French Language Blog

French Vocabulary – Town and Country Posted by on Jul 28, 2020 in Language, Music, Vocabulary

It’s easy to think, when you look at a bilingual dictionary, that there is a right word in French for every word in English. Sometimes though picking the right word in another language is complicated by nuances of meaning.

Le Rat de la ville et le Rat des champs

Ville (n.f; la ville) is one such word. In English, the word ville can be translated as either town or city. Knowing which of them someone is referring to – whether they mean a city or town – depends on context.

Le Rat de la ville et le Rat des champs (The city rat and the field rat, otherwise known in English as The country mouse and the city mouse) is a tale by Jean de la Fontaine based on an earlier fable by Aesop.

Legally speaking, the French government only recognizes three administrative groups: la région (the region, of which France has 13, not including les DOM-TOM), le département (the department, 95 within the borders of France, 2 in Corsica, and 5 overseas 1The department number (75 for Paris, 92 for the Hauts-de-Seine where I used to live) shows up in postal codes (75015 for the 15th arrondissement in Paris, 92270 for Bois-Colombes)), and la commune (the community, almost 35,000 across all regions!).

When you get away from the legal definitions though, there are many different terms for describing the places where people live:

le hameau / hamlet – a gathering of a small number of houses or buildings, like le hameau de la reine at Versailles

le village / village – generally more rural, strictly speaking un village a moins de 2 ooo habitants (a village has fewer than 2,000 residents)

la ville, qui peut être petite, moyenne, ou grandethe city, which can be small (5,000 to 20,000 people), medium (20,000 – 50,000), or large (more than 50,000)

la cité / the city –  In French, the word cité is generally used to refer to a specific part of a city or type of city, as opposed to a city in general. You’ll find it in expressions like cité mediévale (medieval city), la cité universitaire (the university area), and of course l’Île de la Cité on which the first settlements that would grow to become Paris appeared.

le quartier / the quarter, neighborhood – with their unique character and their local markets, these smaller parts of cities and towns are often the lifeblood of the community

l’arrondissementborough, ward – it’s only taken me 35 years to figure out that arrondissements are what we here in the US would think of as a ward or borough. In the same way that, say, Manhattan is a borough of the city of New York, the 1st, 4th, 15th, 16th and all the other arrondissements are semi-autonomous, but all part of the city of Paris.

Pour en savoir plus / To learn more: Turns out, it isn’t just those of us learning French who struggle with these definitions. I found these two articles from French news outlets to be very helpful in compiling this week’s post. From Le Télégramme Soir: Quelle différence entre une ville, une commune, un bourg ou un village? (What’s the difference between a town/city, a community, a borough or a village?) and from Le Monde: Entre ‘ville’ et ‘village’, où passe la frontière? (Between ‘town/city’ and ‘village’, where is the line (lit. border)?

Pour finir

To wrap up here is a fun little clip (video) from the French singer Voyou accompanied by Yelle. It’s a funky little song accompanied by some decidedly interesting views of Paris. Qu’en pensez-vous des bruits de la ville? (What do you think about the sounds of the city?)


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    The department number (75 for Paris, 92 for the Hauts-de-Seine where I used to live) shows up in postal codes (75015 for the 15th arrondissement in Paris, 92270 for Bois-Colombes)
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About the Author: Tim Hildreth

Since my first trip to France at 16, I have been a passionate francophile. I love the language, food, music, art, people, and more that make France and la Francophonie in general such an amazing part of our global community. Having lived in France and studied the language and culture for over 35 years, it is my great pleasure to be able to share a little bit of my deep love with you through this blog.


  1. Maurice FFELAN:

    As you can imagine there are lots more French words for localities both in the country and in built up areas.

    Most villages will have a central area called ‘le bourg’ which generally serves as a postal address even though it may contain quite a few recognisable and named thoroughfares. Letters may be addressed simply to ‘le bourg’ (sometimes with a house number but often as not without) and le facteur is supposed to know which house you live at butany stranger looking for a house will have to ask!

    Contrary to what is said in the article there are lots of officially recognised local government units, subdividing departments (UK equivalent of a county) and grouping communes together. These have councils of members who are either elected or have delegates from the communal councils. These groupings seem to have different titles in different areas such as ‘communauté des communes’, agglomérations or cantons.

    Departments have a parallel central government body called a préfecture (usually with sous préfectures). The préfet can under certain circumstances take over control of the area and even call in the army but usually needs a formal request from the maire of the relevant commune to do so.

    In effect the maire of a tiny commune of a few hundred souls can initiate the process for declaring martial law! For a comic illustration of this read the enjoyable novel Clochemerle by Gabriel Chevalier (or watch the film)

    • Tim Hildreth:

      @Maurice FFELAN Merci pour ces précisions, Maurice. I based my findings in part on these two excellent articles which indicated to met that – even for a native French speakers – keeping track of all the terms can be a challenge! Le Entre “ville” et “village”, où passe la frontière ? and Quelle différence entre une ville, une commune, un bourg ou un village ? [] from Le Télégramme Soir. []