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Consider the sentence:

Il joue au tennis.

Is the true meaning he is having fun time / feeling joy at tennis?


EDIT BELOW

By 'true meaning' I mean the etymological/ancient/root/deep meaning or a meaning from an era like 15th century.

In today's French it is true that you don't have to enjoy your activity to use the verb jouer. But words change in meaning in time and sometimes get really far from the original meaning.

My logic is that the French people would not have been using 'à' without a reason. Because in French language, there are many verbs used without a preposition. Also, according to English speakers to play is an activity that does not need a preposition, too. I was trying to figure out what made the French people use the verb/action that way.

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  • 2
    Could you please expand on what your mean by "true meaning". Jouer means to practice a sport (a musical instrument...). Is this question “Jouer à” or “jouer de” for sports games? any help?
    – None
    Aug 4 at 16:14
  • have fun is s'amuser. Il s'amuse quand il joue au tennis ou en jouant au tennis.
    – Lambie
    Aug 4 at 18:06
  • @None Question edited.
    – Xfce4
    Aug 5 at 17:38
  • i do find the questions in this question interesting (eg, of "how did jouer change its meaning?" and "historically, why are `a and de used to introduce objects, and why no preposition are used to introduce objects?", and "is there a semantic reason why French and English verbs usually agree about whether that verb takes an indirect object or whether it takes a direct object?"). unfortunately, i wouldn't know how to ask questions that invite exploration of these ideas, in a way that is precise (ie "not too broad") enough for them to be acceptable on SExchnage sites..
    – silph
    Aug 5 at 23:38
  • I still don't understand how you can see a the relationship between the use of jouer and have fun or enjoy. Or with the use of à (as opposed to what ? de ?). And why have à would be "at", it could be "on", "in", "to"... à is just a preposition with various meanings that introduces an indirect object.
    – None
    Aug 13 at 17:53
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Update

I mean the etymological/ancient/root/deep meaning or a meaning from an era like 15th century

Well, we should definitely distinguish "etymological" from "deep"; nothing about the past makes a meaning any more valid than a meaning from the present. (Hence, I'm keeping the bottom half of this answer for anyone wondering whether this à is of any importance to a learner.)

Going by the TLFi article and the Latin root, where jouer is from an intransitive verb meaning « s'amuser », I suppose it makes sense to speculate that Vulgar Latin speakers used it more as you suggest: « Il joue, il s'amuse. » — « À quoi ? » — « À ludus latrunculorum. »

Nevertheless:

My logic is that the French people would not have been using 'à' without a reason. Because in French language, there are many verbs used without a preposition.

The reasons for using or not using à aren't related to the meaning. There's no generalization I know of that would link verbs that take a prepositions vs. verbs that take no preposition. Again, in English we "listen to the radio" while the French « écouter la radio »; in French, you « regarder à la télé » while the English "watch TV" — yet, despite the inverted prepositions, these pairs describe one and the same action.

Also, according to English speakers to play is an activity that does not need a preposition, too.

It's tempting to explain one language by another, but these are unrelated words in very distantly related languages. What English does with "play" has no particular bearing on what French does with jouer.


Original answer regarding modern French

No, that's not the true meaning, for several reasons.

  • The type of complement a verb takes is a matter of grammar, not semantics. Otherwise, I take it you'd interpret « il joue du piano » as "He's having a good time with his playing of the piano"? It gets silly fast.

  • The meaning of a French sentence is unrelated to English translations. That is, if there were some other "true meaning", it would be expressed in French and it would actually be hard to express without relying on this same à (« il s'amuse [à jouer] au tennis »).

  • But in fact such a sentence doesn't capture the true meaning, as can be seen by the many contexts in which we'd say « il joue au tennis » when a person regularly plays tennis or is playing tennis at this moment — whether or not he's having a good time! In other words, the true meaning can be seen by how the sentence is used, and it's just used to mean "play".

  • Even if you were to translate in this literal way, à is not always translated at. It has no exact translation.

In short, this word-for-word reading is neither accurate nor does it help comprehension. It only hurts it. If you love grammar, you can take an interest in why jouer takes à, but if you simply want to understand and speak French, it's a fairly meaningless detail.

A French speaker might as well say: "Why in English does listen take to, as in He listens to the radio? Is the true meaning « Il apprend attentivement en ecoutant la radio » ?" The answer would be the same: no. "Listen to" is the natural, and only, way to describe how one interacts with a radio; and « jouer à » is the natural, and only, way to describe how one participates in tennis.

Also, as Lambie points out in the comments, this is a standard construction with jouer, so you'd have to propose a similar alternative meaning for a ton of phrases.

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  • Isn't it worth mentioning that the idiomatic usage jouer au tennis for to play tennis opens up a series of uses such as jouer aux cartes, or jouer aux échecs or jouer aux sports, to mention a couple, where the structure of the language really reveals itself. sometimes so hard to get for newbies.
    – Lambie
    Aug 4 at 18:10
  • 2
    @Lambie Beware that jouer aux cartes/aux échecs are common and idiomatic, jouer aux sports is not.
    – jlliagre
    Aug 4 at 22:25
  • @jlliagre C'est idiomatique au Canada: mcl.schools.smcdsb.on.ca/UserFiles/Servers/Server_91226/File/…
    – Lambie
    Aug 4 at 22:31
  • Annexe 22 2e année: Activité d’écoute Listening text: Bonjour, je m’appelle Marc et j’adore jouer aux sports. stf.sk.ca/sites/default/files/unit-plans/p102_5.pdf ]Je sais, on peut dire pratiquer les sports, faire du sport, etc. Please do not use Beware. Beware is for a danger: Beware of the dog. Perhaps you mean: Be aware that. And in Switzerland: jouer aux sports traditionnels//doc.rero.ch/record/31130/files/mp_ms1_p18313_p18521_2011.pdf/… exemple
    – Lambie
    Aug 4 at 22:32
  • 2
    @Lambie Pas idiomatique, il s'agit d'anglicismes. Google ne trouve que cinq occurences de il joue aux sports et manifestement, aucune n'a été écrite par un francophone. On ne dit pas non plus pratiquer les sports, sauf si on ajoute une précision, pratiquer les sports de combats, par exemple.
    – jlliagre
    Aug 4 at 22:48
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‘Jouer à quelque chose’ is a misleading idiomatic expression. Indeed, the verb ‘jouer’ implies the notion of pleasure, but not in this case. For example, in middle school or high school, during physical education and sports classes ‘on jouait au football’ and believe me I have never experienced the slightest pleasure in this game. In French ‘on joue à un sport’, in the sense that one practises a sport, and this because at the base it is a game with its rules and scoring system. But ‘nous jouons également aux échecs, au backgammon, au tarot’. I hope I have answered your question as well as you could expect.

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  • Thank you for the échecs part. It was not so clear to me if à or de would follow jouer in those cases. Btw, I edited the question to make it more clear.
    – Xfce4
    Aug 5 at 19:44
  • Bienvenue sur French Language SE. Good point in that playing something doesn't have to mean enjoying it. @Xfce4 That is a different issue than what makes a phrasal verb. For jouer à ou de ; please see the linked question for things like jouer aux billes, à la marelle. À quoi tu joues ?
    – livresque
    Aug 5 at 21:51
  • 4
    On ne dit pas "jouer à un sport". Si on utilise "jouer à" en parlant d'un sport, il s'agit de ce sport considéré en tant que jeu (ex: football). Pour les sports n'étant pas des jeux, on ne peut pas dire "jouer à". Ex: on ne dit pas : "je joue aux lancer du poids" ou "je joue à la course à pied".
    – XouDo
    Aug 6 at 8:48
  • 1
    Je vous rejoins sur ce point XouDo, néanmoins nous jouons au rubgy, au football, à la pétanque, à la course (jeux favoris des enfants), à cache-cache... Aug 6 at 9:19
  • @XouDo Dans le domaine sportif on emploie jouer uniquement dans le cas de sports d'équipe (sinon on emploie le verbe faire, parfois pratiquer), pour jouer il faut qu'il y est interaction. Le substantif qui correspond au verbe jouer est jeu mais on n'emploie jeu que pour parler de la façon dont un sportif exerce son art, pas pour l'ensemble de la prestation de l'équipe. Aucun sport n'est un jeu.
    – None
    Aug 13 at 17:34

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