Ecureuil, Pronunciation Fears, and most difficult French words to pronounce (read aloud by Jean-Marc!)
Wednesday, February 15, 2017
Scroll down for the list of hard-to-pronounce French words, and listen to the sound file. Be sure to sign up for the weekly newsletter filled with useful everyday French vocabulary!
We begin this edition with a quote from a reader: When I studied French decades ago, I was told by one prof that during the war, écureuil was a test word used to ascertain whether the speaker was, indeed, French or perhaps a spy. This word remains difficult for me to this day. - Mary
TODAY'S WORD: un écureuil
A DAY IN A FRENCH LIFE by Kristi Espinasse
One of the things we language learners have in common is the fear of speaking in a foreign tongue, specifically le français! The first time I can remember being afraid to pronounce French was just moments before meeting my host family, in 1989.....
My dad had accompanied me to Lille, France, and he was now driving our rental car into some parking lot. On second thought, had he driven me? I can't remember, for my brain can only recall a car window, beyond which the gray unknown awaited.
The gray was no more than the clouds, so typical of the industrial town of Lille, and as for the unknown it was about to reveal itself via two sunny faces: Mr. and Mrs. B.
Thump, thump, thump, went my heart. How would they ever understand me? Had two years of college French, learned back home in the wild west, made me a fluent French speaker? On a more practical note, what to say now?! What if it all came out garbled? In Franglais?
To this day I can't remember what my first words were to Robert and Christiane B. But I can still see the kindest faces, looking back at me encouragingly as if to say, Ne t'inquiète pas. Vas-y! On t'écoute. Do not worry. Go ahead. We are listening to you.
Almost 30 years later, my dear Dad & me - in sunny Cassis :-)
MOST DIFFICULT WORDS TO PRONOUNCE IN FRENCH
A year ago I asked you to share the hardest words to say en français. Here, now, are your "Most Challenging French Words To Pronounce," followed by a recording for you, by Jean-Marc:
la rue - street
le yaourt -yogurt
l'écureuil - squirrel
trois - three
dessus and dessous - above and below
Reims - (the French town)
heureuse - happy
la cucurbitacée - cucurbit
le pouilly-fuissé - type of white wine
la chirurgie - surgery
la fourrure - fur
la grenouille - frog
l'ours - bear
mille-feuille ou millefeuille - kind of dessert
Buoux - (a town in the Luberon)
la serrure - lock
le RER - (high-speed train between Paris and suburbs)
la bouteille - bottle
l'oeil - eye
AUDIO FILE: (Listen to Jean-Marc pronounce all these French words, click here)
Merci beaucoup for coming here to learn the most difficult words to pronounce in French! I invite you now to sign up for the free weekly vocabulary newsletter from France. (See this blog's header or side column for the sign-up link, and a warm welcome to you!
"Cat in Cassis." By the way, ever wonder how to pronounce Cassis (the seaside town)? Locals pronounce it "kah-see".
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100% on the difficult words to pronounce :) However, I've no idea how to pronounce this town : Agincourt! It's the "g" that trips me up. Is it like the "g" (in English) in girl or the "g" (in French) in Gérard?
Posted by: Christina | Wednesday, February 15, 2017 at 05:50 PM
Agincourt is the English version of the French town Azincourt, which is near where the battle was fought. The English pronunciation (of Agincourt) is more or less: A (as in apple) gin (with a 'g' as in 'giraffe') core (as in apple core). A bit strange that we pronounce an English version of a French name in a slightly French way!
Posted by: A | Wednesday, February 15, 2017 at 06:03 PM
This is still the hardest for me:
Posted by: Roseann Milano | Wednesday, February 15, 2017 at 06:05 PM
I did ok with 12. Here are a few hard ones for me:
l'eau I know...I can say sparkling water, but even then just ask for Perrier.
I did see a squirrely dog and an artichoke.
Posted by: joie in Carmel | Wednesday, February 15, 2017 at 06:18 PM
Thank you! - I've never known how to pronounce Buoux, especially that last 'x.'
Here's a funny story about it from my book:
We went for a hike in the Aiguebrun Valley, one of France’s hidden gems. It is well off the beaten track, between Lourmarin and Bonnieux, at the end of a winding road. The valley is beautiful, bordered by sheer cliffs and covered with a forest of deep green pine trees.
As we drove through the valley’s only town of Buoux, we debated how to pronounce it. Was it “Boo-oh” or “Boo-oxe”? It wasn’t clear if we should pronounce the final “x.”
In general, if a French word ends with a final, single consonant, that consonant is not pronounced. But this being France, there were always exceptions, and especially regional ones.
In Provence, people tend to pronounce the last letter. So mas, the word for a large traditional Provençal house, is pronounced “mas.” Which made us think that “Boo-oxe” was the way to go.
But then there were the nearby towns of Velaux and Coudoux. You pronounced the “x” in Coudoux but not in Velaux, even though it was right next door. What’s up with that?
We were having dinner with our French friend Pascal one night and I asked him how to pronounce Carpentras, the nearby home of France’s biggest truffle market. He told me that people there used to pronounce the final “s” but no longer, “only the old guys.”
As we were finishing dinner, I mentioned that I wanted go to the Carpentras truffle market someday and when I said “Carpentras” I accidentally pronounced the “s.” Pascal shot me a hard look and said, “I’m not that old yet, pal.”
From One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence
Posted by: Keith Van Sickle | Wednesday, February 15, 2017 at 06:30 PM
Kristi, I agree that écureuil is the most difficult word for an Anglo to pronounce. Which is funny, because my French friends tell me their hardest word to pronounce in English is squirrel.
Posted by: Bill Crow | Wednesday, February 15, 2017 at 06:56 PM
You read my mind about certain difficult words to pronounce, especially écureuil and l'oeil! Merci mille fois, and a kiss to the dog in the booth!
Posted by: Jan | Wednesday, February 15, 2017 at 08:39 PM
As Professor Higgins said in My Fair Lady - "The French don't mind what you say as long as you pronounce it correctly". Advice I'vew never forgotten
Posted by: Mike | Wednesday, February 15, 2017 at 09:37 PM
Kristi, the town of Ahun in la Creuse gives rise to some interesting pronunciations! Thanks for the article, a great help!
Posted by: Johan | Wednesday, February 15, 2017 at 09:59 PM
Thanks for very helpful posting. I saw smokey not a sq. love that dog.
Posted by: Nancy | Wednesday, February 15, 2017 at 10:15 PM
I see "u" in many of those words. The French u is tough, especially for a girl from the South who tends to stretch out vowels.
Enjoyed today's column.
Posted by: Judy | Wednesday, February 15, 2017 at 10:57 PM
Many thanks. A very rich post by which I mean a treasure house. I really appreciated the pronunciation practice but would love to hear each word said twice with a good pause after each as I wanted to repeat and improve. I have a degree in French but I'm quite rusty. However I'm teaching my 3 year old grandson French. It's quite a challenge as he can't read or write yet. So I'm trying to make it fun with songs, games and stories.
Posted by: Margaret | Wednesday, February 15, 2017 at 11:25 PM
A few years ago we had a French exchange student staying with us. One day, while driving her and my daughter to school, I spotted something in the road. I asked, "Comment dit-on 'roadkill' en Français?" She replied, "Ecureuil écrasé". I've never forgotten it!
Posted by: Holly | Wednesday, February 15, 2017 at 11:34 PM
Love Smokey's kissing booth! monsieur is still a mush in my mouth!
Posted by: Judi | Thursday, February 16, 2017 at 12:07 AM
Our dear Kristi,
What a wonderful and informative post today!
Especially loved sweet Smokey in the kissing booth,and the treat of learning how you came to Lille with your Dad!(then 30 years later in Cassis!)What a beautiful life's journey!
Your vocabulary with the pronunciation is really a help;some of these words(and vowels) are a huge challenge,particularly with hesitation(let's make that fear) of just getting on with things and SPEAKING!
Though we lived in Paris and Montreal and French has always been(and will always be)my fondness, Serbian is truly my second language(from my belle mere an belle pere who didn't speak English).No matter how focused I am(and particularly when tired)a simple sentence can turn into gibberish without a(No!SEVERAL) reminders beforehand of how things should sound.
Posted by: Natalia | Thursday, February 16, 2017 at 12:26 AM
What is cucurbit? I've never heard that word in English before.
Posted by: DANA IVEY | Thursday, February 16, 2017 at 01:39 AM
Yes, I didn't even try to pronounce the French version of cucurbit since I have no idea what it is. ;-)
I also find RER difficult. And roi (not on list).
Thanks for the pronunciation guide!
Posted by: Chris | Thursday, February 16, 2017 at 03:33 AM
Il ne faut pas oublier "opéra"!
Posted by: Nicole | Thursday, February 16, 2017 at 06:23 AM
Hi Kristi and Jean-Marc,
A new discovery for me!! I can listen to Jean-Marc and at the same time, go back to my email to read the words Jean-Marc is saying. This is really exciting for me. I have an Ipad Pro, but I don't know if that makes any difference. Anyway, thanks so much for all of your work in this.
God bless, C-Marie
P.S. I looked and looked, but all I see is Smokey!! Not an écureuil in sight!
Posted by: C-Marie | Thursday, February 16, 2017 at 07:06 AM
My family once lived in Brolles-Bois le Roi. (Try saying that real fast three times in a row!). My mom was never able to pronounce it to her satisfaction and was very glad when we moved to Fontainebleau!
Posted by: Chris Allin | Thursday, February 16, 2017 at 01:12 PM
Posted by: Sue J. | Thursday, February 16, 2017 at 04:07 PM
I can see l'écureuil better than I can say it! The squirrel is smack dab in the middle of the photo, amid the foliage. Zooming in helps. Too bad there isn't as easy a trick for pronouncing R's in French! I continue to enjoy your posts, Kristi. It's always a treat to read a new one during my morning commute.
Posted by: Denise | Thursday, February 16, 2017 at 07:15 PM
I still remember my pronunciation class in Rouen (another interesting word to say) and being brought to tears when I couldn't hear (not to mention pronounce) the difference between Louis et lui. But learning the phonetic alphabet helped ENORMOUSLY with everyone's pronunciation. What a revelation to learn that "an" and "en" were the same nasal sound!
I hear mistakes with eu (as in j'ai eu), aille, ayant, and did not know how to say euro ("eu" as in j'ai eu or "eu" as in un peu) until I heard it in "Midnight in Paris," a favorite Woody Allen movie.
Posted by: [email protected] | Friday, February 17, 2017 at 12:44 AM
Sorry about putting my url instead of my name. I got it backwards. Technology will be my demise....
Posted by: Joan | Friday, February 17, 2017 at 12:52 AM
I really think that to learn a language you have to live in the country!
It's like sailing - you have to be ON THE WATER to learn to sail.....well.
Same with a language..... all the senses have to be accessed to learn a language......you have to not only hear it and speak it, you have to smell it and taste it and touch it and be totally immersed in it.....
There has to be a necessity to speak it......An academic exercise never got anyone very far......
10 years of learning French at school and uni in Australia and I still am not very fluent....... 9 months of living in Germany and I was chattering like a native.....Because I had it all around me......
Love Smokey in the kissing booth and finding out how you came to Lille with your Dad...... then 30 years later in Cassis...
What a beautiful life journey you have had up to now.
Posted by: Maureen Winterhager | Friday, February 17, 2017 at 09:58 AM
I find le yaourt hard to pronounce. When we were living in Belgium the French speaking kids across the street thought the way we said dessert was really funny! They just cracked up laughing!
Posted by: Eileen deCamp | Saturday, February 18, 2017 at 02:28 AM
I remember this phrase as an example of the different ways to pronounce "u" in French
Je ne sais pas ou se trouve the tutu de tulle rouge de Lulu d'Honolulu" I never got it all right!
Posted by: Diane Young | Saturday, February 18, 2017 at 02:47 AM
Make that "the" a "le"
Posted by: Diane Young | Saturday, February 18, 2017 at 02:48 AM
Did we ever find out what cucurbit is?
Posted by: Dana Ivey | Thursday, February 23, 2017 at 07:20 PM
I find brouillard very difficult and trying to say réservation is like a series of rapids in a river for me - interrupting my sentence flow and making me feel embarrassed all of a sudden 😂
Posted by: Chantel | Monday, February 03, 2020 at 02:43 PM
I find "bruit" difficult to say as well
Posted by: Lorraine | Monday, May 25, 2020 at 05:01 AM
G as in Gérard.
Posted by: Dave | Thursday, December 24, 2020 at 03:49 AM
Cucurbit - it's the name of a family of plants which includes the squash plant.
Posted by: Alan Cochrane | Tuesday, February 02, 2021 at 10:40 PM
The most difficult word for English-speaking people to pronounce in French is often claimed to be tumultueux. (Example: "une période tumultueuse".)
Much harder, it seems, than écureuil.
Let's hear Jean-Marc on that one!
Posted by: Fred | Friday, March 11, 2022 at 03:42 AM
Thank you, Fred. This is a good one to add to the list—and to have JM pronounce!
Posted by: Kristin Espinasse | Friday, March 11, 2022 at 07:12 AM
The rule is pretty "simple", and only relates to the type of vowel:
g followed by e, i or y --> Gerard
g followed by a, o or u --> Girl
Hence some words ending with -gue (like orgue), since the prononciation of the -g should sound like "Girl" but, without the added -u, would sound like "Gerard"
Gateau (Cake) --> "Girl"
Gerard --> Well.. Gerard :-)
Guêpe (wasp) --> "Girl" (because of the -u)
Posted by: Jamet Benoit | Tuesday, February 21, 2023 at 09:56 AM