How do you pronounce ville (city) and fille (daughter)? In all logic, the pronunciation should be the same, but is it? The French language has its idiosyncrasies that make learning interesting and challenging at times. Words like ville, fille, fil, fils (city, daughter, thread, son) have their own stories to tell. Are you ready?
Words ending in -ille (with a double ll), such as brille (shines) and fille (girl/daughter), follow a specific pronunciation rule. The -ille sound is roughly equivalent to the sound “ee-yuh” in English, as in “giddy-up."
Listen to Sam, who sees the sunny side of life in this video, and pay attention to the way he says brille:
Le soleil brille dehors.
The sun is shining outside.Play Caption
Most words ending in -ille end with same “ee-yuh” sound. Hence, it’s no surprise to hear that brille (shines) rhymes with fille (girl/daughter):
Sa fille lui expliqua et lui demanda conseil.
His daughter explained it to him and sought his counsel.
Caption 42, Contes de fées Le roi grenouille - Part 1Play Caption
However, you guessed it, there are exceptions! No need to panic, though, as there are only three: mille, tranquille, ville (thousand, tranquil, city). In these words, the -ille is pronounced differently, like “eel” in English. (Note, however, that the word for "eel," anguille, rhymes with fille!)
Listen to the way mille, tranquille, and ville are pronounced in the following videos:
Notre amour brillera de mille feux
Our love will shine a thousand firesPlay Caption
L'avantage, c'est qu'on peut s'y promener de façon vraiment tranquille
The advantage is that you can walk here in a really tranquil fashion
Caption 17, Antoine La Butte-aux-CaillesPlay Caption
Nous sommes maintenant dans la vieille ville de Chartres
We are now in the old town of Chartres
Caption 6, Voyage en France La Ville de ChartresPlay Caption
If a word ends in -ile, with a single l, this is no longer an issue, as you simply sound the l as you would normally.
Et des automobiles qui se suivent en file et défilent
And of automobiles that follow in line and drive pastPlay Caption
The feminine noun la file (line) has a masculine homophone, le fil (thread/wire), with no e at the end. They both sound the same but mean different things:
la prêtresse grecque qui déroula son fil
the Greek priestess who unravelled her threadPlay Caption
In the plural form, le fil becomes les fils (threads/wires), and they share the same pronunciation since the s in the plural is always silent:
Bon, enfin. -Et les fils?
Well, anyway. -And the wires?Play Caption
So far so good. However, the word fils has another trick up its sleeve! Les fils (threads/wires) could also be les fils (sons). Fortunately, these two words are easy to tell apart as they have a different pronunciation. When talking about les fils (sons), the l is silent while the final s is pronounced.
Il transmit à ses fils tout ce qu'il possédait.
He passed on to his sons everything he possessed.
Caption 5, Contes de fées Le chat botté - Part 1Play Caption
Furthermore, le fils (the son) also ends in a sounded s, even though it’s singular:
Il cherche son fils à l'école.
He looks/is looking for his son at school.
Caption 9, Farid et Hiziya Chercher et trouverPlay Caption
The only way to tell how to pronounce fils—and whether it's referring to threads, wires, or sons—is through context.
Merci mille fois (many thanks) for following le fil (the thread) of this newsletter!
Have you noticed that while some French words have many variations in spelling, they sound the same?
For example, the words un verre, un ver, vers, and vert(s) share the same pronunciation yet have different meanings. That makes them homophones.
Homophones are especially common in French as the letters t, d, and s, when placed at the end of a word, are usually silent.
Check out Patricia’s video on homophones and homonyms, which she turned into a fun story.
Let’s examine the examples mentioned earlier.
Un verre can mean "a glass" or "a drink." The expression boire un verre means "to have a drink." Or, you can say prendre un verre.
On est tous là avec juste l'envie de passer
We are all here just with the desire to have
un bon moment, de boire un verre.
a good time, to have a drink.
Caption 52, Actu Vingtième - Vendanges parisiennesPlay Caption
Le verre also refers to the material itself. It means "glass," as in English:
Nous sommes maintenant chez le souffleur de verre de L'Isle-Adam.
We are now at the L'Isle-Adam glassblower's.
Caption 11, Voyage en France - L'Isle-AdamPlay Caption
Speaking of verre, did you know that Cinderella’s slippers might originally have been made not of verre, but of vair (squirrel fur)?
Some scholars believe the original fable described pantoufles de vair (squirrel fur slippers), which became pantoufles de verre (glass slippers) in Charles Perrault's famous version. No one knows if he made a mistake or simply chose a new material for the slippers in his version of the fairy tale.
From squirrels to worms…. Un ver de terre is an earthworm, a critter that Claire and Philippe remember fondly in their La campagne video.
Alors elle prenait le petit ver de terre dans la main.
So she used to take the little earthworm in her hand.
Caption 71, Claire et Philippe - La campagnePlay Caption
And the poetically named ver solitaire (literally, "solitary worm") is the French word for "tapeworm”!
If the thought of many vers solitaires turns you off (vers being the plural of ver), let’s turn toward vers, an innocuous word that simply means "toward."
In the Actus Quartier video, this young lady is looking toward the future:
Je suis tournée vers l'avenir
I'm looking toward the future
et vers tout ce qu'on va construire...
and toward all that we're going to build…
Caption 40, Actus Quartier - Fête de la rose au caviar rougePlay Caption
Vers also means "around," "about":
Plutôt vers deux heures du matin.
Instead around two o'clock in the morning.
Caption 60, Adrien - Le métro parisienPlay Caption
Now, for a more colorful version of this homophone, you have the word vert, which means "green."
As you probably know, vert, like most adjectives, takes on masculine, feminine, and plural endings. For more information on adjective agreements, refer to previous lessons.
As mentioned earlier, -t and -s are often not pronounced at the end of a word. So vert (masculine singular) sounds exactly like verts (masculine plural). However, note that vert will become verte when agreeing with a feminine singular noun, and the t in verte will be pronounced!
Donc, on va écrire "vert". Masculin.
So we're going to write "green." Masculine.
Otherwise... "green" [feminine].
Caption 28, Leçons avec Lionel - CouleursPlay Caption
Now that you’ve acquainted yourself with homophones, you’ll be surprised how many you'll be able to spot! But if you haven't satisfied your appetite for homophones, click here to learn some more.
If you listen to Jean-Marc’s description of Mediterranean beaches versus those in western France and the eastern United States, you might be struck by the way he pronounces the word plus (more):
Les plages sont beaucoup plus petites, avec beaucoup plus de gens.
The beaches are a lot smaller, with a lot more people.
Caption 8, Jean-Marc - La plage - Part 1Play Caption
Did you notice that he didn’t pronounce the “s” in the first instance of plus, but did pronounce it in the second? That’s no inconsistency on his part—Jean-Marc is actually obeying the tricky pronunciation rules of this common little adverb.
The general rule of thumb for plus is fairly easy to remember: when it’s used to mean more of something (plus de...), the “s” is pronounced; when it’s used in a negative sense (ne… plus [no more], non plus [neither]), the “s” is not pronounced:
Je ne savais plus qui j'étais.
I didn't know who I was anymore.
Caption 16, Melissa Mars - Mozart, L'opéra rock - Part 1Play Caption
Mais toi non plus tu n'as pas changé.
But you, you have not changed either.
Caption 25, Le Journal - Retour sur scène de Julio IglesiasPlay Caption
This becomes especially important in informal conversation, when a lot of French speakers tend to drop the ne in negative constructions. So if someone says je veux plus de pain and they don’t pronounce the “s,” you can tell that they don’t want any more bread even though they left out the ne. If they do pronounce the “s,” you can pass them the bread basket!
A different rule applies when plus is used comparatively, i.e., when it’s followed by an adjective. In that case, the “s” is usually not pronounced (like when Jean-Marc says plus petites in the first example), unless the adjective begins with a vowel:
Voici celle qui est sans doute la maison la plus illuminée d'Alsace.
Here is what is without a doubt the most illuminated house in Alsace.Play Caption
If the adjective begins with a vowel, the “s” of plus is pronounced like a “z” to follow the rules of liaison, which you can learn about in our previous lesson on that subject.
The “s” is also pronounced when plus is used at the end of a sentence to mean “more” and when it is used as a noun (le plus):
Du coup, ils ont commencé à être plus proches de moi et à me parler plus.
So they started to be closer to me and to talk to me more.
Caption 35, B-Girl Frak - LimogesPlay Caption
Qui peut le plus peut le moins.
He who can do more can do less.
So to sum up, here’s a general breakdown of the pronunciation of plus:
The “s” is pronounced:
-in the expression plus de....
-when plus is followed by an adjective beginning with a vowel.
-when plus is at the end of a sentence and means “more.”
-when plus is used as a noun.
The “s” is not pronounced:
-in negative plus constructions (ne… plus, non plus).
-when plus is followed by an adjective beginning with a consonant.
Nous espérons que c'est un peu plus clair maintenant! (We hope that this is a bit clearer now!) Since it’s such a common word, plus appears in quite a large number of Yabla videos—you can find a list of them here. And stay tuned for a lesson on the opposite of plus—moins (less)—coming soon to Yabla.
Thanks to subscriber Felicity S. for suggesting this lesson topic!
Let's have a listen to Cali's beautiful tune "C'est quand le bonheur", paying special attention to this line:
Il paraît que vous faiblissez devant les hommes bien habillés
It appears that you swoon for well-dressed men
Caption 22, Cali - C'est quand le bonheurPlay Caption
Do you hear a "z" sound sneaking its way in between les and hommes, such that we hear "les-Zhommes"? You might also notice an "n" sound between bien and habillés, such that we hear "bien-Nhabillés."
What you are hearing are examples of liaison, which often happens when the (usually silent) final consonant of one word can be heard pronounced at the beginning of the following word, if the following word begins with a vowel or a mute h (learn more about the distinction between "mute h" and "aspirated h" here).
In most cases, the sound produced by liaison is very straightforward. In the Cali song, for example, the n of bien tacks right onto habillés. Simple! As is the first liaison we hear in the next line of the song:
Je suis tendu, c'est aujourd'hui que je viens vous offrir ma vie
I am tense, today is the day I am coming to offer you my life
Caption 23, Cali - C'est quand le bonheurPlay Caption
We hear a liaison in "c’est-Taujourd’hui." The final consonant of c'est, t (which we usually don't hear in French), binds with the vowel sound at the beginning of aujourd'hui.
But liaison doesn't always result in the sound you might expect. The next liaison in the line is in vous offrir. As in the case of les hommes, we have a preceding word that ends in an s (generally not pronounced in French) rendering a "z" sound that binds to the next "vowel-starting" word, resulting in "vous-Zoffrir."
A final s is not the only consonant that renders a "z" sound in liaison; the same is true for a word ending in -x. Let’s return to Cali and his romantic vieux amants (with our handkerchiefs close by):
Car qui mieux que ces vieux amants, sait qu'on perd l'amour...
Because who knows better than those old lovers that you lose love...
Caption 35, Cali - C'est quand le bonheurPlay Caption
As you can hear, Cali is singing of "vieux-Zamants"; the final x in vieux, usually silent, renders a "z" sound at the beginning of amants.
Another case where a consonant produces an unexpected sound in liaison involves words ending in -d. Here, the liaison carries over not as a "d" sound, but a "t" sound.
Here's an example concerning Viktor Bout, a notorious arms dealer who was the basis for Nicolas Cage's character in the movie Lord of War:
L'un des hommes les plus recherchés au monde, finalement arrêté dans un grand hôtel de Bangkok.
One of the most sought-after men in the world, finally arrested at a big hotel in Bangkok.
Captions 5-6, Le Journal - Viktor BoutPlay Caption
Did you catch where Bout was arrested? Not in a "grand-Dhôtel," but a "grand-Thôtel."
As you expose yourself to more authentic French, you will become accustomed to liaison and start to get a feel for where it does, and doesn't, belong. It's a tough subject to get a full handle on, and it's not uncommon to hear native French speakers adding a liaison where it "technically" shouldn't exist, or vice versa.
Here is an interesting article on liaison from ThoughtCo.com:
And another, from the Académie Française:
As a French learner, you have no doubt begun to see (if not been outright taught) that words that begin with vowels are treated differently than words that begin with consonants. Perhaps most obvious to the casual observer is the process known as elision, which is the contraction formed by many common words, such as je, le, la, que, ce, and de (to name only a few) when they come before words that begin with a vowel. Elision is the reason why, for example, even the biggest francophobe can be heard confidently uttering c’est la vie (that’s life!) and not ce est la vie.
Another thing that you probably know by now is that the French h is always silent. However, since French words that start with h are almost always followed by a vowel (heure, histoire, honneur, etc.), an obvious question to ask is: do we treat words that begin with h as we do words that begin with a vowel (since a vowel is the first sound that we actually hear)?
The answer is: sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t! The vast majority of French words that start with h are treated as if they start with a vowel (even though, technically, the French consider h a consonant). The French call the h at the beginning of these words an h muet (mute h). However, there is a relatively small group of "h words" that are treated as if they begin with a consonant (which they do!). The French call the h at the beginning of these words an h aspiré (aspirated h).
Ils ont été écrits comme ça, je pense, en un quart d'heure...
They were written like that, I think, in a quarter of an hour...
Caption 5, Bertrand Pierre - Victor HugoPlay Caption
In the caption above, we see that singer Bertrand Pierre says en un quart d’heure, forming an elision between de and heure to create d’heure. This is because heure, like most French words that start with h, begins with an h muet; it forms elision just as words that start with a vowel do.
Maladie qui ne l'empêche nullement d'être un sportif de haut niveau.
An illness which in no way keeps him from being an elite athlete.
Caption 4, Le Journal - Un sportif handicapéPlay Caption
On the other hand, the h in the word haut is aspiré; it is treated the same as other words that begin with a consonant. This is why we hear no elision between de and haut in the caption above. We hear three distinct words: de haut niveau, NOT d’haut niveau. (Put another way, h aspiré “prevents” the elision.)
How do we know whether an h at the beginning of a word is an h muet or an h aspiré? Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing just by looking at it! H aspiré words will usually have an asterisk or an apostrophe before them in French dictionaries. Also, lists of h aspiré words have been published that can be used for reference or (gasp!) memorization.
Other than that, exposure to fluent French speakers will hopefully help you build a “native-like” feel for which words are h aspiré and which are h muet. H aspiré words tend to be of “foreign” origin (“borrowed” from another language, e.g. le hockey), but this is not always the case, and even when it is, it is not always obvious.
Another common phenomenon associated with words that begin with a vowel is known as liaison, which has to do with pronunciation changes caused by certain types of words (contingent upon the letter they end with) when they precede a word that starts with a vowel. As you might have guessed, we also hear liaison occurring with h muet words and not with h aspiré words.
Passez par chez nous, restaurant ''Les Héritiers", n'oubliez pas c'est un ''apporter son vin''...
Stop by our place, "Les Héritiers" restaurant, don't forget it's ''bring your own wine,''...
Captions 31-32, Les Héritiers - Les bonnes recettesPlay Caption
Do you notice that when the chef says the name of his restaurant we hear something like "les-Zhéritiers"? That “z” sound is an example of liaison. We hear something similar in les heures (the hours), les histoires (the stories), and any number of h muet words.
In contrast, have a listen to the lovely lady from Le Mans we met one day in Manhattan’s Central Park, extolling the virtues of the fair city of New York:
Et les hamburgers sont meilleurs ici...
And the hamburgers are better here...Play Caption
You will notice that we do not hear any “z” sound between les and hamburgers. This is because hamburger begins with an h aspiré—there is no liaison between the les and an h aspiré word, just as there is no liaison between the les and a word that begins with a consonant
The thing about most “rules” is that you know they will be broken! It is not terribly uncommon to hear native French speakers forming elisions and liaisons with some words that the dictionary tells us are h aspiré. For example, even though the venerable Larousse dictionary insists that hamburger is h aspiré, it is entirely possible to encounter French natives forming the elision l’hamburger, or saying perhaps un hamburger with a liaison, such that we hear it pronounced as “un-Nhamburger.”
Side note: We use the word “contraction” when describing “elisions” because our English readers are familiar with contractions such as “didn’t,” “don’t” and “wouldn’t,” and the similarities are obvious. Technically speaking, to a linguist or the like, a contraction and an elision are not exactly the same thing.