The Art of Pronunciation – La Compétence de Prononciation.


Version français

A year or so ago I applied for a job with a delivery company reasoning that with the quality of my comprehension and mastery of the french language there wasn’t much else I could reasonably expect anyone to employ me for.

In fact I would go as far to say that I was absolutely thrilled that I had actually made into the working world in a country that didn’t speak my mother tongue!

Some months into this job, which involved delivering various magazines and brochures that the Mairie in their infinite wisdom had decided to publish, it was necessary to borrow my husband’s car, my own having a flat battery. Since my husband’s car was a brand new company car I was understandably a little concerned about the loading capacity compared to my trusty tank. I made a detour into the office to chat with the very jovial boss to determine if the company car was up to the job.

The boss raised his eyebrows as I entered the room, as from experience he knew that general conversation with me would inevitably result in some outlandish declaration, such as “my husband played golf with some crocodiles this weekend” – which happens to be true, but equally could be some drastic mispronunciaton of a key word in the conversation. Imagine his delight therefore when, on inquiring which car I was driving, I pointed out of the window and declared that my husbands car was a lemon! I had failed to place the correct emphasis on the ‘O’ and the ‘E’ of Citroen, and the resultant word that I had spoken of course was ‘Citron’. I knew within a nanosecond that I had committed a gross error and my boss proceeded to fall about in tears of laughter.

It was only fitting therefore that when I came, some months later to hand in my resignation, a decision made after serious contemplation and thought from the driving seat of my car five minutes before I started work, that I should depart in the style to which they had all become accustomed. Having sourced a piece of paper from the glove compartment I carefully worded the following letter in order to terminate my contract.

Monsieur, Je veux terminer mon bulot au fin du mois. Cordialement.. etc

I carefully folded the letter, put it in an envelope, and proceeded to the office to hand it over. I was frankly immensely proud of this little letter, which I had written without the aid of a dictionary and especially for the fact that my linguistic skill was now getting so well developed that I actually knew two words for “job”, the first of course being travail. I was therefore somewhat unprepared for the enormous snort and explosion of laughter that followed, nor for the fact that he left his office for that of his colleagues  – more howls ensued and returned with a drawing-pin to fix it to the wall for perpetuity.

I had of course written that I intended to ” finish my snail (or more literally whelk) by the end of the month”.

The simple fact that one can know exactly how words are written, yet fail to pronounce them properly and arrive at a completely different meaning, or one can hear repeatedly a word, and having never seen it written, spell it entirely wrongly is cause for great consternation to the average person undergoing the ‘total immersion’ experience. A “job” of course is spelt “boulot”, a whelk “bulot”.  The letter of resignation remains to this day on the office wall.

I have made quite an effort over time to increase my vocabulary, and the most interesting and enjoyable method has been by reading voraciously always in french. However this has its pitfalls. I tend to read a series of books by the same author at a time since writers tend to have their own specialized vocabulary. The first book read by any one particular author will invariably be the most difficult but each consecutive book becomes consistently easier since the very act of repetition of words embeds them firmly in the long-term memory. The problem associated with this method is that whilst one knows exactly how the word is spelled, and exactly how to place it within the sentence structure, and the context within which it is used, even the most long suffering frenchman can look blankly in your direction when, you, never physically having heard the word spoken pronounce it badly.

What makes the french language infinitely more complex is the addition of gender to the meaning of words. The website ‘French About’ has a tricky little quiz which amply demonstrates how by the misuse of gender one can entirely alter the meaning of a word. For example ‘le boum’ means ‘a bang’ or ‘an explosion’, whilst ‘la boum’ means ‘a party’, ‘le cave’ means ‘an idiot’ and ‘la cave’  ‘a cellar’. Although the following words are spelt entirely differently, the pronunciation is the same, and the gender is crucial, le pet (pronounced pay) means a ‘fart’, and ‘la paix’ (also pronounced pay) means ‘peace and to further complicate matters ‘la paie’ (also pronounced pay and also feminine) means pay. It is therefore as entirely inadvisable to walk into the bosses office to demand your salary using the masculine article, as it is unlikely to gain a result by writing a letter to demand ‘la paix’.

It has taken me two years in France (and the rest of my life in England) to learn to accurately spell the words for pudding, and for the infinite stretch of sand, so named ‘dessert’ and ‘desert’. I now can differentiate the two knowing that the pudding variety will widen the waistline, whilst being stuck in a desert without dessert will invariably shrink it. Pudding is therefore wider with two s’s, the sand narrower with only one. But I have only been able to reach this little piece of knowledge thanks to my immersion into the french language. Having succumbed (quite easily as it happens) to patisserie classes, I was slightly consternated to note that my french friends were looking at me a little bemused as I proceeded to describe the little pudding that I had made one afternoon. It was only after a few minutes of agony that my delightful friend Carole pulled me aside and announced that ‘dessert’ was pronounced ‘deZ-Sair’ with a very distinct accentuation of the Z and S sounds and not ‘dezair’ as one pronounces the sand variety. How those nuances of sound play such a major role in the definition of words and the comprehension of conversations. I am only glad that  the French, equally, have to get their tongues round the english pronunciations of  ‘dezurt’ and ‘dezut’ .  Two nationalities with  identical words and identical meanings. Dessert, desert; Two words, two meanings – four sounds.

Ahh, the joy of pronunciation!

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11 comments on “The Art of Pronunciation – La Compétence de Prononciation.

  1. I totally agree with you! the masculin and feminin is so horrible, I still have trouble with it and I’ve been here for 6 years! My mum and me are quite bemused by the fact that the French refuse to understand you unless you get the pronounciation exactly right, they don’t want to try to guess. We tried telling some people once that we had a golden retriever and we looked it up in the dictionary beforehand and it’s the same word! But we eventually had to show the dictionary to the person we were talking to and they said “AH! GoldEn RetrivEr” like it was a completely different word.

    • It’s funny because my first language is french and I have the same exact problem but the other way around! Maybe it is not the fact that poeple are not trying to understand but that it sounds different. Take an english word and have 5 people with 5 different languages say it and you’ll get 5 different words. Take “client” for example even if it is spelt the same, it sounds like a different word in english or french. It can be difficult to learn another language and after a few years people understands me better…maybe because I can speak the language better 🙂

      • I completely agree with you – i’ve read many articles where people complain that french people deliberately don’t understand other nationalities speaking french – where i’m sure it is all down to pronunciation. A small nuance of difference can give a completely different word. More importantly, in many english schools children aren’t even taught that the french alphabet sounds entirely different from the english one, nor taught french phonetics – both of which are essential for accurate pronunciation. Thanks for your post, your written english is superb.

  2. Awesome writing style!

  3. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  4. Thank you I write and read a lot as it helps to learn but it is not easy! Great blog by the way!

  5. Free Movies says:

    This is a great blog you have here

  6. Ellen says:

    Hahaha! I laughed until crying about your terminating your ” bulot!” Great post. This one reminds me of David Sedaris.

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