Qu’est-ce que c’est?
kess kuh SAY? Click below to hear the audio file!
What’s that? What’s this? What is it?
It’s a beginner’s phrase, that’s what!
Many a beginner knows this phrase and can use it competently–until they look at it on the page. What are all those q‘s? Does it really need all those apostrophes? And why is there a hyphen in the middle? When they try to write the phrase themselves, they dissolve in a muddle of indecision about where to put all the pieces.
Sound familiar? Today is all yours. Let’s dissect this troublemaker, which literally translates as What is it that it is?
First: est-ce que (ESS kuh), in the middle. It’s a common way to ask a question. Just tack it onto the beginning of a sentence, and bingo, it’s a question. It means Is it that…?, meaning: Is it true that…?
Second: c’est, at the end. Means it is. When ce bumps into est, it loses the e in ce and acquires an apostrophe to replace it.
Third: back to est-ce que. Est-ce is what happens to c’est when you turn it around backwards–another way to make a question.
Fourth: Qu’, at the beginning, is que without its final e. Same rule as number 2. It means what, but it’s considered to be a weak work that can’t stand on its own. In Old French, oh, about 800 or so years ago, it was okay to ask, Qu’est-ce? What is it? No more. Now you need all this folderol to ask a simple question.
Want the easy (but slangy) version? Ask: C’est quoi (say KWAH)? And quoi is the strong, standalone version of que.
Does it all make more sense now?