“It was on this date in February 1977 (the year that King Elvis died, see Isaiah 6:1) that I accepted the invitation from international evangelist T.L. Osborn to ‘come to Tulsa and help me get the Gospel to the French world.’ Thirty-eight years later I am still here . . . in My Oklahomian Exile from the Holy Land (Arkansas).”
“In Arkansas there is a mountain,
and a state park on top of it,
both named Petit Jean . . .
But it ain’t Petty and it ain’t Gene!”
In an earlier post titled “Moments to Remember/Selma Methodist Church Update” I wrote about our McGehee, Arkansas, High School Class of 1956 senior trip to Petit Jean State Park, which sits atop a mountain named Petit Jean.
In that post and in earlier ones about Arkansas’ “French Connection” (the title of a popular 1971 Hollywood movie) I examined the early French exploration and settlement of what is now the state of Arkansas, including the many French names that have been left behind in it as a result.
Petit Jean is one of them, though, of course as has so often happens, the original French pronunciation (“p’tee ZHAW(N)”) has been anglicized into “Petty Gene.” (To read more on this subject of the French vestiges in my native state, including its very name, visit the posts titled: “Arkansiana I: The Name of Arkansas,” “Arkansiana II: Pronunciation of Arkansas,” “Arkansiana III: Change the Name of Arkansas,” and “Arkansiana IV: Arkansas’ French Connection.”)
Now in this new post (the next to final one in the series titled “You Might Be from the Country If . . .”) I would like to continue that theme. As such I will offer several other examples of misunderstanding, mispronunciation, and misuse of French terms and phrases in general among the American public. These are especially evident among TV news and sports announcers who might be expected to know better—or at least to take the time to look them up before mangling them beyond recognition by any real French speaker.
(Note: The correct pronunciations of the French terms and phrases in this post are actually only Americanized approximations since French has an entirely different set of sounds from English, sounds that can only be accurately represented in print by phonetic symbols. In this post, emphasis on syllables is indicated by ALL CAPS. Generally, in spoken French, syllables tend to begin with a consonant and end with a vowel, to be broken and pronounced equally, with emphasis on the final syllable of each word, phrase, and sentence, e.g., “Canada” pronounced in French “Cah-nah-DAH” rather than the English “CAN-uh-duh.”)
Mangled French Terms and Phrases
“Most Americans’ use of French words and phrases
is not just anglicized French, it is ‘manglicized’ French!”
“Monsieur Hercule Poirot est blessé,
mais il fait toujours son travail à son bureau.”
(“Mr. Hercule Poirot is injured,
but he continues his work at his desk.”)
—Sample for French mispronunciation/misuse
One of the most obvious misunderstandings by speakers of American English is that the final consonant in French is NEVER pronounced. Thus, French terms such as “Monsieur” are incorrectly pronounced “Muh-SIEU” when in reality the final “r” is pronounced in French “Muh-SIEUR.” This rule applies to many French words that end in “-eur” or “-ieur.”
On that subject, of course there is the French word all Americans use for “Miss”—”Mademoiselle”— which they pronounce as “MAM-zelle” when it is actually “Mad-mwah-ZELLE,” literally “my young lady.”
One bit of pretense that grates on my ear, nerves, and soul is the pronunciation of the French Quarter in New Orleans which was originally called the “vieux carré” (meaning literally, the “old square”). People who want to try to show off their knowledge of New Orleans French names will invariably mispronounce this term “VIEW kuhray,” when in actuality it is “vyuh cah-REH.”
And then there is the NBA sports announcer who pronounces the last name of a pro basketball player named “Sucre” (which incidentally should be spelled “Sucré”) as “SHOO-gray”when it is neither “Shoo” nor “gray.” Instead it should be pronounced “Sue-CRAY.” (Incidentally, if the name is actually “Sucre,” then it should be pronounced “SUE-cruh” but still not “SHOO-gray.”)
Speaking of accents in French, which are of great importance in that language, the same type of “false French” occurs in writing.
In a recent syndicated religious devotional in the local newspaper on the subject of respecting the differences in people, the writer ended by noting, “As the French say, ‘Viva la difference.'”
The only problem is that expression is NOT French, it is “Spanglish.” The word “Viva” is Spanish, and the word “difference” is English!
The actual French phrase should have been “Vive la différence.”
Again, the question is: Before using such a French term, why did the writer (and the sports announcer above) not take the time and effort to first make sure it was correct?
Another example of false French is the mispronunciation of terms such as “masseur/masseuse” (“male/female massager”), pronounced in French “mah-SIR/mah-SIRZ,” which are NOT pronounced “mah-sewer/mah-soose”! Likewise, the terms “chanteur/chanteuse” (“male/female singer”) should not be pronounced “shan-tewer/shan-toose”!
Then there is the false idea that French terms such as “poireau” (the French word for “pear”) and French names (such as “Hercule Poirot” in the quote above) are pronounced “PAW-row,” when in truth they are properly pronounced “pwah-ROW.” Another example is the name of the Bahamian-American movie actor named Sydney Poitier whose last name is NOT pronounced “POE-ti-aye,” but rather “pwah-ti-AYE.”
Another is the false impression that in order to make the final “oh” sound on a French word, it has to end with “eau” and a final “x.” For example, I saw a TV ad for Louisiana State University which showed a sign reading “Geaux Tigers!” (“Go Tigers!”)
That is real cute and clever . . . except that the normally silent “x” at the end of a French word ending in “eau” (pronounced “oh”) simply indicates that the term is plural!
For example, take the common term “beau,” which is pronounced correctly in both French and English as “boh.” To add an “x” to the end of that French word “beau” so that it becomes “beaux” simply changes it to plural, as in the common French term “beaux arts,” which means “fine arts” and is pronounced “boh-ZAR.” (Note: The final “x” in such terms is pronounced only in front of a following word beginning with a vowel; otherwise, the final “x” is silent, as in “beaux regards,” pronounced “bo ruh-GAR”).
Yet in spite of this explanation it seems that any American (even in French-speaking Louisiana) who attempts to create a French word ending in “eau” (i.e., the “oh” sound) will automatically and incorrectly add an “x” to the end.
“Say it ain’t seaux, Jeaux!”
(To understand my double “pun” here in imitation of this practice of false French, click here to learn the origin and significance of the famous “Black Sox” baseball phrase: “Say it ain’t so, Joe!”)
Also consider the common French term “tête-à-tête” which is almost always incorrectly pronounced “tet-ah-TAY.” It is correctly pronounced “tet-ah-TET”— “head to head”—same word “tête” for “head” on each end!
Also there is the common but totally inaccurate attempt to pronounce the popular French show term “Cirque du Soleil” (“Circus of the Sun”) as “SURK-diew-so-lay” when it is actually more like “seerk-du-so-LAY-yuh.”
Then there is the French term so often both mispronounced and misused: “coup de grâce” which is almost always pronounced incorrectly as “koo-duh-GRAH” when it is actually “koo-duh-GRAHSE.” And it doesn’t mean a “death blow” per se since in this case the French word “grâce” means “grace” or “mercy.” It is thus the “mercy blow” given to put a poor suffering soul out if its misery.
And, of course, there is the common American term “chaise lounge” (a long, reclining chair usually mispronounced as “chase lounge”). That example of false French (or “manglicized French”) occurred because of both misspelling and mispronunciation. The actual French term is “chaise longue” (meaning “long chair” and pronounced “shez LOWNG”).
In that same opening quote above about Mr. Poirot working at his desk, there is an excellent example of another type of false French: what the French themselves call “faux amis” (pronounced “foe-zah-ME”), which literally means “false friends.” (Note the use of the final “x” again to indicate that the term is plural.) These are words in French that look like they are the same as English but are not: for example, the French word “travail” (pronounced “trah-VYE-yuh”) means not “travail” or “travel” but “work.”
Here is another set of false friends: The French word “la prune” (pronounced “la PREWne”) does not mean “prune” but “plum”; and the French word for “prune” is “le pruneau” (pronounced “luh prew-NO”). Of course, by now you know that the plural form of “le pruneau” would be . . . you guessed it, “les pruneaux” (pronounced “lay prew-NO”)!
Another false friend is the French term “blessé” (pronounced “bless-AYE”), which does not mean “blessed” but rather “injured” or “wounded.”
Finally, a third example of a false friend is the French word “raisin” (pronounced something like “ray-ZAI(N),” which does not mean “raisin” but “grape.” The French word for “raisin” is “raisin sec” (pronounced “ray-zai(n) SEK”), meaning literally “grape dry” or “dried grape.”
Though I could list hundreds of other examples of false French terms, phrases, pronunciations, and meanings, there is the universal American misconception that the final “r” in all French terms ending in “-oir” is silent. That is NOT true.
Here are examples of such terms with their English mispronunciations and their correct French pronunciations: “boudoir” (English: “BOOD-wah”/French: “boo-DWAHR”); “memoir” (English: “MEM-wah”; French: “mem-WAHR”); “armoire” (English: “ARM-wah”; French: “arm-WAHR”).
And on that subject, despite what you may hear on the old movies channels, the infamous 1940s “film noir” (literally “black film”) genre is not pronounced “film nwah” but rather “feelm-NWAHR.”
Again, the examples are legion, but “voilà” (pronounced not as in English “WAH-lah” but as in French “vwah-LAH”) those that I have chosen!
The others will have to await a future post. Until then: “au revoir” (pronounced correctly not as “AH-vwah” or “OH-vwah” but as “oh–ruh-VWAHR.”)
“Until we see each another again.”
Addenda and Conclusion
“Pralines have an interesting history. Their origin may be traced to France in the 1600s to the grand manor house of the French diplomat Cesar compte du Plessis-Praslin.”
—Barry Fugatt, “Pecan pralines help beat the winter blues,”
Tulsa World, December 27, 2014
On a related subject, Mari and I were married on December 27, 1962, after which we spent our honeymoon in Cajun Country and New Orleans. (See my earlier post titled “Our Honeymoon Was No Honeymoon for Mari.”)
Coincidentally, on the day of our fifty-second wedding anniversary, December 27, 2014, Barry Fugatt, a native of Louisiana and the Tulsa World garden editor, published a column in which he cleared the air once and for all about the proper pronunciation of both the words “praline” and “pecan”!
First, Fugatt noted the source of pralines (in the opening quote above) as a certain French nobleman named Cesar compte du Plessis-Praslin. I can assure you that name would be pronounced in French something like: “Say-ZAR kawnte du Ples-SEE—Prahz-LAI(N).”
The source of the English word “praline” is that last name “Prahz-LAI(N).” Although French nasals are almost impossible to represent in writing in English, the fact is that as Fugatt notes the proper pronunciation “prah-leen” is closer to the French than the popular but totally inaccurate pronunciation “pray-leen”:
“And while on the subject of pralines, please allow an old Southerner to weigh in on a contentious subject. The proper pronunciation for the fabulous French confection is: ‘Prah-leen,’ with a long ‘aaah’ sound. Only Yankees, or folks with poor speech modulation, use the shrill sounding pronunciation, ‘Pray-leen.’
“And if I may be allowed another small insight—no offense intended—the proper name for the nut from which the confection takes its name is rightly pronounced: ‘Puh-kahn’ and not ‘Pee-can.’ Sons and daughters of the South can hardly endure hearing the confection called ‘pee-can pray-leen.’ It has all the melodic charm of finger nails being scraped along a blackboard.”
Amen, mon ami de Louisiane! (pronounced in French: “Ah-men, mow-nah-mi duh Lwee-ZYAHNE!”)
Speaking of French and Country, on January 2, 2014, I saw an article on AOL about the death of Donna Douglas, a native of Louisiana, who played Elly May Clampett on the highly popular 1960s TV show The Beverly Hillbillies about a country family from the Ozark Mountains.
It so happens that I met Donna back in about 1983 at Rhema Bible Training Center in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, where she was a student after her TV career. I was there to interpret for a French evangelist for whom I served as American representative. The Rhema contact person asked us if we wanted to meet Donna Douglas.
Of course, I said yes. The French evangelist did not know who Donna was, but I explained to him in French that she was a hugely popular American TV star.
When we met her, Donna was very soft-spoken, sweet, and beautiful—just like Elly May.
When she learned that I was from Arkansas she asked me, “Did y’all eat grits?”
I said jokingly, “Why, if it hadn’t been for the weevils in the grits we wouldn’t have had any protein in our diet at all!”
She thought that was funny.
Note: The final post in this series, titled “You Might Be from the Country If . . . Part VII,” will conclude the series with a few of my favorite French quotes. To that list I have added a link to a French song performed by Edith Piaf and an amusing take-off of it from the recent kids’ movie Madagascar III: Europe’s Most Wanted.
All French-English words, meanings, and pronunciations were verified by Cassells’ French-English English-French Dictionary and the Visual Bilingual French-English Dictionary.
The photo of the McGehee High School building (no longer standing) was taken from the 1956 MHS yearbook.
The photo of Petit Jean State Park was taken from a travel brochure published by the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism.
The photo of the French Quarter, the vieux carré, in New Orleans was taken from:
The photo of actor David Suchet as fictional Belgian detective Hercule Poirot was taken from:
The photo of actor Sidney Poitier was taken from:
The quote from Barry Fugatt’s article on pecan pralines was taken from “Pecan pralines help beat the winter blues,” which appeared in the Tulsa World on Saturday, December 27, 2014.
The photo of pecan pralines was taken from:
The Wikipedia article about the TV show The Beverly Hillbillies and the photo of the titleboard of it were taken from:
The Wikipedia article about Donna Douglas and the photo of her in 1967 were taken from: