Friday’s French – the subtleties of si

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I’ve already talked about the fact that you don’t say oui merci in French but oui, je veux bien, but I didn’t think to mention si.

An Australian friend living in France and attending French lessons asked me the following question:

If someone repeats my order and says pas de lait (no milk) and that is correct I should answer with si not oui. Is this correct? I hope so. It would mean another consolidated learning.

I’m afraid I had to disappoint her. If she answered si it would mean that she DID want milk. She should answer “oui, c’est ça”.

Si, which is not Spanish as I thought the first time I heard it, is used in French to mean “yes” when refuting a negative that has just been used.

I think the best way to explain is by giving examples.

Tu n’en veux plus? (you don’t want any more?). If you say si it means, yes, I do want some more.

Finalement tu ne viens pas? (you’re not coming after all?). If you want to answer “Yes I am”, then you say si ou si je viens. However, if you say “oui je viens” you’d still be understood.

Il n’y a plus personne? (there’s no one left?). If there is someone left, you’d say si but if there is no one, you’d say, “non“.

Tu ne sortiras pas ce soir ! (you’re not going out tonight!). If you want to protest vehemently, you’d reply Si (oh, yes I am!).

You’re standing on a street corner. “Je ne vois pas de restaurant” (I can’t see a restaurant). Your friend says “Si, si, c’est de l’autre côté de la rue“. The si, si used here doesn’t have a literal translation. It’s refuting the fact that you’ve said you can see the restaurant but we’d hardly say “yes, it’s on the other side of the street”.

The rest of the time, si means “if” except when it means “while”, or “whether”. I’ve often noticed that the more subtle “while” is often misunderstood by Anglosaxons.

During the recent Hollande/Triereviller break-up, the Président said the following at his annual new year press conference:

Ce n’est donc ni le lieu, ni le moment de le faire [i.e. discussing his private life). Mais si je ne répondrai à aucune question aujourd’hui sur le sujet, je le ferai avant le rendez-vous que vous avez fixé. 

When I read the same quote in English in the New York Times (among others), I was somewhat surprised:

“This is neither the time nor the place to do so. If I do not go into detail about this today, then I will do so before the meeting which you refer to.”

That is not what he was saying. The “si” in this case does not mean “if”. He had absolutely no intention of speaking about the matter during the press conference. He was saying “While I will not answer any questions about this day, I will do so before the meeting which you refer to”. Not exactly the same, is it!

I agree that it’s very subtle in French which is not the diplomatic language par excellence for nothing. The meaning is probably easier to understand in the following example:

Si lui est aimable, sa femme est arrogante. That does not mean “If he is pleasant, his wife is arrogant” which would express the idea that his wife is only arrogant when he is being pleasant. The sentence actually means “while (ou whereas) he is very pleasant his wife (on the other hand) is arrogant”.

Do you have any other examples?

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