4:30 pm)
Here, the speaker is using "euh" to indicate he's about to check the time to answer the question, so "euh" is used as filler.
Just like "Um", "euh" is also often used to indicate hesitation :
"Je peux utiliser ton téléphone ?" (can I use your phone ?)
"Euh ... d'accord, mais ne parle pas trop, OK ?" (Um ... well alright, but don't talk too much OK ?)
A different use of "euh" is to express disagreement in a soft, non up-front manner :
"Toutes les femmes aiment qu'on leur ouvre la porte !" (all women like it when someone opens the door for them)
"Euh ... je ne crois pas, non, pas toutes !" (I don't think so, not all of them)
The second speaker doesn't agree with the first, and starts her sentence with "euh" to indicate she has a "slight problem" with what the first speaker said, suggesting he should perhaps revise his judgement.
"C'est très facile de démarrer une entreprise !" (it's very easy to start a business)
"Euh ... pas si facile que ça !" (not that easy)
The second speaker is expressing a contradicting position, but the "euh" indicates to the other person he's sort of opening a debate on the topic.
Test yourself !
Let's see if you've assimilated all the spoken French subtleties we've discussed in this article ! Check out the following quiz, and write your answers in the comments below the article. The answers will be published later on.
If you'd like to receive the answers faster, just leave your email address , I 'll send them to you directly (I'll then immediately delete your email address from the comments section right away)
1) Consider the following dialogue in spoken French :
"On va prendre un pot ce soir, ça te dit de te joindre à nous ?" (we're going out for a drink tonight, want to join us ?)
"Bof, tu sais, moi, les bars ..."
What is the best explanation for the above answer ?
A. I'm not sure, maybe I'll come along
B. Well OK, I'll join you guys
C. No thanks, I'm not a big fan of this kind of things
2) Consider the following dialogue in spoken French :
"Tu as vu comme il a grandi le petit ?"
"Bah il a 16 ans quand même"
What is the meaning of "bah" in the above answer ?
A. Yes indeed, he has really grown
B. Well of course he has
C. Can't believe how much he's grown !
3) Consider the following dialogue in spoken French :
"Je sors là, tu viens avec moi ?"
"Euh non, je viens d'arriver"
What is the real value of "euh" in the above answer ?
A. Well let me think ...
B. Sorry but no
C. OK I'll go with you
4) Consider the following dialogue in spoken French :
"Envoie ton article à ta nièce, elle le lira sûrement" (send your article to your niece, she'll read it for sure)
"Bof, ça m'etonnerait."
What is the real meaning of the above answer ?
A. She won't read it
B. She will read it
C. She might read it