Word Matters Podcast

Tips for Frenchifying Your French

Word Matters, episode 97

word matters podcast logo

Whether you're hoping to improve your high school French or just order that croissant with more confidence, we have some tips for you.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, trying to learn the pronunciation ways of the French. I'm Emily Brewster, and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. Peter has some tips for mastering the trickier aspects of French pronunciation.

Peter Sokolowski: French sounds fancy to us, and I think that's an important point. To English speakers, French has a certain caché, and I think it's an enormous topic to think about why it culturally occupies a certain place that another language simply doesn't have. Of course, French has a deep connection to English etymologically and historically and politically, but the sound of French is so different from English. There are some sounds of French that we don't produce, that aren't part of English phonotactics, the available sounds of a language. As the card-carrying Francophile in the office, I do think about phonetics and French sometimes. In fact, I did a video not too long ago about words on a menu, like a restaurant menu, that are French.

Peter Sokolowski: You might recall that video where my recommendation is to not force it, to pronounce things as you would in English essentially, and add the French color when it's convenient or easily done. A thing like pâté de foie gras, you don't have to say it in any kind of fancy accent. People would understand that perfectly well. Or one word that people struggle with is the word croissant, and maybe in French, I would say croissant. But croissant, I think you can kind of get away with that pretty easily. The word restaurant itself is a French word, and we don't struggle with that. My point is, just try to be natural and comprehensible.

Peter Sokolowski: But people are fascinated by the phonetics of French, and part of my job was to write a French dictionary and to make sure we got all of this right. It occurs to me sometimes that there are a few tips that can be given to help. If you want to sound better speaking French, not just citing a word here and there, which we all do from time to time, but even reading a sentence, or if you're someone who's learning French or has learned French, there might be a few tips that I've picked up over the years, going to university in France and having many French friends and giving lectures in French, and finally, teaching French at the university level, which was the job I had before I came to Merriam-Webster, to maybe expose an easy way to sound a little better. I'm not saying you're going to sound like a native speaker of French. I don't know that that's the goal. I think the goal is to be clear.

Emily Brewster: Also maybe to be able to order comfortably—

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Emily Brewster: ... at a restaurant, instead of just saying, "I'll have the duck."

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, yeah. There's a great Key and Peele sketch, it's on YouTube, of this moment of sitting down at a French restaurant, a man and a woman clearly on a date, and the man who wants to show off and struggles with the language. This is a cultural thing. So it occurred to me, at the beginning of the pandemic, I watched some Poirot, and it's a hard word to say in English. But, Hercule Poirot is this character, of course, by Agatha Christie, famously played by David Suchet, a British actor. Then there was a special movie made with John Malkovich playing the role, and recently Kenneth Branagh. You have three examples of English speakers playing someone who's famous for a very thick French accent.

Emily Brewster: But the character is created by a British—

Peter Sokolowski: A British woman, yes. And it has to be said, a Belgian character, not a French character, and that's an important point. I grew up hearing an accent very much like the one David Suchet has in Poirot, because my mother's parents were French Canadian. She grew up in a household that was essentially bilingual, where she had to speak French to her own grandparents. Her mother, my mémé, as we called her, was a caregiver, and so I was very familiar with her. There were lots of French words in our vocabulary and household, but mostly what I remember is the very thick French accent that she had. Which by the way, I never noticed until it was pointed out to me. I was probably 10. That was just her voice, just the way she spoke.

Peter Sokolowski: In a sense, you could call me a heritage speaker. People use that term. It's a term I'd never heard before, in the sense that my grandparents spoke French. I didn't grow up speaking it, but I was very aware of it. It was around. There were songs, there were books, there were stories.

Peter Sokolowski: But certainly there was the sound, that sound. So the David Suchet accent was very familiar to me. That's exactly what my grandmother sounded like. But occasionally watching it, it would bug me because I'd think, "He sounds so good. He sounds so convincing." By the way, he's a British Shakespearean actor who does not speak fluent French, but he does a great job with the sound, and he really makes it work. Once I became fluent myself, I thought, didn't they have somebody on set who could tell him that to say goodnight in French, the word for night is "nuit." It's a feminine noun and therefore it has a feminine adjective before it. To say goodnight, you say "Bonne nuit." "Bonne" means good, and "Bonne nuit." But he would say, "Bon nuit," which shows that he knows exactly how to pronounce the adjective, but the masculine form.

Emily Brewster: Wait, wait, wait, wait. What's the feminine?

Peter Sokolowski: The masculine is the word B-O-N, "bon." Then the feminine has a double N and an E. B-O-N-N-E. So the difference is "bon" and "bonne." You really can hear a difference. Now, the fact is the next word in this case starts with an N. So it becomes elided, and it's very, very quick. "Bonne nuit." But it's not "bon."

Peter Sokolowski: This is something our pronunciation editor, our phonetics expert, Josh Guenter has explained to me, it's not the nasalized N that matters, it's the nasalized O. It's the vowel that you nasalize. So they are nasalized in a different way, these two words, "bon" and "bonne." They're, to me, big differences that I can hear, and I just used to think, "Oh, this actor gets it so close and he's so right. You would never guess he doesn't speak French." Once in a while, he would drop in a little sentence, little phrase in French and they were all pretty well done.

Peter Sokolowski: He's a remarkable actor, of course. But once in a while, again, the errors were so elementary. That's exactly the kind of thing, and any French speaker would cringe. It's almost like an infant's error. You would never get the gender of the word night wrong, for example. Then I watched the John Malkovich production. John Malkovich, I believe, lived in France for many years. I believe he is a fluent speaker of French, and I think we can find him on YouTube. He has a little accent, American accent in French, but he's a fluent speaker of French, which is different from David Suchet. However, his accent also bothered me in one particular respect, because he would say the name of the character. In English, you'd say "Poirot," as though it has two R's in it. He would say "Poirot, Poirot" with that very kind of guttural, French sounding R. "Poirot."

Peter Sokolowski: And I said, "Why does this bother me?" And I realized, a French speaker would say that name "Poirot." You notice that second R, I almost ghost it. It's a very small, almost muted sound. "Poirot." And when an R in French is between vowels like that, it's very often a very muted sound. So for example, the word period, "periode." So you hear, I don't make a meal out of that R. "Periode," it's just the word period.

Peter Sokolowski: Another word, variety. "Variété." That R, I don't say "variété," I say "variété." That's the way French people actually pronounce it. So for the word "Poirot" itself, you could almost remove that R and just say "Poi" "ot", and then put them together, "Poirot." That's very close to how they would come out. "Poirot." I was trying to think, why is he making this mistake? He speaks French. It's because the initial Rs, the Rs at the beginnings of words, are very harsh often. You could hear it at the beginning of a word, like "répéter." Or the word for very in French is "très." And often that's quite harsh. They say "très, très." You really do hear that harsh sound of R when it's an initial sound, but never when it's a medial sound, when it's in between things. It's an easy tip to give an English speaker, don't mistake, one kind of R for another. The French R is in your throat, but there are varying degrees.

Emily Brewster: But it's only in your throat when it's at the beginning, like in a consonant blend or initial?

Peter Sokolowski: It's both, because "répéter," you could say "ré." You could say that harsh, and it'd be totally native, but "très près" after a initial consonant can be very, very hard, and you really hear it in your throat.

Emily Brewster: What about the R at the end?

Peter Sokolowski: Well, often of course, those are silent Rs. It depends, but there are some Rs that you do hear at the end, and those are usually "eurre" so "beurre"—

Emily Brewster: Not that guttural—

Peter Sokolowski: Butter is the word "beurre," that's more like the medial one. You don't say "beurre," it just doesn't sound French. So my point is the R in French, you could think of it as a matter of degree, that there is a more intense version and it's the same mechanics, but a much less intense version for the medial one.

Peter Sokolowski: And "Poirot," I just think is kind of a simple, easy way to say it. It made me think about what other couple tips could I give to English speakers who want to sound better in French? Number one is those nasals. The nasals are a problem because we don't have them in English. In our dictionaries, there are some phonetic transcriptions. In Merriam-Webster's dictionaries, the transcription is a superscript N, and it is at some entries. If you look up the word confiserie, we only give it with that superscript N, which means that our phonetic transcription is "confiserie" as a nasalized sound, not "conn-fissery." But "confiserie." So that's a distinction we can all hear, and we can do. The problem with these nasalized vowels is that there are five of them, A, I, E, O and U, and they have to sound different.

Emily Brewster: They all sound different? Okay. You have to teach me now how to say these.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes. I struggled with this because some of these are common words, like the word for one, the number one, which is also the word for our indefinite article in French, a or an, is U-N. It's a very common one. It's maybe the most common of these. And it's "un." It's just "un." It's a very simple sound, but then the word for year, coming from the Greek. We get annual from this, is just A-N. And it's "an." The best way I found to learn these is to juxtapose them.

Emily Brewster: Okay.

Peter Sokolowski: "Un an, un an" is one year. So you can hear the difference. Those are two clearly distinct vowel sounds. But if you said them in isolation, it'd be kind of hard to know if you're right. But if you say "un an, un an."

Emily Brewster: "Un an."

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, that's perfect.

Emily Brewster: "Un an."

Peter Sokolowski: "Un an."

Emily Brewster: "Un an."

Peter Sokolowski: You got it, exactly. So you notice—

Emily Brewster: I don't feel like I've got it.

Peter Sokolowski: But the U-N is a little bit back in your throat. The best way, and it was a neighbor of mine at university who was French who was sympathetic with my struggle, she came up with this idea to say the sentence "in an instant," or the little phrase, "in an instant," because that covers...

Peter Sokolowski: So in French, it's E-N, U-N, I-N, A-N. "En un instant." E-N, U-N, I-N, A-N, with just the S-T between them, of course. Now you could say "dans un instant," and that's another way to practice it because "dans" means within an instant.

Emily Brewster: "Dans."

Peter Sokolowski: And D-A-N-S. So that gives you the A-N at the beginning and the end of this, "dans un instant." It's the exact same vowel at the beginning and the end. "Dans un instant." But "en un instant," because the "en" is tough because that's a really wide open sound. You get that from the back of your throat also. "En un instant."

Peter Sokolowski: If you put those four sounds together, and then the O-N really takes care of itself, the "on" is really simple, and most of us get that easier. So "en un instant, on." There you have your vowels. My point is, if you juxtapose them, you naturally start to make those vowels different from each other and they will fall into their correct slots. You have to practice that. It's good to say it into your recorder on your phone, or it's good to practice speaking face to face as you and I are. So that's my tip on nasals, is juxtaposition. Say them quickly, "en un instant," and say them slowly to make sure they sound different. "En un instant." Then that's a problem in France, if you say them all the same way, people will misunderstand you and it can be a problem.

Emily Brewster: You are listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. More French pronunciation tips ahead. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Speaker 3: Word Matters listeners get 25% off all dictionaries and books at shop.merriam-webster.com by using the promo code "MATTERS" at checkout. That's MATTERS, M-A-T-T-E-R-S at Shop dot Merriam hyphen Webster dot com.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin, history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at merriam-webster.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. For more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: My French lesson continues.

Peter Sokolowski: A couple other quick tips. One is that words that end in S-I-O-N, all the words in English that have I-O-N at the end, they're French words. Okay.

Emily Brewster: Like vision.

Peter Sokolowski: Vision is a good one, but if it follows an R, like version, we in English, we voice that S, it is a Z. "Version."

Emily Brewster: Yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: It's a Z sound. In French, it's not. It's an S sound. So you say in English, "version." In French "version." "Version." You have to train yourself to do that because you're looking at a word that you know, it's spelled the same way in both languages. "Version." That's the most common of those words. There's a handful of others, but I've heard very fluent speakers of French, who are Americans or Brits or Germans, who get that wrong. It's a tiny little thing, but it's a cool, quick thing to learn.

Emily Brewster: I think part of the draw though, to the English pronunciation, is that it's one of our fancier sounding words.

Peter Sokolowski: The "zh" sound.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. It's not just a simple Z. It's actually, sometimes it's rendered as Z-H.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Emily Brewster: Like it's a voiced... I don't remember the technical name for it, but that "zh" sound, I associate that sound with the French I learned from Pepé Le Pew.

Peter Sokolowski: And the "zh" sound is a very French sound. Of course, it is.

Emily Brewster: Yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: It's a voiceless S. It's "une version." That's a tricky one because first of all, it's counterintuitive, as you just said.

Emily Brewster: Yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: Second of all, we have a habit in our own language of pronouncing it a slightly different way. Anecdotally, the word jazz in French is not pronounced with a French J because everyone knows in France, it's an American word. So they pronounce it as if it had an initial D. "Le jazz," you say "le djazz." If that were a French word, you'd say "le jazz." And that's why the name Django Reinhardt has a D because they pronounce it that way. "Django." It's not "Zhango," it's "Django." But that's the problem, is that these two languages sometimes are cognates and they interfere with each other. Another easy thing is that French doesn't have diphthongs. It's a big deal. We swim in our vowels in English.

Emily Brewster: A diphthong is a vowel sound that kind of starts in one place in your mouth and winds up in somewhere else.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Emily Brewster: "Oy" for example.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: You start with your lips rounded. Your tongue is in the front of your mouth. And then E you go from the "oo" to the E. Tongue's in the middle, sorry. And then [inaudible 00:14:20] E, your jaw is up, your lips are apart and your tongue is in the front.

Peter Sokolowski: These are very hard to learn for French people. So for them to sound convincing in English, it's extremely difficult because, I'm just going to use an extreme example, the month of May. I say "May." Even that, there's a little bit of movement in my vowel, even though it's just A.

Peter Sokolowski: A certain kind of British accent might say, "May, May." And what is that? Dropping an octave or something, and it also kind of has this little curlicue at the end, "May." Kind of comes up again to my ears, maybe to your ears. That's a very British sound, "May." I remember sitting in a rehearsal in a French orchestra, there was an English woman who was a flute player, and she was asking a question in French. And I remember hearing her say "au mois de mai." And I just thought, wow, it sounds like Michael Caine in French. So the French don't do that. And this is a huge advantage we have as English speakers, a huge advantage, because to learn to sound convincing in French, all we have to do is clip our vowels to shorten them. We're saying them anyway, just shorten them. So in French, the month of May or "May" is "mai." You just say it very short and very sweet.

Emily Brewster: I think I can do that. "Mai."

Peter Sokolowski: It's true for all vowels. So they don't swim in their vowels. They don't have diphthongs. All of them are short sounds. The classic French sound at the end of adjectives and past particles is É, the E with an acute accent rising to the right is a past participle of the first group of verbs. So you end up hearing that sound very, very frequently. "Terminé" which means terminated. "Terminé." "Français." "Inscrit." The E sound is very short.

Peter Sokolowski: The word scenario, "scénario." So that every one of those vowel sounds is super short. Just clip it, just trim it back. And "mai" is a good example, because "mais," M-A-I-S, is also the word for "but," the conjunction in English.

Emily Brewster: "Mais non."

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. "Mais non." There you go. Very short sounds. So you sound much more convincing making things very, very, very short. This reminds me of a couple other vowel sounds that we make in English. We say "Degas" for example. What's another in French name?

Emily Brewster: Monet.

Peter Sokolowski: So it's "Monet" and it's "Degas" in French because there is no accent on that E, so you just say "Degas." There's another quick and easy thing, which is our last piece of advice, which is French doesn't have syllabic stress, and syllabic stress is an enormous part of the English phonetic system. We don't even think about it. It's the water we swim in.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. It's the difference between record and record.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes. There's a whole sequence of those words, where the meaning itself is transferred by the syllabic stress. But a word that's borrowed from French, like importance, for example, in English, you understand it with that strong second syllable, im-PORT-ance. The second syllable has the stress, but in French it's, of course, the same spelling, same word and it has no stress. So it's "importance." So you have to learn how to say a multisyllable word and put no stress any greater on one syllable than you would on another.

Peter Sokolowski: French speakers have the impression that speakers of English or Dutch and German are angry all the time, because we always add that stress to their language and they find it aggressive. The word combative in French, and in English again, the second syllable com-BAT-ive, but in French it's "combatif, combatif." So in this case, like with removing the long vowel sounds, make them very short. In this case, remove all of the syllabic or tonic stress, and you will sound much, much more convincing as a French speaker.

Emily Brewster: That last one is very counterintuitive to me because my English-speaking ear associates French with having an accent on the final syllable. In the Pepé Le Pew school of French, that's what my ear hears.

Peter Sokolowski: You have touched upon a controversy because phoneticians insist that is an illusion. However, I would tell you that that's helpful because you're not wrong. Now, I'm just going to read off a sentence I've memorized. [French 00:17:57].

Peter Sokolowski: It might sound to you like there's some terminal stress, especially that first short sentence, [French 00:18:12] And I could be convinced of that, but I'm told by phoneticians that, in fact, French doesn't give more stress to the last syllable. However, that I think is a useful way for English speakers, because what that does, is displace the one you might have put somewhere else. I think that could be a good step in the right direction, and it is an aural illusion. There's no question that we have that perception. I think you've touched upon something that's real. It may be something that some people argue about, but it's helpful to English speakers to learn that if you know kind of what you sound like to others...

Peter Sokolowski: This is what was really helpful to me, was a French friend who would sometimes repeat back my accent to me. I remember once she said, "Je suis très fatigué." I said, "I'm tired." And in French, fatigued is "fatigué, fatigué." So fa-ti-gué. Three very short vowels. And I said "fatigué." To them, that sounds very English. It sounds very, very English.

Peter Sokolowski: Now, as a kind of bonus postscript to this, they have a incredible difficulty with the R and especially the American R because our R is almost a vowel because we blend that sound. We swim in that sound as well. To a French speaking person, if there's a group of Americans talking, what they hear is "rrr." Because what you notice is what is different, and so they notice what they don't do. For French speakers, they have so much difficulty because you have to acquire tonic stress, syllabic stress. You have to learn how to make diphthongs.

Peter Sokolowski: Those Rs, of course, are completely foreign to them. So they have a lot more work to do to sound convincing than we do. I think we have the advantage, and I'm not saying to impersonate a French person, but to sound very clear and to be easily understood. The best strategy for French speakers, if you happen to know any, and I knew a few who did this, was to convert the terminal Rs in English to vowels. In that way, if you're using a kind of received pronunciation of a British sound, which is very familiar to people in France, you say instead of car... It's very hard for them to learn that R and they always kind of overdo it, say "cah" and that's now an "ah" and not an R. And it sounds very good. It sounds elegant.

Emily Brewster: Right, that makes sense. Yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: And it works.

Emily Brewster: So I can struggle with my "crêpe" and my "croissant" and they can just order "buttah."

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org. For the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com.

Emily Brewster: Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and me. For Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster and New England Public Media.

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!