06 April 2009

Pronouncing Loches with an open O

The standard French pronunciation, the French "accent" that is taught in schools and universities all over the world, is the accent of the Touraine region of France.

Paris, on the other hand, has a regional accent (it's sometimes called « l'accent parigot »), at least among the working people, just the way New York City has it's own particular accent (the Brooklyn accent, we call it). Normandy, Alsace, Provence, the Southwest, and other French regions have their accents too. Touraine French is the accepted standard.

Touraine is the Middle West of France. If Walter Cronkite spoke French, he'd speak it with a Touraine accent.

Loches is in Touraine. And the people here don't pronounce it with the vowel you hear in America in posh or Oskosh. I don't think it sounds a lot like the British version of the word posh either, but that's my ear. It's closer to British posh than it is to something that might be spelled leauche or lauche (those are not real words). There is a word fauche, and it doesn't rhyme with Loches. Loches is also not pronounced anything like lawsh.

I know that when I say Loches or hear it pronounced, it sounds more like the word lush in American English than like any other American word. It sounds that way whether pronounced by a speaker from Touraine or Paris or Belgium.

I don't claim to have a Touraine accent in French. Naturally, I have an American accent. French people tell my my foreign accent is slight. I do know how to pronounce and distinguish the French vowel sounds.

In phonetic terms, the vowel in Loches is called the "open O" — as opposed to the closed, rounded O of words like, well, mot, peau, dos, and faute. Or words with ô in them, like hôtel or dôme. The open O of Loches is the same vowel you hear in the French words donner, monnaie, and noter. The sound is slightly more rounded than the flat -uh- vowel in American pronunciations of words like lush or crust — but only slightly. It's definitely not the same vowel as in the French words côte or rose, which are pronounced with the lips pursed (I mean rounded).

Last week I talked on the phone with a friend from Normandy. She said the French word port and to me it sounded like peur. It confused me. That's part of her accent, I guess, and you hear that pronunciation in Paris too.

People in the south of France often pronounce the closed O of a word like beauté with the open O, such that Touraine or Parisian speakers hear them pronouncing beauté and botté or côte and cote as homophones. (Homophones are words like night and knight in English that are spelled differently but pronounced identically.) You hear southern French speakers pronounce faute as if it were written fotte (not a word) and had the same vowel as note or botte. In northern varieties of French, the vowels of faute and botte are distinctly different.

The vowel in Loches, poche, or moche is not the same as the vowel you hear in œuf, heure, beurre, or peur. That's the open Œ vowel, and is distinguished from the closed, rounded Œ vowel of peu, deux, and heureux. These last words have a very rounded vowel; you almost have to pucker your lips to say them.

The vowel of Loches is also not at all like the two vowels in Oshkosh as the word is pronounced in America. That vowel is a long, broad A sound, as in AH. We also pronounce posh with a long AH vowel, as if it were written pahsh. I know that those vowels are pronounced very differently in British and Australian varieties of English.

Other words that are pronounced with nearly the same vowel are, for example, Fr. note and Am. nut. Fr. botte and Am. but. Fr. donne and Am. done. Fr. téléphone sounds like it could be Am. tele-fun. In each case, the French vowel is slightly more rounded than the flat American sound, but only slightly. (The final consonants are also prounounced much more distinctly in French than in English, but that's a subject for another day.)

There are 16 vowels in standard French. Here is the phonetic table from the Collins-Robert French-Engish dictionary that shows what they are and gives phonetic symbols and examples.

Okay, I guess this is pretty technical. Remember, as native speakers we are rarely conscious of the way we really pronounce the vowel sounds of our languages. And there is wide variation. We all have accents in our native languages as well as in "foreign" languages.


  1. WCS said: Quand je m'approche de Loches avec une brioche dans ma poche, j'entends ses cloches.

    All those words should rhyme, no?

    Mais, oui! And I'm wondering if Walt got that little ditty from his phonetics class with Monsieur Broadhurst? :))

    Great post, Ken. It all makes sense to me :)) I loved that Acapela website, too... and it helped me see that the British pronunciation of posh does have a vowel sound somewhat more like that in loches than the American pronunciation does -- Susan, I wish they had you saying it with an Australian accent! To my ear, they are still different sounds (my ear hears like Ken's :)). Nadege, I guess our question to you might be, do you pronounce Oshkosh like the way it is pronounced by the Americans on the Acapela website?


  2. Good heavens, I'd quite forgotten the phonetic alphabet, though I was taught it at school (and I have the Collins Robert too). More important, we also had diagrams of how your mouth should look when voicing the different sounds. If the phonetic alphabet looks a bit dauntingly technical, explaining it in terms of what you physically do is much easier than trying to transcribe vowel sounds (I can't think of any other way of explaining the u vowel in lutte, for example).

    Word verification, by the way, is "manger": how appropriate is that?!

  3. It is 5.30 am in Los Angeles and I can say I am confused about Loches. Oshkosh to me is pronounced
    with the O of cloche, brioche... . I will have to get back to you on the pronounciation when I call my family in France. (Repeating Loches few times, I must admit that it does sound a bit like lush). Time to Google Loches to find out where it is located.
    How sad about that earthquake in Italy.

  4. Nadege, to me, when I pronounce Oshkosh in American English, the sound is similar to the a in the letter hache or the verb hacher.

    Yes, it is terrible about the earthquake in Italy. I've only heard a brief mention of it, so I haven't seen where it was exactly. That also brings up a language vocabulary question for me: I see earthquakes referred to in French as both un séisme and un tremblement de terre. Does anyone know if there is a difference in the application of those two words?

    I have another vocabulary question that I'll throw out for anyone who might know the answer:

    Can I somewhat interchangeably use the terms château médiéval, château fort, and forteresse? I'm picturing all of them as the Loches or Chinon or Angers type of château, all of the type that Foulques Nerra III would have started the construction of with un donjon, and then the next stage would have been fortified walls, for example.


  5. So Ken, how do you pronounce "Août"

    [ou], [out], [a-ou] [a-out]

    C'était la grosse question sur france 2 il y a deux ans de cela :-) juste avant les grandes vances d'été.

  6. sorry i meant to write "vacances"

  7. Hi Cousine,
    The right pronunciation of the month of August is like "le mois doux." I think it is incorrect to pronounce as if it was "le mois da-ou" or as in "doute" or "da-oute" even though you might hear those forms. There is a popular song of old that is "Le 31 du mois d'août" where for music reasons it is pronounced da-ou, but as I said I think it is wrong, and it rhymes with "nous." How do you pronounce it in Montréal?

  8. Bonjour Cousin,

    Personally I pronounce it like you said "oux" like "le mois doux" ou "en ou" -same for hubby and in-laws because they come from Paris but in Montréal you have a mix -sometimes you will hear "oute" with un 't" très prononcé or "a-out" especially from those who have been living on the North shore and then move to Montréal. When I was at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montréal I had to listen very carefully because some expressions were quite different or some students were speaking what we call " le joual" - like a patois.

    Hope you are having nice weather in VA. My sister has told me that the "cherry blossom" festival has started.

  9. Thank you so much for this, Ken, it's very helpful.


  10. Hi BettyAnn, glad you found that discourse on vowels useful.

    The Beaver and CHM,

    I pronounce it [out], sounding the T, because I think it's clearer that way. As a foreigner, I go for what people will understand most easily. And I think what I hear people saying nowadays is [oute].

    Georges Marchais, the old communist party leader in France, used to pronounce it "le mois d'a-out", sounding the T, back in the 1970s. I never heard that pronunciation used by the people I lived and spent time with in Paris.

    Here's what the Robert Electronique dictionary gives:

    AOûT [u], cour. [ut] n. m.

    The Robert-Collins dictionary says: août [u(t)] nom masculin

    Both would seem to indicate that that the pronunication is evolving toward the form where the T is pronounced. Anyway, that's my opinion, even if [ou] is the strictly correct pronunciation.

    When you say "le mois d'aoû-" without the T, there is a confusion possible with "le moix doux".

  11. judy, nope, I made that up while walking the dog on Monday morning.

  12. Hi Judy, sorry I'm not much help with your questions. As far as I can tell, séisme and tremblement de terre are synonymous terms.

    As for château fort, château médiéval, and forteresse, I think any differences in meaning would be fairly technical. As I said, I'm not much help here. Ken


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