18 November 2008

Neuf œufs — nine eggs (?)

I'm going to SuperU to get a few things this morning and I was looking through the flyer the supermarket chain sends out on Mondays to see if there are any specials we might be interested in. There are.

But I also noticed that they have eggs on special. A carton of 9 large eggs costs 1.75€. If you buy two for 3.50€, you get another one free. So you get 27 eggs — vingt-sept œufs — for the price of 18.

Neuf gros œufs !

Nine eggs? Isn't it funny how we get so set in our ways. In the U.S. at least, about the only way to buy eggs is by the dozen. Or the half-dozen. Here in France, in the supermarkets, the standard grade eggs come in a carton of 10. Or you can buy a carton of 6 of more the more expensive eggs. At the outdoor market one day, I asked if I could buy just 4 eggs. « Non, monsieur ! Six ! » was the answer. I don't think they sell 9 or 10 eggs at a time, but 6 or 12.

And then œuf is a funny word, at least for us English speakers. When it's in the singular, it's un œuf and you pronounce the final F — say something like [euh-`neuhf]. It's almost like the English word "enough" in fact, if you don't pronounce the first syllable as [ee].

But in the plural in French, you don't pronounce that final F. "Some eggs" is des œufs — [day-`zeuh]. And two eggs is deux œufs — [deuh-`zeuh]. I guess you've noticed, if you are following along, that you pronounce the final letter of the word that precedes œuf or œuf as part of the second word. It's complicated.

So it goes along like this: trois œufs (3), quatre œufs (4), cinq œufs (5), six œufs (6), sept œufs (7), huit œufs (8), ..., dix œufs (10). The last one, for example, is pronounced [dee-`zeuh].

But what happened to 9? There's an extra complication. When you put the French word for nine — neuf — in front of a word that begins with a vowel, you need to pronounce that final F. But in reality you pronounce it as a V (for linguistic reasons — I will spare you the details). For example, "nine o'clock" in French is neuf heures — [neuh-`veuhr].

Sorry for the lame phonetic transcriptions, but it's hard with the characters available on a computer keyboard.

So "nine eggs" would be neuf œufs, right? And you would say [neuh-`veuh]. The F ends up sounding like a V, and the two vowels are identical.

I had a professor when I was in college — a linguist from Normandy whose native language was French — who was very interested in and amused by such language quirks. He would come to France in the summer and go to outdoor markets to try to get people the say neuf œufs because he thought it was funny.

Almost always, when he asked for nine eggs, the person replying would stick an adjective in between neuf and œufsneuf beaux œufs, or neuf petits œufs, or neuf gros œufs. He said French people hesitated over the pronunciation of "nine eggs" otherwise.

If you are French-speaking, do you agree? Does neuf œufs make you stumble?

And now I know you think I'm crazy...


  1. I think this is why most expats buy their eggs in supermarkets :¬)

    Luckily, the local egg person in our market only ever has about 2 dozen eggs (sold in packs of 6) so neuf oeufs is a conundrum that will happily stay that way for me


  2. I buy my eggs by four. Which I find quite convenient as I live alone and don't want to eat too many eggs! But I remember when my daughter still lived here, she loved crêpes and we did quite a lot of that. So had to have more eggs available at home.

  3. Presumably there might be some confusion about whether you're talking about nine eggs or your nephew. That could be a very surrealist conversation.

  4. I tend to agree with Autolycus. According to my French speaking collegues you do not pronounce the 'v' before 'eux', because then it sounds like 'neveu' = nephew. Although it's more difficult to pronounce, you should say: 'neuf-eux'. Martine

  5. i'm having flashbacks of my premier degree oral exam.....at the sorbonne

  6. Your best post EVER! I cannot stop laughing! And it all is so very true.
    Now you should tackle why French people pronounce euro as if it was spelled heuro with an aspirate h?

  7. What a fun post, Ken! I think you should stock up on eggs at that price, there are lots of ways to use them.

    I've started freezing cookie dough lately. I just pull it out of the freezer when I need some cookies. That's one way to use a few eggs.

    I love oeufs en gelée that I used to get in cafeterias. I've never tried to make them though.

  8. Great comment, Simon :)

    Ken, in our phonetics and pronunciation class with Alma (I didn't have you for my prof, it was that lovely Parisienne d'une certaine âge ) I remember her discussing the whole singular vs plural oeuf issue. Somehow, out of that, I had the impression that not only did we not pronounce the f in the plural, but that we also slightly changed the vowel sound of the oeu, so that it would then sound more like ou.... so, I always pronounced it something like, layz ooooo.... that is, until a French friend of mine fell off of her chair laughing at me :))) I don't know how I came away with that idea, but she assured me that I only needed to not pronounce the f, and I'd be fine :)))

    Martine, maybe pronouncing the fis a Belgian thing? ;)))


  9. Hi Judy,
    I think there is some misunderstanding. The sounding 'f' is at the end of the word 'neuf' and not at the end of 'oeufs' ... even in Belgium :-). As we are on the subject, the French spoken in Belgium is the same as in France except for the figures 70 (71 ...) and 90 (91 ..). Martine

  10. Hi Judy, you are right (and so was your teacher) that the vowel in singular œuf is not the same as the vowel in plural œufs.

    Before that final pronounced consonant, the F of the singular, the vowel is an open sound like the sound in heure or ils peuvent or jeune.

    In the plural, where the F is silent, the vowel is the closed sound of eux or peux or deux.

    By "open" I mean your mouth is open wider when you say œuf, while it's more nearly closed, with lips puckered, when you say œufs in the plural.

    Martine, you are surely right. In practice, the same would apply to neuf euros or neuf avions (neu-v-avions would sound strange), for example. But not to neuf ans or neuf heures.

  11. Martine

    I remember having to say nonante and septante when I am In Belgium and French part of Switzerland :-)

  12. The Beaver,
    You are right, that's what we say in Belgium as far as 70 and 90 is concerned. 80, however, is another matter.

    Octante is not used in Belgium, only in Switzerland. We stick to the conventional 'quatre-vingt'. Dont' ask me why ... but that's the way it is :-)!


  13. It's funny, isn't it, Martine, that while the P of sept is not pronounced, the P of septante is pronounced. Same in septembre, now that I think about it.

    Judy, yes, the final F of neuf is always pronounced today, in France and I'm sure in Belgium. In older times, it was neu' but not now. For example, before an H aspiré as in hameaux, you would say si-a-mo for 6 but for 9 neuf-a-mo, pronouncing the F.

    And œuf has a pronounced F, but in the plural œufs the F and the S are silent, as you know. And the vowel is not the same...

  14. Evelyn, the eggs I buy are about 1.06€ for 10, so they are even less expensive than the ones on sale. We buy them and eat them or, more often, cook with them. I made a batch of brownies this afternoon. Two eggs. Cocoa. Butter. Suddenly I had a hankering for chocolate, which doesn't happen to me very often.

  15. Enjoyable post and comments. And now we'll all become vegans to avoid ordering any number of eggs.

  16. Judy, by the way, was your phonetics teacher in Paris the woman they called Madame la B....?

  17. Well my brain is now completely fried, and my French is clearly worse. I had no idea the vowel sound for jeune was different to deux. Do you mean that in jeune the sound is stretched out a bit more, whereas deux is a short sharp word?

    I am now really nervous because my post for tomorrow is called Fun with French and I was planning to institute an occasional series. Oh well, it'll give all you guys a laugh.

    And just to round off my impression of dimwittedness - why is neuf sometimes 'new', as in 'bourg neuf', which is an area in Preuilly on the other side of the river. I assume it is just old French? Are you sure these aren't new eggs?

  18. Hi Susan, it is true that the vowels in peur, for example, and neuf are not the same as the vowels in peu and nœud. If you look in the dictionary, you'll see the vowel in peur represented as [œ] and the vowel in peu as a lowercase O with a slash through it. That's significant. I wish I had a font that would display such characters (which are the IPA, the International Phonetic Alphabet).

    The vowel in peur is open and the vowel in peu is closed, in phonetic terms.

    When neuf means "new", it follows the noun it modifies. And it has a feminine form, neuve, and plural forms.You could say un œuf neuf to mean "a new egg". Or neuf œufs neufs — nine new eggs. Une voiture neuve is a new car, and you could have (if you were John McCain) neuf voitures neuves — nine new cars. Otherwise, neuf meaning "nine" and neuf meaning "new" are pronounced exactly the same. It's just that one precedes the noun and the other follows it.

  19. Whew!
    Martine, I hope I didn't offend when I made the joke about "maybe it's a Belgian thing" [in referring to whether or not the "f" of "neuf" would be pronounced] :) Americans and the British tease each other about the differences in our pronunciation, as I understand the French and Swiss and Belgians and Québecois do :) It's all the same beautiful language, just with nuances of difference in pronunciation and some phrasing.

    All of this "f" business is confusing us all! I, also, was referring to the possibly-pronounced "f" at the end of "neuf", not at the end of "oeufs"! :))

    Regarding the "v" sound vs the "f" sound after "neuf": my French colleague (une Française de Lyon) had the thought that it seems to her that, on the number "neuf" you keep the "f" sound if the word following it is more than one syllable (and starts with a vowel sound), hence "neuF avions", "neuF hameaux", or "neuF idées". It did seem to her that she would pronounce it as a "v" if the following word were only one syllable, such as our famous "oeufs", or "ans" or "heures".

    Ken, no, I don't remember her being thought of as Madame la B...:)) She seemed very nice to me, but maybe the other teachers had a different relationship with her;)

    Ken, I also hadn't thought about the rather slight pronunciation difference between "eux" and "peuvent"... I probably don't make that distinction clearly when I speak, but I remember learning about the open and closed sounds. My plural pronunciation was all off, of course, by thinking that it should be like the "ou" of "vous"!

    I bought my eggs one at a time from a boucherie near our apartment building, by the way.


  20. Hi Judy,
    No offence taken. When it comes to teasing and joking about each others accents, you should hear what the Dutch say about the Flemish (and the other way round). So I'm quite used to it (Flemish is my mothertongue).

    Fred Astaire said/sang it beautifully in 'Shall we dance':

    "You like potato and I like potaeto,
    You like tomato and I like tomaeto;
    Potato, potaeto, tomato, tomaeto!
    Let's call the whole thing off!"

    So let's all go and have a nice 'omelette baveuse' for breakfast. All this talk about eggs has made me hungry :-)Have a nice day!


  21. I am holidaying in Italy, and just noticed my eggs are in 10's, not 12's as I thought!!

  22. Kenneth!! I am not going to go to the market and ask for neuf oeufs neufs, no matter how well you explain it to me :-)))

    I know there is a key in the dictionary for the IPA, but without really knowing the exact sound and how to form it, I often struggle with working out how to pronounce words just from the dictionary e.g. graineterie, which, since we own one, is a word I get to use quite often. The dictionary tells me it should be pronounced something like 'grentree', but a lot of French speakers put such a heavy emphasis on the final consonant of a feminine word that I notice it comes out sounding more like 'grenet(e)ree' because the 'n' is being pronounced almost like 'nah'. Does that make sense? Same thing occurs in words like tournesol.

    Also, what is the rule for deciding whether the adjective goes before or after the noun? I'd noticed that it could be either, but haven't been able to figure out what makes the difference (must have been staring out the window in class when this was discussed 30 years ago).

  23. Susan, the most common adjectives in French — grand, petit, bon, mauvais, beau, joli, gros, nouveau, vieux, certain, etc., along with the numbers and the articles — are the ones that come before the noun. All the others come after.

    If you are speaking very clearly (so that foreigners can understand you, for example), you would say graineterie in three syllables. If you are speaking normally, it is just two syllables.

    So are you going to ask for neuf vieux œufs or neuf œufs vieux at the market? ;^)

    One rule of French pronunciation is that you can never have three consonants in a row without a vowel in between at least two of them. Tournesol is a prime example. You need to pronounce the "mute" E to break up the -rns- consonant cluster.

  24. Susan, just to make Ken wrong [somewhat] and confuse you a little more, here are two examples:

    un grand homme is a famous man,
    un homme grand is a tall man.

    une grosse fille is a fat girl,
    une fille grosse is a pregnant girl.

    How's that for starters?

  25. Yes, and un ancien professeur is "a former professor." Un professeur ancien is "an ancient professor" in the sense that he's very old.

    And d'un certain âge is a polite way of saying someone is not very young, is "of a certain age." While d'un âge certain means very old, definitely old.

  26. I have now gone into a decline (and the word verification is crazzlis!)

    Carolyn is right. The only option is to become vegan.

    Assuming your list of adjectives before the noun holds, it is presumably neuf vieux oeufs, pronounced neu-vyeu-zeu, I think. However, if I ask for such a thing at the market, the vendor is quite rightly going to think my brain is scrambled, never mind the eggs.

    Thanks to you and C-H for the useful list of exceptions – I'll be adding those to my ever growing spreadsheet with commentary.


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