Friday’s French – gens, personnes, monde, peuple, people

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People learning French seem to find it difficult to know how to translate the word people! It’s because there are several different words that can be used depending on the context and meaning: gens, personnes, monde, peuple, people. Aïe!

Il y avait beaucoup de monde au marché. Il y avait plusieurs personnes habillées en noir. Les gens avaient l'air content parce qu'il faisait soleil.

Il y avait beaucoup de monde au marché. Il y avait plusieurs personnes habillées en noir. Les gens avaient l’air content parce qu’il faisait soleil. – There were lots of people at the market. Several people were dressed in black. People looked happy because it was sunny.

Let’s start with a few examples and see how they are used.

Les gens intelligents = clever people

Les personnes âgées = old people

Les jeunes (gens) = young people

Beaucoup de gens/monde = a lot of people

Il y avait beaucoup de monde = the place was full of people

Plusieurs personnes m’ont parlé de l’accident. = Several people told me about the accident.

Combien de personnes ? = How many people?

Ce sont de drôles de gens = They’re strange people.

Que vont penser les gens ? = What will people think

Le peuple australien = the Australian people

Les gens de la campagne = country people

Can you see a pattern emerging? Well I can’t !

Why don’t we say les personnes intelligentes and les gens âgés ? And why not les jeunes personnes ?

I checked my Larousse dictionary to see if I could find a difference

GENS :

  1. Personnes en nombre indéterminé – People when there is an indeterminate number [Les gens flânaient dans la rue – People were wandering in the streets]
  2. Les hommes en général – Men in general [Les gens sont influencés par la publicité – People are influenced by advertising]
  3. Telle ou telle personne, ou la personne qui parle – Such and such a person, or the person speaking [Vous avez une façon de recevoir des gens ! – You have a way of welcoming people!]
  4. Personnes appartenant à un état, à une profession – People belonging to a state or profession. [Les gens du spectacle – People in show business]

OK, it’s clear for n° 4 and maybe fore n°2 but it doesn’t really explain why we talk about personnes intelligentes but gens âgés.

So I asked the question on my French translators’ list and got some very different answers, some of which are contradictory which just goes to show that even the French don’t agree on usage!

1. It’s always better to use personnes when you can.

2. Les gens intelligents et les personnes intelligentes sont différents. Maybe, but if it is, it’s very subtle. I googled the two expressions and in most of the examples they seem pretty interchangeable to me, with 30,900 hits for personnes intelligentes and 165,000 for gens intelligents!

4. Personnes is used when it could be perceived negatively such as personnes âgées, personnes handicapées (yes, handicapped is politically correct in French!) and gens when it’s positive : jeunes gens, braves gens. Ok, but what about les gens tristes?

5. Semantically, when using personnes the human dimension is stronger while gens is a neutral term. Personnes âgées shows respect for the elderly.

6. Jeunes gens is the plural of jeune homme and excludes jeunes filles.

7. Jeunes gens can also mean jeunes filles.

8. Personnes is used to distinguish a particular group such as grandes personnes (adults), personnes sourdes (the hearing impaired).

9. Correct French always “sounds” right. Yes, but only if you are brought up hearing correct French in my opinion!

10. Maybe gens is more difficult to use with an adjective because it can be either masculine or feminine or both.

My personal feeling is that it is mostly a question of what people usually use. In French, personnes âgées is by far the more prevalent expression (17,300,00 hits on google as opposed to gens âgés).

If you’re talking about a nebulous group – sad people, happy people, clever people, people in the street, people who live alone – you would use gens: les gens tristes, les gens heureux, les gens intelligents, les gens dans la rue, les gens qui habitent seuls.

If the group is more specific (with the exception of personnes âgées which is the more usual term as state above), such as the people on my left, the people who arrived late, the people concerned, you would use personnesles personnes à ma gauche, les personnes qui sont arrivées en retard, les personnes concernées.

But despite all this, personnes and gens are not always interchangeable. I started writing this post after hearing an English speaker use the wrong one but now I can’t for the life of me remember what it was!

However, in the initial set of phrases, it is not possible to say plusieurs gens, combien de gens, que vont penser les personnes or les personnes de la campagne. It would just sound odd!

And one last word before I finish off. People is used in French to mean celebrities.

Any questions???

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18 Responses to Friday’s French – gens, personnes, monde, peuple, people

  1. I can see that getting complicated fast!
    William Kendall recently posted…The Archive Within The LibraryMy Profile

  2. Susan Walter says:

    I hope it wasn’t me using the wrong word. I thought I’d more or less got to grips with gens v personnes. My impression has been that gens is for general situations, personnes for specific people and polite, more formal situations. That seems to match what you’ve said. I’ve just picked it up by what I read and hear.

    Beaucoup de monde is often just de monde could also be la foule.
    Susan Walter recently posted…Lunch at NoyersMy Profile

  3. paola appelius says:

    Tu as très bien résumé la chose, Rosemary, c’est une question d’usage;-)
    Une anecdote : un jour que j’interrogeais mon neveu adolescent par sms pour savoir si lui et ses copains employaient l’expression : “j’ai le seum” pour une traduction, il m’a répondu : c’est une expression très employée chez les personnes jeunes.
    C’était légèrement ironique, mais c’était pour dire “les jeunes” (ou les djeunz) et pas “les gens jeunes” (donc une population distinguée, au sens presque sociologique)
    pcqcv…

  4. “Correct French always ‘sounds’ right”. Yes, just like ‘correct’ English or correct anything else. That’s very hard to judge if it’s not the language you’ve been brought up with, but then it doesn’t matter all that much for everyday. What counts is a sympathetic desire to understand and do one’s best, and then anyone worth troubling about will be sympathetic too. There’s another interesting and important thing: learning to speak a foreign language in its home territory means largely translating from one’s own, less so with increasing fluency but still predominantly, and the careful listener will pay attention to that. A very great deal about any individual can be picked up by his choice and arrangement of words, even if not in a very polished way, which is why a ‘foreign accent’ can be so charming. English of course is my native language, but I think I’ve improved – or broadened – it by hearing so many others from all sorts of places sometimes falteringly speaking it.
    Stephen Brody recently posted…IX HOLLYWOOD LUSITANIAMy Profile

  5. Rosemary Kneipp says:

    It is, of course, whenl you stop translating from your own language that you make the most progress, but that’s not always an easy point to reach!

    I am fascinated by language and particularly by the differences in concept from one to the other. In English we have the all-encompassing “people” whereas the French have subtle distinctions.

    Jean Michel is making an effort to improve his English at the moment for our next visit to Australia, which is not easy because we have never spoken English together. So I’m using the method of saying everyday things to him in ordinary English – it’s lunch time; do you want some more tea?; what time to you want to take a break – that sort of thing, so that he will understand more and then spontaneously reply, just as a child learns a language. I don’t correct him because it’s more important that he should start speaking. Eventually he’ll get the grammar right and certainly in the meantime it doesn’t matter.

    I’ll let you know how it works!

    BTW, how many languages do you speak? I’d love to live in Italy for a while to bring my Italian up to par.

  6. Only one even half-way adequately, and a smattering of a few others. I agree, language is fascinating, if only to show the deficiencies of one’s own. I think with Hindi I’ve reached my limit. Good luck with the Australians! I took a ‘foreigner’ there too, to bewilderment all around, though mine managed a passable local accent and a few expressions perhaps best forgotten.
    Stephen Brody recently posted…IX HOLLYWOOD LUSITANIAMy Profile

  7. hmmm. I’ll be comming back for my Friday French. I’m very much the beginner. I’ve been lucky enough to live in a few non-English speaking countries. I lived in Chile in my 20’s and learnt passable Spanish. I spent a few years in Japan later on, and that’s where I finally twigged that the main thing is being able to communicate. I got really caught up on grammer in Chile and making a fool of myself. It was when my Japanese colleagues would fall over themselves trying to use the correct Australian grammar (i.e. trying to be more precise than even general English) that I told them ‘look I can understand you, you have won the language battle’. Now I’m trying to apply than it France … and to learn some grammar of course!!
    sally higgins recently posted…Tis the season for fèvesMy Profile

    • Rosemary Kneipp says:

      Spanish will help of course, except the vocabulary can be quite different because of the Moorish influence.

      You do need basic grammar but we must remember that children learn to speak their own language while knowing nothing about grammar! Good luck.

  8. Interesting article. It had never occurred to me how complex this is. I guess it’s the kind of thing that comes naturally once you’ve been living in France a while. I’m sure I must have used the wrong word many times when I first arrived, but I guess nobody picked me up on it because everyone will still understand you if you use the wrong word, even if it sounds a little old.

    For “old people”, it’s better to get it wrong by saying “les gens âgés” than by saying “les vieux”!

  9. Lev Rebrin says:

    I think the reason why “la jeune peronne” doesn’t exist is rather simple:
    sg. un jeune homme / une jeune femme – pl. de jeunes gens
    un brave homme / une brave femme – de braves gens
    * une brave personne – * de braves personnes
    sg. une personne âgée – pl. des personnes âgées

    • Rosemary Kneipp says:

      You can actually say “les jeunes personnes” (in the plural), it just isn’t used. The question was not grammatical, but one of usage. There is no problem about saying “une jeune personne”, plural “de jeunes personnes”.

  10. Steven says:

    Hi, very nice post. I came across your site while searching for difference between “gens”, “peuple”, “personnes”, “foule”…etc.

    Just one part that’s confusing, numbers 6 and 7, are they contradicting each other?

    • Rosemary Kneipp says:

      Hi, the numbered answers came from my French translators’ list and yes, 6 and 7 are contradicting each other. I was trying to demonstrate that even French people don’t have the same opinion about what “jeunes gens” means – and these are people who work with language all the time!

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