Whether you find a person or a landscape pretty, the French language has many ways to describe it. Start out with the direct translation: belle, and move on to additional phrases that can express breathtaking beauty in French.
Beautiful in French
The translation for the word 'beautiful' is belle, a feminine adjective. Belle is pronounced similarly to 'bell' in English, except that the 'l' consonant is longer in the French belle.
The male equivalent for beautiful is beau (similar to the English word 'handsome'). The pronunciation of beau is 'bo', the 'o' sound being highly tensed and pronounced with rounded lips.
Grammar and Usage
When describing a person or object as beautiful, be sure to use the masculine or feminine form correctly. If you are talking about a woman, use belle; for a man, use beau unless the adjective precedes a noun that starts with a vowel or an unaspirated 'h'. For example, to say 'a handsome man', the correct form is un bel homme (uhn bell ohm); beau changes to bel because of the unaspirated 'h' of homme. Be sure to use the correct spelling (bel) for a man instead of the female belle.
In terms of word order, adjectives typically follow the noun in French instead of preceding the noun as they do in English (example: une table verte vs. a green table). However, there is a short list of adjectives that precede the noun; beau/belle/bel is one of those adjectives. In most standard usage, the French translation of 'beautiful' precedes the noun that one is describing as beautiful.
The word 'beautiful' can be used to describe objects as well as people. In French, objects have either male or female gender. When describing an inanimate object, you must use the appropriately-gendered adjective. For example, because a house is feminine in French, you would describe a pretty one as une belle maison.
- Une belle femme (oohn bell fahm): a beautiful woman
- Une belle maison (oohn bell may zon): a beautiful house
- Un très beau paysage (uhn tray bo pay ee zahge): a beautiful landscape
French Phrases for Beautiful People
The literal translation for telling someone that they are beautiful is to say tu es très belle or tu es très beau. Alternatively, the word joli(e) can be used. If you need something even stronger, try one of these phrases:
- Tu es la plus belle fille/le plus beau garçon que j'ai jamais vu(e). (Too ay lah pluh bell fee/luh pluh bo gar son kuh jay ja may vooh: You're the most beautiful girl/handsome boy I've ever seen.
- Pourquoi es-tu si belle/beau? (Por kwah ay too see bell/bo): Why are you (how did you get to be) so beautiful/handsome?
- Tu es aussi belle/beau que… () (Too ay oh see bell/bo kuh): You're as beautiful/handsome as… (insert what you find the most beautiful thing in the world to be)
Idiomatic French Phrases with Belle/Beau
Many phrases incorporate the word 'belle/beau' into the phrase:
- À la belle étoile (ah lah bell ay twahl): under the open (starry) sky
- La Belle France (lah bell Frahnce): literally means the beautiful France, but is used as an expression of affection towards the mother country
- La belle province (lah bell pro vehnce): the beautiful province (used to refer to Québec)
- La belle Provence (lah bell pro vahnce): beautiful Provence (the province of Provence, France)
- Un beau mensonge (uhn bo mahn sohnge): literally means a beautiful lie; implies that the lie is crafty, almost believable
- Belle-mère, belle-sœur, beau-frère/père (bell-mair, bell-sir, bo-frair/pair): mother, sister, brother, father-in-law
In addition, some expressions in English have borrowed the word 'belle' from French, such as "Southern Belle" and the "Belle of the ball".
Several women's names stem from the French word beautiful. For example, the name 'Mabel' means, quite literally, 'my belle', and can be spelled 'Mabelle' or 'Maybelle' alternatively.
Several names end with 'belle' or 'bella' (the Italian equivalent of French belle), such as Isabelle/Isabella, Annabelle/Annabella, Arabelle/Arabella, Maribelle/Maribella etc. The name 'Carabella' is quite rare, but incorporates the root 'cara' (sweet) with the root 'bella'; the ideal name for a beautiful, sweet, baby girl. All of these names derive from the Latin root from which the French belle came.
Describing with Adjectives
Whether you are describing people or objects, and doing it in written or spoken format, the French word for beautiful is a commonly-used adjective. Even though remembering when to use the different forms may seem difficult at first, this word will come up frequently in daily usage if you use French on a regular basis. Once you've learned these basic adjectives, take a shot at expanding your descriptive vocabulary with this list of descriptive adjectives.