Animals in French: From Noah’s Ark to the Arc de Triomphe

Animals in French: From Noah's Ark to the Arc de Triomphe
Animals have long been interwoven into the fabric of French culture, art, and history. From the horses on the Bayeux Tapestry to the horses, sheep, cows, and dogs in the work of animal painter Rosa Bonheur, animals are featured in many eras and styles of French art. And let’s not forget le Coq Gaulois, the Gallic Rooster that for centuries has represented France and its people. Animals still feature prominently in French life and language. Learning to talk about animals in French can open up new aspects of your learning journey.

How to Learn about Animals in French

For best results, mix and match several methods for learning about animals in French.

Reading

Animals appear in a variety of written French texts, which provide practice for learners at various levels.

Children’s Books

If you’re somewhat new to French, children’s books about animals can get you up-to-speed with animal words. Some are bilingual French-English; some are in simple French:
And what animal books could be more classically French than Jean de Brunhoff’s series about Babar, le roi des éléphants (the king of the elephants)?

French Animal Magazines

With a variety of articles and lots of photos, French magazines about animals are a wonderful way for intermediate learners to practice their animal vocab. Several are available for free online, which makes them perfect for use with a text-glossing tool such as ReadLang:

French Literature

Writers like Jules Verne can introduce upper intermediate and advanced learners to the incredibly diversity of sea life, with books such as Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea), which you can read in French through Project Gutenberg, or read with parallel text in the language(s) of your choice through Farkas Translations. (Farkas Translations also has downloadable versions of its translations, for reading on the go.)  Verne goes deep into the history of land animals with Voyage au Centre de la Terre (Journey to the Center of the Earth), which is also available through both Farkas Translations and Project Gutenberg.

Playing Games

To quiz yourself and reinforce your recollection of French animal names, try courses on learning app Memrise, such as Animals in French! by Scarbzscope or the impressively detailed Animals by Hely. Study app Quizlet offers flashcard decks, with matching exercises and games, that will teach you French animal names. (To spice things up, check out Cajun French Animals.) Quiz site Sporcle gives you the opportunity to match French animal names to animal images, fight the clock to type in the correct French animal names, or attempt to match 100 French animal names to their English counterparts.

Watching YouTube Videos

Videos can be an entertaining way to learn French animal names and expand your French animal vocab, no matter what your learning level.

Instructional Videos: Learn Animal Names

Learners at a beginner level have plenty of resources for learning French animal names and their pronunciations:

Fun Videos for Intermediate Learners

You might learn a few less-than-polite French words from the sassy French kitties on bilingual French YouTube channels such as Parole de Chat (Cat Talk) and Henri LeChatNoir (Henri the Black Cat). Still, the videos on these channels are a fun way to practice French animal vocab while fulfilling the internet’s raison d’être (reason for being): sharing cute cat videos. For a family-friendly alternative with lots of cattitude, try the Garfield & Cie (Garfield & Company) channel.

Animal and Nature Documentaries

Intermediate and advanced learners might enjoy the nature documentaries on Le Doc HD. With videos about 45 minutes to one hour in length, you can get a deeper understanding of animals around the globe. These are not captioned in either French or English, but the narrator speaks slowly and clearly — plus, the vibrant imagery helps convey the meaning. Similar documentary channels include Zapping Sauvage and National Geographic Wild France, both of which have shorter clips that are auto-captioned in French. Animaux TV is formatted like a talk show, with interview segments about wild and unusual animals, and astuces (tips, advice) about life with companion animals from veterinarian Laetitia Barlerin. Dive underwater into both history and the life aquatic with Le monde du silence (The World of Silence) and La grande aventure de la mer (The Great Sea Adventure), starring ocean creatures with the legendary explorer, Jacques Cousteau.

Animals in French

Here are dozens of French animal names to help you explore le règne animal (the animal kingdom). Many of these names are used as endearments between loved ones. Animal words also feature prominently in French idioms, to add wild and wooly flair to your speech. For animal names with less straightforward pronunciations, I’ve linked to pronunciation examples from native speakers.

Les Insectes (Insects)

These are some of the tiniest members of the animal kingdom that we might encounter in everyday life.
  • une abeille – bee
  • une araignée – spider
    • Avoir une araignée au plafond (to have a spider on the ceiling) is the French-language equivalent of having bats in your belfry.
  • une fourmi – ant
    • When your hand, arm, or leg falls asleep, and you get that prickly pins-and-needles sensation, the French would say, Vous avez des fourmis (You have ants.)
  • une mouche – fly
  • un papillon – butterfly
  • une puce – flea
    • Ma petite puce (my little flea) is a well-known French endearment, one that makes a tiny creature even smaller. It’s used for both men and women.
  • un scarabée – beetle
    • With the double-E ending, scarabée looks like it should be a feminine word. But, oddly enough, it’s masculine.

Les Oiseaux (Birds)

Let’s meet some feathered friends, both flying and flightless, in French.
  • un aigle – eagle
  • un chauve-souris – bat
    • Literally, a “bald mouse.”
  • un canard – duck
    • Mon petit canard (my little duck) can be used to mean “sweetheart.”
    • On the other hand, un canard boiteux (a lame duck) is a misfit — someone you probably don’t want to get close to. 
    • Un canard boiteux est quelqu’un qui fait un canard. (A lame duck — misfit — is someone who “does a duck,” or strikes a sour note…socially, in this case.)
    • Un canard is also slang for a newspaper. Le Canard enchaîné (The Chained-Up Duck) is a satirical French weekly, published in Paris.
  • un colibri – hummingbird
    • A hummingbird can also be called un oiseau-mouche, or “bird-fly” (with “fly” as in the insect).
  • une chouette – owl
  • un coq – rooster
  • un dindon – turkey
  • un hibou – horned owl 
    • This relative of la chouette (round-headed owl) is called an “eagle-owl” in Europe and Asia.
  • une hirondelle – swallow
  • une mouette – seagull
  • un oiseau – bird
  • un oiseau bleu – bluebird
    • L’oiseau bleu du bonheur, of course, is “the bluebird of happiness.”
  • un passereau – sparrow
  • une poule – hen
    • When you get goosebumps in French, you have la chair de poule (the flesh of a hen).  
    • And, quand les poules auront les dents (when hens have teeth), it means — in English-language terms — that pigs are taking flight.
  • Mon poussin, “my baby chicken,” is used for an endearment.
  • un rouge-gorge – robin
    • Rather than a “robin red-breast,” the French see a robin as a “red-throat.”

Les Animaux de mer (Sea Creatures)

  • une baleine – whale
    • Instead of laughing like hyenas, French speakers rirent comme une baleine (laugh like a whale).
  • un calamar – squid
    • Think of calamari, the Italian delicacy.
    • Squid are also called calmar or encornet in French.
  • une crabe – crab
  • une crevette grise – shrimp
  • un dauphin – dolphin
    • Between the years 1349 and 1830, le dauphin was also the title of the French king’s eldest son. La dauphine was le dauphin’s wife.
  • une étoile de mer – starfish
    • Literally, “star of (the) sea.”
  • un hippocampe – seahorse
    • L’hippocampe also refers to the part of your brain known in English as the hippocampus.
  • un homard – lobster
  • un poisson – fish
  • un requin – shark
    • As in English, the word for shark is also used metaphorically to mean a swindler.
  • un thon – tuna

Les animaux terrestres (Land Animals)

Walking and crawling upon the earth, creatures great and small contribute richness to French-language expression.
  • un agneau – lamb
    • Another word for “lamb,” biquet (or biquette, for the ladies), is used as an endearment.
  • un âne – donkey
    • If you feel that someone is acting like a fool, you might call them un âne (an ass). But, you might want to do so out of earshot.
    • Sauter du coq à l’âne (to jump from the rooster to the donkey) means to jump around from one topic to another, without rhyme or reason.
  • un cerf – deer/stag
    • Une biche is a doe, a female deer. Ma biche can be used as an endearment.
  • un chacal – jackal
  • un chameau – camel
  • un cheval – horse
    • Avoir une fièvre de cheval (to have a horse’s fever) means that you’re burning up.
  • une chèvre – goat
  • un cochon – pig
    • Mon cochon (my pig) can be used as a pet name for your special someone.
  • un crocodile – crocodile
  • un écureuil – squirrel
    • The last syllable of écureuil has a tricky semi-vowel.
  • un éléphant – elephant
  • une girafe – giraffe
  • une grenouille – frog
  • un hippopotame – hippopotamus
  • un léopard – leopard
  • un lézard – lizard
  • un lion – lion
  • un loup – wolf
    • Just like in English, crier au loup means “to cry wolf” — to pretend there is cause for distress.
    • Entre chien et loup (between dog and wolf) can refer to the time between dusk and dawn, with the dog representing the comforting familiarity of daytime, and the wolf symbolizing the unknown dangers of the night.
    • Quand on parle du loup, on en voit la queue means “Speak of the wolf and one sees the tail.” It’s the French way of saying “speak of the Devil.” And, like with its English counterpart, you normally only hear the first clause of the expression — quand on parle du loup. You might also see en parlant du loup, which means “speaking of the wolf.”
    • Avoir une faim de loup (to have a wolf’s hunger) is to be ravenous.
    • The P at the end of loup is generally not pronounced.
  • un manchot – penguin
    • In addition to naming the dapper penguin, un manchot can also refer to someone who has only one arm or hand.
  • un mouton – sheep
    • Stray too far from the matter at hand, and you might be told, Revenons à nous moutons ! In French, “let’s return to our sheep” is a colorful way to herd speakers back to the point of the conversation.
  • un ours – bear
    • This is one of those French words in which the final S is pronounced.
  • un rat – rat
    • Être fait comme un rat is “to be trapped like a rat.”
    • S’ennuyer comme un rat mort means “to be as bored as a dead rat.” (I guess the rodent afterlife is uneventful.)
    • The T at the end of le rat is silent.
  • un renard – fox
  • un rhinocéros – rhinoceros
  • un serpent – snake
  • un singe – monkey
  • une souris – mouse
    • When the anglophone cat is away, the mice will play. In French-speaking countries, quand le chat est parti, les souris dansent (when the cat’s away, the mice dance). I wonder if they do the can-can or perform a ballet.
    • As in English, la souris is also the piece of equipment you use to manipulate the cursor on your computer.
    • The final S of souris is not pronounced.
  • un taureau – bull
  • un tigre – tiger
  • une tortue – tortoise/turtle
  • une vache – cow
    • La vache ! (the cow!) is an exclamation used to say “Holy cow!” in French.
  • un zèbre – zebra

Les animaux de compagnie (Companion Animals)

Throughout the world, a variety of animals — mammals, birds, and reptiles alike — keep people company in their homes.
  • un canari – canary
    • Un serin can also be used for “canary” in French. Both names come from the Latin designation, Serinus canaria.
  • un chat – cat
    • Avoir un chat dans la gorge literally means “to have a cat in your throat.” For the French, having a kitty in your throat is the same as having a frog there — it deprives you of your power of speech.
  • Un chaton is a kitten.
    • Mon mimi is an endearment meaning “my pussycat.”
  • un chien – dog
    • If you’re experiencing un temps de chien, you’re faced with a bout of bad weather.
    • If you have un mal de chien, you have problems. And you’re expressing your troubles in what might be considered a vulgar way. (This expression is sometimes translated as “hurts like hell” — and, sometimes, more vehemently.)
    • If you have un chiot, you just have a puppy. (Out of life’s doghouse, at last!)
  • un cochon d’Inde – guinea pig
  • un chinchilla – chinchilla
  • un hamster – hamster
  • un furet – ferret
  • un gecko – gecko
    • Some French speakers start off gecko with a “soft” G — which sounds more like a ZH sound in English. Others pronounce the G “hard,” as in the word golf. (The dictionary pronunciation favors the “soft” G.)
  • un lapin – rabbit
    • Poser un lapin means to stand someone up, leaving them alone at a planned rendezvous.
    • On a happier — and fluffier — note, un lapinou is the French word for “bunny.” And, like mon lapin, mon lapinou can be used as an endearment.
  • un perroquet – parrot
    • Rather confusingly, the word that sounds like “parakeet” in English actually means “parrot” in French.
  • une perruche – parakeet/budgie
  • un poisson rouge – goldfish
    • Interestingly enough, a goldfish in French is a “red fish!” Perhaps they really do see la vie en rose (life through rose-colored glasses).
Now that you have a boatload of French animal words, you can name all the animals on Noah’s ark — and you’ll feel rusé comme un renard (cunning as a fox) when you use your new French animal idioms.

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