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French Vocabulary – Maps and Directions Posted by on Apr 2, 2019 in Geography, Vocabulary

While doing the research for my last post on le Grand Paris, I came across something that got me thinking about les points cardinaux (the cardinal points) and the words that we use in French to talk about north, south, east, and west.

I still have the well-worn copy of A. Leconte’s Plan de Paris par Arrondissment that got me around the city for years. You could look up any street and see where it was on the map, major intersections, and nearby metro stations.

Le monde est grand / The world is big

J’adore les cartes (I love maps). I don’t have much call to use actual maps anymore, thanks to my trusty portable (cell phone), but back in the day, getting around a new city pretty much required the use of a good plan (city map). Today you can use the built-in map function on your phone or télécharger (download) all sorts of apps to help you navigate.

The word carte shows up in lots of places. You can send someone une carte de voeux for their birthday, or use un jeu de cartes to play your favorite card game. Une carte bancaire can help you get cash out of an ATM or you might receive une carte postale from your friend who is away on holiday. What we call in English a smartphone or cell phone can be either un portable, un mobile, un telephone cellulaire.

Les points cardinaux / The points of the compass

Everyone knows to the right (à droite) and to the left (à gauche), but less common are the words for north (le nord), south (le sud), east (l’est), and west (l’ouest). Let’s look at these terms in use:

Le premier arrondissement est au centre de Paris. / The first arrondissement is in the center of Paris.

Le jardin du Luxembourg est au sud du premier arrondissement, dans le sixième arrondissement. / The Luxembourg gardens are to the south of the first arrondissement, in the sixth.

Le Bois de Boulogne est à l’ouest de Paris et le Bois de Vincennes est à l’est. / The Boulogne Park is to the west of Paris and the Vincennes Park is to the east.

La ville de Gentilly est au sud de Paris. / The city of Gentilly is south of Paris.

Le Sacré-Coeur est dans le nord de Paris. / The Sacré-Cœur is in the north of Paris.

Click this link to see a Google Maps view that corresponds to these directions.

Note that, while they can sometimes feel like adjectives, les points cardinaux are nouns and therefore do not get modified to agree with associated nouns. Which was that thing that caught my attention when I was researching le Grand Paris. I saw a description of la banlieue ouest (the western suburbs) and wondered for the first time in all these years I’ve been speaking French why it wasn’t la banlieue oueste … and now I – and you! – know.

While these words can help us find our way, two of them (at least) show up in expression that mean just the opposite. Perdre le nord (to lose the north) is an expression that means ‘to get lost’, ‘to be confused’, ‘to not know which end is up’. Etre à l’ouest (to be to the west), an expression that seems to have entered French from the English (as apparently did the words nord, sud, est, and ouest themselves!), means to be tired, out of things, wiped.

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About the Author: Tim Hildreth

Lise: Maybe not always. Paris has ways of making people forget. / Jerry: Paris? No, not this city. It's too real and too beautiful. It never lets you forget anything. It reaches in and opens you wide, and you stay that way. / An American in Paris


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