I've been learning French from duolingo. It gets a bit repetitive but is ok. One day, we (me and my friends) were discussing languages, one of my friends who knows French said

I'll tell you one thing about French. In French, the word for sky and nothing is same. So if someone asks, "What's up?" They(the French people) speak that word, which works as both.

We were fascinated by such intelligent use of words. I can't remember what exact word he said (as far as I can recall he didn't say that word).

I just happened to see the word for sky today, it's ciel.

Can someone please testify if the fact told by my friend is true, or was he just bluffing?

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    "sky" is "ciel" and "nothing" is "rien". I can think of no other word or slang that could possibly fit both use cases. If this is the case, it's not a common occurrence in Canadian french. – Phil Jun 17 '16 at 4:34
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    Yes, nobody can testify about anything as long as the word, if any, your friend had in mind stays unknown. – jlliagre Jun 17 '16 at 7:36
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    At least one of the translation "used" from your friend could be a lead, and maybe if he's talking about French Canadian. I can find some "links", but they are really thin and not realistic: « rien de spécial » vs « spatial », etc. But it could be also something he heard in a movie/tv show/music, where there is a pun or a context, and it could fit (quite hardly, but could), or maybe he misheard. – Larme Jun 17 '16 at 8:22
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    Even “what's up” does not translate to anything related to “up” or “sky”. Even if “sky” and “nothing” could be referred to with the same word, this fact would be uninteresting. – Stéphane Gimenez Jun 17 '16 at 9:02
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    "le néant" peut être... qui est en même temps le vide de l'espace (donc ciel ?), et "rien", mais difficile à utiliser... – Random Jun 17 '16 at 11:15
up vote 8 down vote accepted

After seeing Random's comment: I think the word your friend was looking for might be Néant.

At first, and as pointed out by others, it's difficult to find a single world that can mean at the same time : "sky" and "nothing" especially when some is asked "What's up?".

Let's think. Semantically, the sky and nothing are more or less the same thing. Remove the clouds for the sky and what you see is: either a celestial body or... nothing. The fact that the sky is blue is just a matter of perception of light in the atmosphere.

  • "The sky" in French is literally translated into "Le ciel" but one could also use "L'espace", "L'atmosphère", "Le vide" or "Le néant" to refer to the sky.

  • "Nothing" in French is literally translated into "Rien" but one could also use "Vide" (which translates into "Empty" or "Emptiness" in English) or even "Néant" (which has more or less the same meaning as "Vide").

  • "What's up?" in French it would be something like "Quoi de nouveau ?", "Quoi de neuf ?", "Quoi de beau ?", "Ça va ?", "Comment ça va ?", "Comment vas-tu ?", "Comment te sens-tu ?", "Comment te portes-tu ?", "Es-tu en forme ?", "La forme ?" etc.

When asked "Quoi de neuf ?" a possible answer is "Néant" which is a short answer for "Le néant" and fits your condition of being synonym to "Ciel" and "Rien".

A typical pun when asked "Quoi de neuf ?" is "Que du huit." which plays with the word/number "neuf". "Que du huit." does not explicitly answer the question and could implicitly mean that there's nothing new.

An easy translation of this pun in English could be IMO : - Quoi de neuf ? (What's up?) - Que du huit ! (The sky!)

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    +1, especially for the mention of the French pun (Que du huit!), which I've heard sometimes as "Rien que du huit!" et "Rien que des huits!", which might have been how the OP's friend heard it. (especially if the punch line response in English is "nothin but the sky") – Papa Poule Jun 17 '16 at 13:28
  • @PapaPoule plus note how 8 is close to ∞ and could be linked with the sky :) – Kii Jun 17 '16 at 13:39
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    @ABcDexter : I won't say he was right either. Without precision, "le néant" would hardly be associated with "le ciel". But the link between exists. – Kii Jun 17 '16 at 15:16
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    je crois que le vide/néant se traduit par "void" en anglais, non ? – Random Jun 17 '16 at 16:00
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    @SurvenantLazurite : En effet, je suis d'accord avec vous. La question recherche cependant un mot qui approche à la fois les sens de "ciel" et "rien", ce à quoi réfèrent les différents sens de néant à mon avis. – Kii Jun 17 '16 at 22:07

Are the words for sky and nothing the same? No. “Sky” is “ciel” and “nothing” is “rien”.

Is there a way to refer to both with the same word? Not without a huge deal of imagination. Certainly not by a word used for “rien” or “ciel” in a regular context.

Would mentioning the sky have any relevance to any usual translation of “what's up”? No. Neither “Comment ça va?”, which can't even be answered by “nothing”, nor “Qu'est-ce que tu racontes?”, nor “Quoi de neuf?“ can be related to the sky in any way.

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    Answer accepted too soon. Semantically, the sky and nothing are more or less the same thing. Remove the clouds for the sky and what you see is : either a celestial body or ... nothing. The fact that the sky is blue is just a matter of perception. – Kii Jun 17 '16 at 14:01

I'm not perfectly sure I got your anecdote right, but if it is the case, your friend had to be bluffing.

Not that I'm positive that no such word exists in French, but for the simple fact we just don't use the expression "What's up ?" in French. Amongst the several expressions you could use to translate "whats up ?", none of them litteraly translate as so. The most common would be "quoi de neuf?" which litteraly translates as "what's new ?"

So the "pun" that would exist in English if sky and nothing were the same word just wouldn't exist in French, even if such a word existed, which I seriously doubt.

  • Yes, I do understand that it's a pun in English and you are probably right about there's no "what's up?" in French. – ABcDexter Jun 17 '16 at 11:17

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