Language Larks: What French Words Mean Depends on Where You Live

Occitan flag – also the symbol of the Midi-Pyrénées Region
Nimlar, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Just a short post this week, for reasons that will become apparent later. Before we moved here, in my ignorance I had always assumed that French was a pretty homogeneous language and that the vocabulary of Lille must also be that of Biarritz. The longer I live here, the more I realise that this is not so.

And why should it be? After all, France is a big country with strong regional and local traditions. Long after the Revolution, despite attempts to impose administrative harmony, those traditions persisted and still do.

Some of our elderly neighbours spoke Occitan – a separate language – as their first language and learnt French at school. Occitan was a spoken, rather than a written language, and the word for the same thing could vary even between neighbouring villages.

Some French singing friends and I were chatting about language during a break at the Puycelsi weekend. It turns out that only in the southwest is a pain au chocolat called a chocolatine.

Now, if you go into a boulangerie down here and use either word, they will understand. But it appears that this isn’t the case elsewhere. I have not been able to verify this, so I would be interested to know if the word chocolatine is used in other parts of France.

From personal experience, I know that the name for the same type of bread varies between regions. Once, when walking in the Auvergne, I asked for “une flûte” in a boulangerie. I was presented with a long and very thin loaf of bread, i.e. like the musical instrument. Down here, une flûte is a long, fat loaf.

One of my friends had lived in the Ardennes for a while before moving back to the southwest. She told us that when she first moved there she went to a supermarket. At the till, she asked for “une poche”, which is what we call a plastic bag down here. The hôtesse de caisse looked perplexed and carried on checking out the items. After a while, she looked up and said to my friend:

Est-ce que vous m’avez bien demandé un sac en plastique?”(Did you actually ask me for a plastic bag?).

So there you are. It’s bewildering even for the French.

Have you come across words that don’t exist elsewhere or have different meanings, depending on the part of France you’re in?

You might also like:

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  1. Coming in late to the pain au chocolat party. Over here in Quebec, Canada, you can ask for pain au chocolat or chocolatine and you’ll get what you want without a single raised eyebrow. I never thought about this before, that we use both to mean the same thing.


  2. Here in Caunes, in the Languedoc, yes, chooclatine and pain au chocolate are understood…..but natives ask for chocos. Fascinating.


  3. Un pain au chocolat is a slice of bread (for example baguette) with some small blocks of chocolate inside. ☺ A chocolatine is a delicious pastry.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Never. Baguette with chocolate inside isn’t called “pain au chocolat” This item is only the pastry you buy in the boulangerie.


      • David, I wonder if you aren’t confusing “du” pain au / avec du chocolat and “un” pain au chocolat…I should be really surprised if people referred to an actual piece of bread with chocolate inside as “un pain au chocolat”…


      • Yves, I don’t want to sound patronizing, but the concepts of irony and sarcasm are familiar to you, aren’t they? Or should I explain my joke?


        • I am watching this conversation carefully and if it looks as if it is going to turn into a slanging match, I shall have to close the comments on this post. I’m happy for you to have a debate, but please keep it respectful and objective. Thank you.


      • Sorry Nessa,
        If you felt that I was being mean, I wasn’t, sorry.

        OK, let’s start over.
        So, when I said that pain au chocolat is basically bread with chocolate, I was being ironic and sarcastic… Mocking those of my compatriots who denigrate the word “chocolatine”, because for you Anglos, it’s just an interesting linguistic tidbit, but for us it’s more than that, basically an allegory of “Parisian imperialism” over the rest of France. I know it may sound like I exaggerate, but well… the Third Republic…

        So when Yves explained to me what it was, I found it amusing, and not wanting to be patronizing and tell her about my linguistic background (OK, you want to know? native speaker, master’s in French, unfinished PhD in French and French teacher for 12 years (not at the moment, but it could happen again at anytime), there you have it 🙂 ).
        So, I continued with the joke… But she still didn’t get it… So I started hinting it was a joke… But maybe my French directness was too direct doing it, for that I apologize. 🙂


        • It’s okay and I see where you’re coming from. But I know how easy it is for these online discussions to get out of hand and I wouldn’t want that to happen here. I certainly don’t want to stop people commenting: I learn a lot from these comments.


  4. I wonder whether near the Belgian border in France you get the ‘belgicismes’ (like ‘lange’ instead of ‘couche’ for nappy, ‘essui’ instead of ‘serviette’ for towel, the septantes and nonantes, etc…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sure that is the case in the border regions. I do wish the French counting system were easier. Even after 18 years here, I have to think carefully about soixante-dix, quatre-vingt trois etc. It would be so much easier to adopt the Belgian version.


  5. Yes, chocolatine and poche are alive and well in the lot. Have you come across ‘toubib’ for the doctor yet? We birder the correze and there is a correzian version of bubble and squeak ( the name escapes me) that my friends this side of the departmental line know neither of the dish or its name. Endlessly fascinating! 🙂


    • Yes, “toubib” is used frequently. As David also says in repsonse to your comment, this is a word that probably has its origins in N.Africa. I haven’t come across the bubble and squeak variation – unless it’s Pounti, which is rather Cantalien and made with prunes and bacon. I would be interested to know more about the dish you mention.


    • Thank you for this link. This appears to confirm that chocolatine is a SW France word. Not sure what to make of the Kevins. Having just returned from Corsica, I can well believe that this prénom is unkown there…


  6. I confirm that we do not have chocolatines in the French Ardennes and that we indeed have poches in the shops. And we have many other words that no one else has : drache, beuquette, wèbe … “S’émpierger” my grand-mother used to say … before I realized it was not French. Even politeness is not expressed the same way in Tououse or in Charleville. The disparities are not a surprise to me as every small spot has its local patois and its local accent !


    • Ah, so you do have poches in the Ardennes! I have heard the word “drache” but not “beuquette” or “wèbe”. The more I experience the French language, the more I realise that it overlays a web of far more complex local dialect.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Other than names of foods which do vary a lot, I find the French in France to be quite homogeneous. I very much doubt that anyone in these parts would know what was meant by a chocolatine!

    Liked by 1 person

    • My experience is that the vocabulary can vary quite considerably. Down here, where Occitan still vies with French for supremacy, some of the elderly people combine the two. Our neighbours say, “J’en ai mascagne”, meaning “J’en ai marre”- “mascagne” being the Occitan word for fed up.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Interesting. I must say that between Paris, Lyon and now the Haute Savoie, I’ve not experienced this in the day to day language. Of course, in Lyon you get a bit of specific vocabulary like ‘gones’ for kids, and the odd use of the auxilliary ‘y’ in certain verb constructions, but overall I find it quite consistent.


    • Without any aggression or sarcasm in my voice: have you interacted a lot with French people from many regions…? Expressions do vary greatly from area to area and not just food.
      Sometimes, a few dozens kilometers away are enough. For example, where I’m from, in the South West too, maybe an hour from where Nessa lives, “mascagner” is a verb and means “struggling doing something”, but I have never heard of “j’en ai mascagne”.


      • Well, I have gotten around a bit in nearly 25 years in France, although not spent much time in the south or Nessa’s region. But I am still learning new things every day!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Well, south west, anyway. The south is a big place.

          As for “J’en ai mascagne”, it’s an expression I have heard directly from several elderly people in the neighbourhood – which just goes to prove your point that language usage can vary greatly from place to place.


  8. Of course, since I live on the border between France and Switzerland, we can get some lovely old mix-ups. For instance, there is a patisserie roll with chocolate, custard and basically everything you can throw at it: on our side of the border it’s known as a torsade, while just a few km down the road it’s called a gourmandise. Same with a cafe au lait – it becomes a renverse in Switzerland. I sometimes forget where I am and always get odd looks, although they should be used to that by now – there should be some hybrid ‘frontalier’ language.
    P.S. I think chocolatine is common throughout the South of France (on the Cote d’Azure as well).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Apologies for the delayed reply. We have been on holiday on Corsica and I don’t have a smartphone or tablet. Interesting to hear that chocolatine may be common throughout the south of France. Around here, there are countless words for the same thing – whether culinary or not.


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