ericat - Copain, Ami, Petit Ami, Petit Copain….What’s the difference?
Because there are two words to talk about friends in French, and because both of these words are also used when talking about more than friends, it is often perplexing to us foreign learners of the language when to use which one and what, if any, are the differences. Some of the differences are subtle and may also depend on the age of the person using it.
JUST FRIENDS - AMI(E) vs. COPAIN/COPINE
Cécilia, la fiancée charmante de Christophe, described it perfectly when she said “you might have many copains, but you only have a few amis.” In other words, les amis are very close friends, while les copains are more friendly acquaintances.
Depending on the size of the shindig, of course, you might invite many of your copains to your wedding, for example, but only your amis would probably be in the wedding party and go on to make the list of potential godparents to your child.
When you say ami, particularly among older people, the sense is that it is a close friend in your inner circle, while copain can mean acquaintance on friendly terms. Copain is also a more casual way to refer to friends, the way ‘buddy’ or ‘pal’ would be in English, which is why younger people, like students, tend to use it more frequently when they are talking about their close friends and acquaintances.
Now for romance…
MORE THAN FRIENDS – PETIT(E) AMI(E) vs. COPAIN/COPINE vs. AMI(E)
Petit ami / petite amie - less common nowadays and mainly used among younger people. Younger people also say petit copain / petite copine. When the petit is used, there is no question that the person being referred to is more than a friend.
Copain/copine & ami(e) – can either refer to a friend or more than a friend. The difference lies with the word “my.”
Il est un copain / il est un ami = He is my friend.
Il est mon copain / il est mon ami = He is my boyfriend.
I’ll never forget the first time I learned this difference. I was meeting some friends for dinner and said that I would invite mon amie to come. I thought it was weird how surprised they seemed when they met her. Later when they asked us how long we had been dating, I got the French vocab lesson that had led to this misunderstanding and couldn’t believe that I hadn’t known that all this time. I had been living in France for awhile at that point, and couldn’t stop laughing when I thought of how many times I had referred to friends as mon ami(e) in conversations with French pals, and what an active romantic life they must have all thought that I had.
Now, of course, it is not set in stone that you only use mon or ma with ‘friend’ when you are talking about people who are more than friends; it depends on the context. If it has already been established, for example, that the person that you are referring to is just a friend, then adding a ‘my’ is not going to change their status. But in introductions like the story above, whether introducing them in person or for the first time in a conversation, saying ‘my friend’ in French implies that it is your boyfriend or girlfriend.
Mon copain/ ma copine vs. mon ami(e) – the choice of which one to use is based on the age of the couple. The younger you are, the more likely you will be talking about your copain/copine. When it comes to romance, copains and copines are something that you generally have before you are old enough to get married. People in their 20s will still frequently say copains / copines, but after 30, a boyfriend or girlfriend will be referred to as mon ami(e).
Posted by ericat July 18, 2008 .please login.
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