Here’s a popular nursery rhyme-song, sung to that beloved and ubiquitous Mozart tune known as the Alphabet Song, or Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, and more:
Quand trois poules vont aux champs, La première va devant.
La deuxième suit la première, La troisième va derrière…
kah trwah POO-luh vaw toh SHAH / lah pruh-meYAIR-uh vah duh-VAH.
lah duh-zYEM swee lah pruh-meYAIR-uh / lah trwah-zYEM-muh vah dare-YAIR-ruh…
When three hens go into the fields, The first goes in front.
The second follows the first, The third goes behind…
Seems logical! Though maybe not for a preschooler.
This little song is a great reminder of how the French do ordinal numbers, the ones that tell us what order things occur in. In general, you add –ième to the end of the number, except for first. The word for first is premier (pruh-meYAY) or première (pruh-meYAIR), depending on whether the noun is masculine or feminine. Since les poules are feminine, we say la première. It’s a little simpler than English, where we have to remember words like first, second, third, that don’t at all resemble the names of the numbers.
And the rhyme scheme will help you remember the words for front, devant, and back, derrière! You can also remember derrière because we use that word in English to mean (ahem!) your derriere, which is always behind you.
Note that the word champs has several silent letters at the end: the m, which gives the a the nasal sound but is not pronounced like the m we are familiar with; the p, which serves as a historical reminder of where the word came from–the Latin for field or countryside, campus; and the s, which makes the word plural. The best way to achieve a good pronunciation of champ, or champs, without being tempted to close your lips on the m, is to make sure you drop your jaw and leave you mouth wide open at the end of the word. Bravo! And all of that explains why a word spelled like champs can rhyme perfectly with a word spelled like devant.
There is another way to say second in French, interestingly. You use deuxième if there are more than two items in the series (for example, trois poules). But if there are only two items in the series, you use second or seconde (masculine, feminine). The pronunciation is quirky, too: suh-GAW or suh-GAWD.
I have heard this rule broken in recent years, but it still stands in “official” French.
If you want to ask someone to wait a second, you say Une seconde, s’il vous plaît! (ewn suh-GAWD, seel voo PLAY!)
And some other day, we’ll sing the Alphabet Song in French. Bet you can’t wait!