Le Petit Prince (= The Little Prince) is a really famous French novella. You’ve heard of it, you might have watched it on TV, on stage, on a cinema screen… Or you know, maybe you’ve read the book yourself!
Today, let’s talk about “Le Petit Prince” – while covering its most important vocabulary.
C’est parti !
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1) Le Petit Prince: What is it?
Le Petit Prince is a novella with a special place in French culture.
It’s a tale about life, about being a child or growing up, about responsibility, about making friends and losing them – it’s profound and poetic.
Written by French pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, it was first published in 1943 in New York. It couldn’t be published in France until 1946, after the war.
Sadly, by then, its author had mysteriously crashed his plane and died somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea. But his memory lives on. As a war hero that didn’t get involved in the Collaborationist Vichy Regime, and as an author for children, “Saint-Ex” (as he’s often called) is popular in the French schooling systems. More than 400 French schools are called “Saint-Exupéry” – and all French school children have to read at least parts of “Le Petit Prince” in their education!
Le Petit Prince is popular in school because it’s short, easy to read, with beautiful illustrations – while still managing to share poetic observations and some deep insight on human life and growing up.
For the same reasons, it became a giant hit – a colossal bestseller all around the world.
2) Le Petit Prince: Adaptations
My first contact with Le Petit Prince was an adaptation. An audio recording on an old cassette at home, the 1954 version with the warm voice of French theater comedian Gérard Philippe.
Since then, there’s been:
- Several audio books.
- A movie.
- Une comédie musicale française (= a French musical)
- Un parc d’attractions (= a theme park)
- A TV show
- Un billet de 50 francs (= a French banknote for 50 Francs)
- A Japanese cartoon
- Two operas
- And much more!
First published in French in the US, Le Petit Prince has been an international story since the beginning.
Nowadays it’s been translated in more than four hundred languages and dialects. It’s the second most-translated book of all time, second only to the Bible!
That’s what makes Le Petit Prince a good way to learn a language : it’s deep but it stays relatively easy to read, and you can easily have a French version and a version in your language to check on what you didn’t understand.
There are even bilingual versions, with both languages facing each other on the page. They’re a cool tool to help learn French – and read a great book!
Some of its vocabulary is particularly interesting, and that’s what I want to explore in this lesson. Follow along with your own version that’s probably in your library!
3) Le Petit Prince : Beginning
The first thing you see in Le Petit Prince are les aquarelles (= watercolor paintings) such le chapeau (= the hat) / l’éléphant dans un boa (= the elephant in a boa snake), or the painting of les baobabs (= the baobab trees.) They’re part of the story, and they’re gorgeous.
The tale begins with a pilot in the desert. His plane crashed in the middle of nowhere. Yet he soon meets a strange little boy, who makes a famous demand:
S’il vous plaît, dessine-moi un mouton.
= Please, draw me a sheep.
The subtlety here is switching from “Vous” in “S’il vous plaît”, to “Tu” in the imperative verb “Dessine-moi” (= draw me…). Children use “Vous” to talk to grow-ups that aren’t family. It’s a sign of respect and good manners. But they use “Tu” to talk to other children, or their parents and family.
So during one small sentence and some “incorrect” grammar, the little boy goes from treating the pilot as a “grown-up / stranger” to seeing him as “family / fellow child at heart.” Or maybe he’s not really practiced in correct grammar, being a child. Or maybe he’s scared and alone and is looking for a friend.
Or maybe a bit of all of this – packed in one striking sentence.
4) Le Petit Prince : Space Travels
From the Prince’s strange questions and demands, the pilot realizes that the little boy must come from a small asteroid, and has traveled through the stars until finding Earth.
During the next few days, the Little Prince reveals some details about his travels, and the people he met.
Je connais une planète où il y a un Monsieur cramoisi. Il n’a jamais respiré une fleur. Il n’a jamais regardé une étoile. Il n’a jamais aimé personne. Il n’a jamais rien fait d’autre que des additions. Et toute la journée il répète comme toi : « Je suis un homme sérieux ! Je suis un homme sérieux ! » et ça le fait gonfler d’orgueil. Mais ce n’est pas un homme, c’est un champignon !
I know a planet where there’s a Man that’s all crimson. He never smelled a flower. He never looked at a star. He’s never loved anyone. He never did anything else other than additions. And he spends his day repeating like you:
“I’m a serious man! I’m a serious man!” And it makes him swell with pride. But he’s not a man, he’s a mushroom!
Notice the vocabulary:
- Un monsieur (= “a mister”) → Childish way to say “a (respectable) man.”
- Cramoisi (= “crimson”) → Mix of red and purple, color of sweating or angry people.
- Un champignon (= a mushroom) → Like un champignon de Paris.
- L’orgueil (= pride) → Orgueilleux / Orgueilleuse (= prideful)
La fierté is the good kind of pride (with a bit of stubborness.) L’orgueil is the bad kind of pride, the sin, thinking you’re better than everyone else.
The Prince also uses that adjective to talk about his rose, back home:
“C’était une fleur tellement orgueilleuse…” (= She was such a prideful flower.)
The Prince finds that both charming and annoying. Like someone in a passionate (but not entirely healthy) relationship.
The flower character was probably inspired by the artist Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry, the author’s wife – they dearly loved each other, but their relationship was tarnished by long absences, and infidelities on both sides.
When the Prince arrives on Earth, he finds un jardin (= a garden) full of roses (which might be a metaphor for the aforementioned infidelities.)
5) Le Petit Prince : The Fox
On the very next chapter, the Prince meets le renard (= the fox), who’s not yet apprivoisé.
It’s close to “tamed” (un lion apprivoisé = a tamed lion, a pet lion.) But it’s less aggressive. It’s more about building trust with a wild animal, than catching and chaining it.
Here’s what the fox has to say about it:
– Tu cherches des poules ?
Are you looking for chicken? (says the fox)
– Non, dit le petit prince. Je cherche des amis. Qu’est-ce que signifie “apprivoiser” ?
No, says the little prince. I’m looking for friends. What does “apprivoiser” mean?
– C’est une chose trop oubliée, dit le renard. Ça signifie « créer des liens…»
It’s something that’s been too forgotten, says the fox. It means “building ties…”
– Créer des liens ?
– Bien sûr, dit le renard. Tu n’es encore pour moi qu’un petit garçon tout semblable à cent mille petits garçons. Et je n’ai pas besoin de toi. Et tu n’as pas besoin de moi non plus. Je ne suis pour toi qu’un renard semblable à cent mille renards. Mais, si tu m’apprivoises, nous aurons besoin l’un de l’autre. Tu seras pour moi unique au monde. Je serai pour toi unique au monde.
Of course, says the fox. To me, you’re still a little boy like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I don’t need you. And you don’t need me either. For you, I’m still a fox that’s just like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you “apprivoises” me, we’ll need each other. You’ll be one of a kind, to me. And I’ll be one of a kind, for you.
– Et puis regarde ! Tu vois, là-bas, les champs de blé ? Je ne mange pas de pain. Le blé pour moi est inutile. Les champs de blé ne me rappellent rien. Et ça, c’est triste ! Mais tu as des cheveux couleur d’or. Alors ce sera merveilleux quand tu m’auras apprivoisé ! Le blé, qui est doré, me fera souvenir de toi. Et j’aimerai le bruit du vent dans le blé…
And look! Do you see, over there, the wheat fields? I don’t eat bread. Wheat for me is useless. Wheat fields don’t make me think of anything. And that’s sad! But your hair is golden. So it will be wonderful once you “apprivoises” me! The golden wheat will make me think of you. And I’ll get to love the sound of the wind in the corn…
This central poem from the fox is the heart of Le Petit Prince. It’s written with simple repeating vocabulary, like les champs de blé (= the wheat fields) – you’ll see them a lot in the French countryside. (Or other plants, like les champs de lavande (= the lavender fields) in Provence!)
But the central word here of course is apprivoiser.
And here, the fox gives us another angle to look at that word: he describes “apprivoiser” as the slow transformation of a stranger like many others, into a unique relationship – of someone that becomes special thanks to the time you spent with them.
And that’s a central part of how French people view friendship, too!
6) Le Petit Prince : Ending and Recap
I won’t spoil the ending, only the last message from the fox:
On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.
You only really see with your heart. What matters is invisible to the eyes.
Notice the pronunciation of:
- Le cœur (= The heart.)
- Les yeux (= The eyes), famously irregular plural of un œil (= an eye.)
- Le collège = middle school
- Une aquarelle = a watercolor painting
- Un mouton = a sheep
- Un champignon = a mushroom
- L’orgueil / orgueilleux / orgueilleuse = Pride (but bad) / Prideful
- Un jardin = a garden
- Le renard = the fox
- Apprivoisé = tamed, with a mutual trust
- Les champs de blé = the wheat fields
- Le cœur et les yeux = the heart and the eyes
And now you’re ready to start reading the book by yourself! Tell me if you liked it in the comments below!
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