The English language is the official language of 60 countries across the globe, but it didn’t really make its appearance until the early medieval period. Throughout time, the French language has greatly influenced English, and somewhere around one third of the English language is made up of French words.
The French-speaking Normans once occupied England for nearly 300 years and it alone resulted in the adoption of somewhere in the vicinity of 10,000 French words into the English language. As time passed, many of those words evolved into having sometimes significantly different pronunciations than their original counterparts.
This Anglicization has sometimes lead to English speakers not even knowing of their origins, but there are some French expressions that are intentionally used for their French flair but are often still mispronounced.
Some of the French expressions that are commonly thrown around are “C’est la vie” or “double entendre.” They’re often fun little expressions that are thrown into our English conversations to impress our friends. Even to sound more cultured or intelligent.
But mispronouncing these words and expressions may result in the opposite effect!
And that’s why we’ve put together this list.
When trying to use one of the words below to sound intelligent, don’t render your efforts redundant by saying them incorrectly!
We’ve included descriptions of what the expressions and words are and how they’re used as well as audio of the incorrect pronunciations and the correct ways to say them.
- À propos // Don’t pronounce the “s” at the end of this expression! It’s silent in French. This expression means: regarding or concerning.
- Au Contraire // The “ai” vowel sound for this one is often said incorrectly. This expression means: quite the opposite or on the contrary.
- Beaucoup // There was once an expression I had heard where this word was pronounced “bookoo” and was used to refer to have a large amount of money. The spelling was even modified to reflect its pronunciation. “That car over there, it’s gonna cost you bookoo bucks.” If you don’t believe me, you can always check out the entry on Urban Dictionary. This word means: a lot.
- Bon Appétit // Many English speakers pronounce the “t” at the end of this expression when it is, in fact, silent. This means: enjoy your meal or have a great meal!
- Chaise Longue // This type of chair is not pronounced “chase” but more along the lines of “shayz” and it’s not “lounge” but “long”. This word means: a chair that is long enough to lay across.
- Commandant // The pronunciation of this word is a little tricky, and it might not be one I’d argue with anyone over. This title is actually one given out in more English speaking countries than French (the US, England, Ireland, South Africa, New Zealand), so it could be considered a word that has been a part of the English language for too long to really convince speakers to use the French pronunciation. This word means: a military officer in charge of a training facility.
- Connaisseur // This isn’t “con-nah-sewer”. This word means: someone who is an expert in a particular subject.
- Clique // This word is not pronounced “click”. It’s more like “klee-ck”. This word means: a small group of people with shared interest.
- Cul-de-sac // The English version of this word is only slightly different than the French. The “u” sound is that dreaded French “u” and the “l” is silent. This word means: the closed end of a street.
- Fleur-de-lis // The one time the French actually do pronounce the “s” (*totally exaggerated), English speakers don’t. Go figure. This word means: a lily composed of three petals. It is the former royal arms of France.
- Forte // This one is a little bit tricky because English speakers have also changed the use of the word even though the French and English meanings are quite similar. The French pronunciation of the word sounds like “fort” if feminine and “for” if masculine. It means “strong”. In English it is said “for-tay” and it refers to a particular strength, not strength in general.
- Genre // In English we often add an extra “e” to the pronunciation of this word making it sound like “gen-eh-rah”, but we’re actually making it more difficult for ourselves! This word means: a type or class.
- Lingerie // This is often pronounced “lawn-zher-ay” but it’s quite far off from it’s true pronunciation. This word means: ladies’ undergarments.
- Nouveau // When saying this word, be careful you aren’t telling someone you have “no vew” (because it’s kind of close to “view”) . Instead, aim for “new vo.” This word means: new.
- Oh là là // It’s more “oh” than “ooh”. This expression is used to express surprise or excitement. In English it’s also taken on a sexual innuendo that doesn’t really exist in French.
- Potpourri // Once again, the “t” is silent in this one. It also doesn’t mean quite the same thing in French as it does in English. In English it is a mixture of perfumed dried petals and spices. In French it refers to a musical medley or a mix of diverse things.
- Reconnaissance // It’s not “ray-con-a-since” but “rey-coh-nay-sahnse”. This word means: military observation of a region or preliminary research.
- Route // The pronunciation of this word often depends on the accent of those using it. You can hear the difference between the French pronunciation of the word and an alternative pronunciation I’ve heard living in the US. Also, the expression en route, is also often pronounced “in route” in English. The “en” sounds more like “ahn” than “in” in French.
- Sans // In English this word is said similar to the word “sands” but without the “d”. In French it sounds more like “sohn”. This word means: without.
- Niche // Many English speakers pronounce this word so that it sounds like “nitch” rather than the French pronunciation which sounds more like “neesh”. This words: a distinct place within a market; or a recess in a wall or surface.
- Voilà // It’s definitely a “v” at the beginning of this one and not a “w”. This word means: there it is. It’s an exclamation.
So there you have it! Now you’re armed with the proper pronunciations of the words above to impress your friends with your knowledge of the French language.
But if your former pronunciation has you feeling a little discouraged or embarrassed, don’t worry. There are a few words that are pronounced in English quite close to their French equivalents: déjà vu, bon voyage, à la mode (even if we use this differently in English on occasion), crème de la crème, avant-garde, faux pas, and je ne sais quoi. Touché.
Do you think any words are missing from this list? I’d love to know what they are in the comments!
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My name is Shannon Kennedy and I'm the language lover, traveler, and foodie behind Eurolinguiste. I'm also the Resident Polyglot at Drops and the Head Coach of the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge.