I learn French and I enjoy learning about its intricacies, much like English.

I was wondering the other day - how do French people turn nouns into adjectives (when I say adjectives, they're not necessarily actual ones, but when done in English, people know what's being said).

For example, in English, if you want to describe a place as having a vibe related to students, you would say:

This place has a student-y (or studenty) vibe.

This is similar to how one would say:

The laundry smells a bit doggy.

(i.e. The laundry smells like dogs.)

TL;DR: English primarily forms a "semi-adjective" by adding "-y" to the end of a word.

So, do the French do something similar? If so, how is it done? Is it informal like in English?

  • The question seems to assume that French do turn nouns into adjectives, like in English. Why should that be assumed? Not necessarily productive when learning another language :-) – Frank Mar 7 '17 at 3:17
  • @Frank Sorry for the confusion. No, I'm not assuming they do, I just want to know if they do, and if so, how. Such intricacies of language are interesting to learn. – Dog Lover Mar 7 '17 at 5:08
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    bad example here. There's no need to turn dog into an adjective as one already exists in French. Canin (f. Canine) is the adjective for chien. And you could refer to such a flavor as "Une odeur canine". – Stephane Delcroix Mar 7 '17 at 10:07
  • @StephaneDelcroix I see what you're saying. I just quickly thought of one. There is indeed "canine" in English, but it's more specialised, so to speak. I think if you said "the laundry has a canine smell" you'd sound a little pretentious. Also, "canine" wouldn't work at the end of the sentence like "doggy" does. – Dog Lover Mar 7 '17 at 10:18
  • also, canin/canine is actually an -ine postfix to the latin root canis for dog – Stephane Delcroix Mar 7 '17 at 13:58

Short version: -eux might be the best candidate, as well as -ique, if you have to use an adjective construction instead of a paraphrase. Long version: read on. :)

Morphological derivation

Since knowing the technical name for a phenomenon always helps with research on it: this is a form of morphological derivation. French version of the article here.

A common derivational strategy is the one you've identified: suffixation. This can be used to change the meaning or to change the part of speech. (For example, the English suffix -ful attaches nouns to form other nouns, even if it's not very productive now: handful, mouthful, etc. On the other hand, -ize can turn an adjective into a verb, e.g. regularize "make regular").

So now what remains is to find out which French suffixes turn nouns into adjectives, keeping in mind that no one affix can apply to every member of a class. After that, to identify which ones are still in active service and not just historical (many of them are remnants of Latin that are no longer productive). And perhaps finally to see which ones come out of native speakers' mouths the most often if you want to go for "naturalness". :)

Wiktionary suggestions

Wiktionary French suffix category here.

One very undernourished subcategory: French adjective-forming suffixes.

This category includes only three: -able, -ais, -if.

A quick look at French words suffixed with -able indicates that this suffix attaches to verbs and usually results in the meaning: "which can have [verb] done to it". So not quite what you want.

A similar look at French words suffixed with -ais/e makes it clear that while this is for nouns, it only creates demonyms.

The best of these three for your question is definitely French words suffixed with -if/ive, where we see several nouns converted to adjectives, among them:

sportif effectif substitutif craintif fautif

Many more suggestions

That subcategory, however, is far from exhaustive.

For example, it doesn't include the highly productive -ique:

dogmatique canonique amnésique algorithmique ionique golfique

It also lacks the common -eux/se:

goutteux pierreux poussiéreux globuleux honteux cuivreux

And the possibly extinct -al/e:

régional architectural professoral parental dental

And of course the one English speakers borrowed from French and perhaps love more than the French themselves at this point: -esque.

titanesque livresque carnavalesque

It's also possible, though I don't think it's that common, to use past participle endings: and -u in particular. There are a bunch of words with this form that are nouns, especially (, though I suspect it's phonological coincidence with the actual suffix.

Looking through a few more of those suffixes from the higher-level Wikipedia category and checking the words formed from it would help build out this list.

Most natural choice

As for the second step, though, it's hard for me to tell which ones would come first to mind and attach most freely to a broad range of words the way -y does in casual English. It looks to me like -ique is a pretty clear winner in terms of number of derivatives, including obviously recent and off-the-cuff ones like jazzique. Edit: Frank suggests -eux as his suffixe préféré in the comments!

The problem, as you already noticed, is that many of these very common "derivations" don't feel like "actual words" and so won't show up in dictionaries or on lists like these. This is only really good for capturing the ones with a wide and long-lived acceptance.

If anyone has any suggestions, I'll happily add them to this answer. :)

Alternative ways to say the same thing

And then of course you have to consider other strategies than suffixes. For example, it might be easier to create a paraphrase than to come up with an instantly recognizable new adjective:

Ça sent bon / mauvais / doux / frais (adj.)

Ça sent chiennique ?

Ça sent le chien

While anyone might recognize what you likely meant by "chiennique", the other tactic is more naturally French (at least as I was taught it).

Edit: Another strategy in casual speech is simply to let the noun stand, as you might do in English:

There's a real "student" atmosphere.

Il y a une ambiance « étudiant ».

Here the quotation marks or guillemets, which help to show the bit of extra emphasis you might give it when speaking aloud, serve to set the word apart — as if to acknowledge and "apologize" for the fact that it's not adapted to the sentence structure. Notice that étudiant doesn't have to agree as feminine.

Edit: As others have now pointed out, a common paraphrase is de [noun] "noun-like". This is a great example of the translation technique of transposition: when the same idea is best represented by different grammatical structures in two languages. Here [adj] becomes [prep] [noun]. There are many such equivalences that translators find very important for rendering the target language naturally.

Appendix: morphological typology

errantlinguist suggests in the comments that French is a more analytic than synthetic language. Analytic languages, like Mandarin, have lots of individual particles (perhaps words) that each carry a bit of the meaning, while synthetic languages build or "bake" meaning into one base. I just encountered a word in the Hebrew Bible this morning that demonstrates syntheticism very well: w'hitzdaqtiu "and (w) I (ti) would (choice of vowels) do (hi) justice (tz-d-q) to him (u)". Particularly with that "choice of vowels" contribution, you can't pull this apart into separate words in a meaningful way. Clearly English is more analytic than Hebrew since I needed seven English words to translate one Hebrew word!

One thing that makes it hard to tell the exact status of French, English, and other languages is the issue noted above: how to tell how "productive" the affixes are. Latin was a fusional language, which is a type of synthetic in which a lot of grammar information is given by particular "shapes" the word takes. So you'd think Latin derivatives like French would also be fusional, but they differ in how much that holds true, and in what areas of the language.

A French verb's form gives information about the tense and the subject, and as Wikipedia points out, there are "45 different single-word forms of the same verb"! But that's still not as many as there could be. Why? Because to the ear, a bunch of forms sound exactly alike, so French adds a separate word to tell you exactly which subject it is: the je, tu, il, elle, on, ils, elles forms all sound alike for many verbs, so you have to say which one you mean, and you may as well throw in nous and vous once you've adopted the practice of having a separate subject. By contrast, Spanish, as you might know, "bakes" that information into the verb, which has no silent letters, so you almost never need to mention yo, , él, etc. to know who's doing the verb. So French verbs are more analytic than Spanish ones.

That was inflection — different forms of the same word. What about derivation, where you make new words? Well, all Latinate languages are packed to the brim with derivative affixes, but many of them are there just because the words are inherited from Latin, and the processes that derived the words aren't active anymore. As was pointed out in a comment above, canin is canis + -in. But what was canis in Latin is chien in French — and no one will accept chiennin. So canin, even though it can be broken down and analyzed, doesn't represent what French does now. On the other hand, the prefix re- "do again" is still alive and kicking, and it forms amusing words like rebonjour now and then.

So to sum up the relevant idea: there are a bunch of suffixes in French that clearly derive adjectives from nouns, as spelled out above. But telling which ones are still active and which ones are "dead" requires a look at (1) words formed recently, say the last 100 years, on these patterns, and (2) words formed on the fly that speakers would accept. If the commenters below are right, a French speaker today would be more ready to accept an analytic solution like de [noun] than a synthetic solution with a suffix for this sort of thing.

Of course, it's not 100% one way or the other (what is?), but it's something to think about. :)

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    For the second step, it's hopeless to look for a rule - because we don't even think about it, we don't go around thinking "hey, I have a noun, let's now turn into a cool adjective ... let's see ... what suffix should I use?" ;-) For jazz, we would probably say jazzy, in fact. Maybe. Or we wouldn't try an adjective and use a periphrase. Just my $.02 :-) – Frank Mar 7 '17 at 3:22
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    It's not a hard and fast, of course :-) – Frank Mar 7 '17 at 4:42
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    @DogLover - not really, but for people who know English and want to be branchés, they might do that. I wouldn't say it's common. Chienny doesn't work at all. It probably works for jazzy (and sexy, by the way) because the words are "universally" known, and come from English. – Frank Mar 7 '17 at 5:40
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    @DogLover - In my personal opinion, I think that yes, we would tend to rephrase than create a new adjective. An easy way, for chien for example, would be to say de chien: temps de chien (bad weather). Actually, Luke, you could explore that de construction in your answer to compensate for lack of an adjective corresponding to a noun. It is probably fairly common. – Frank Mar 7 '17 at 5:41
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    @LukeSawczak - the more I think about it, the more I realize that this de construction might be quite important. I can even substitute it in many cases : forme globuleuse -> en forme de globule, corps professoral -> corps des professeurs, atmosphère carnavalesque -> atmosphère de carnaval. – Frank Mar 7 '17 at 5:48

With both of your examples, the -in(e) suffix which comes from the prolific -inus Latin one, would work:

This place has a student-y (or studenty) vibe.

Il y a une ambiance estudiantine dans ce lieu.

It's harder to build a sentence with canin though, especially because of the clash with the canine tooth.

The laundry smells a bit doggy.

I would venture:

Le linge a une odeur un peu « canine… »

but a more idiomatic and colloquial sentence would be:

Le linge sent un peu le chien mouillé.

This -inus suffix had several variants, -anus, -enus, -ianus, and -unus.

Here are some examples in -in, -ain and -ien:

  • bœuf → bovin(e)
  • cheval → chevalin(e)
  • Christ → chrétien(e)
  • cité → citadin(e)
  • monde → mondain(e)
  • dieu → divin(e)
  • enfant → enfantin(e)
  • femme → féminin(e)
  • foire → forain(e)
  • Gironde → girondin(e) and many other gentilés (Amérique → américain(e))
  • homme → humain(e)
  • liberté → libertin(e)
  • mer → marin(e)
  • mâle → masculin(e)
  • monde → mondain(e)
  • porc → porcin(e)
  • sang → sanguin(e)
  • taureau → taurin(e)
  • éléphant → éléphantin(e)
  • utérus → utérin(e)

Note that the root used in the French adjective is often closer to the Latin than the from used with the noun and estudiantin probably came to French from Spanish.

  • Thank you for the answer (and also for the references to my examples). I suppose that this leads onto another question though - how common would adopting the Latin root and adding "-in(e)" be in French? Not so much with codified words such as "masculin" but possibly in a spoken or informal context. – Dog Lover Mar 7 '17 at 10:05
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    For neologisms, there is no single rule. That would depend a lot on the word you want to "convert" to an adjective and should take into account the fact French is much more prone to use de than English use of. – jlliagre Mar 7 '17 at 10:12
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    For Il y a une ambiance estudiantine dans ce lieu., which sounds a bit high-brow, we might say Il ya une ambiance étudiant: just using the unmodified noun as an adjective. It's possible sometimes. Another alternative alongside the de construction. – Frank Mar 7 '17 at 15:25
  • Le linge a une odeur un peu « canine… » is grammatically possible, but probably not heard. I would be really, really surprised. Ca sent le chien would be more common. – Frank Mar 7 '17 at 15:27
  • @Frank Ambiance estudiantine is not 9-3 slang but not necessarily eye-brow either. It seems also to be slightly more popular than ambiance étudiant which is otherwise fine. I was very aware about the issue with canine and stated it. Une odeur porcine while still rare, would have worked better. My point was more that the process to coin adjectives from names has always existed in French (and before in Latin) so it might not be necessary to try doing it again when they already exist. Should we always use these existing adjectives the way English does? Of course not. – jlliagre Mar 7 '17 at 18:29

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