22 January 2011

Pronunciation of -ouille

A lot of English speakers have a hard time with the French pronunciation of the string of letters in the title above. The word that I've heard mentioned recently as a pronunciation conundrum is « grenouille » — that's “frog” in English. Other examples are nouille, rouille, and douille (noodle, rust, and socket in English).

There are a lot of French words that include the -ouille string, and it's always pronounced the same way. There is no -ee- sound in it. There is, however, an -oo- sound. If you break -ouille down, you'll find out it is actually pronounced as -oo- with the ending -ille [yuh]. And as you know, in French, the Ls of -ille are not usually pronounced as Ls, but as an unstressed [yuh] sound — a semi-vowel. If you can pronounce the French word fille correctly as [FEE-yuh], you know what I mean.

Exceptions to the pronunciation -ille as [yuh] are pretty rare in French. One handy trick for remembering them is this little ditty: « Gilles, Lille, et mille villes tranquilles ». In those words, -ille is pronounced more or less like [eel]. It's also pronounced as [eel] in a lot of words borrowed from other language, and in scientific terms, but never mind about those.

In virtually all the other French words ending in -ille — fille, gentille, bille, grille, brindille, Bastille, for example — -ille is pronounced as [EE-yuh]. This little [yuh] sound after a vowel is called a "wet L" in French — un L mouillé. (Mouillé is pronounced [moo-YAY].)

The "wet L" is represented in phonetic symbols as [j]. The phonetic transcription of the word fille, then, is [fij]. Bastille is [bastij]. I hope that makes sense.

And now back to the pronunciation of -ouille. In the international phonetic alphabet, the sound we write in English as -oo- is represented as [u]. For example, the French word fou is pronounced as [fu]. Bout is [bu]. Cou is [ku]. Tout is [tu]. (Don't be surprised that the word tu is represented as [ty] in the phonetic alphabet — that's a different vowel, as you know.)

So here is how the Larousse Dictionnaire de la Prononciation shows the pronunciation of the word grenouille. It shows the vowel as [u] followed by the semi-vowel [j].

The upside-down E in the transcription is the schwa or
"mute E" of French. It's an indeterminate vowel [uh],
like the initial A of about or above in English.

The syllable represented as [uj] in phonetic transcription is the equivalent of what I would write as [OO-yuh] to help English-speakers understand how to pronounce French -ouille. The [yuh] is just a quick glide attached to the end of the main vowel. In fille, the main vowel is [i] or, as I write it [EE]. If it really followed the rules, the word would be spelled as fiille, where the first -i- is the main vowel and the [yuh] ending is -ille.

The mistake most English-speakers are tempted to make is to pronounce -ouille as [WEE-yuh]. That's not right. The main vowel is [OO], not [EE]. It's not like the word oui, where the main vowel is [i] or [EE] and the ou- is pronounced as [w], a semi-vowel. It's the opposite — not [WEE] but [OO-yuh].

Compare grenouille to the French word bouteille. That one is easy: it's [butej] or [boo-TAY-yuh]. N'est-ce pas ? Or the verb in je travaille — [travaj] or, in my version, [trah-VAH-yuh]. The principle is the same: -ille is the [yuh] ending, and the main vowel is the one that comes ahead of it.

But wait. There are harder words than grenouille to pronounce. The word feuille, for example. In that one, the main vowel is [œ] or, in my version, [uh]. It's the vowel of the word peur [pœr]. So feuille is [fœj] or [FUH-yuh]. Apply that to these two place names: the town called Preuilly [prœji], for example, and the village called Mareuil [marœj]. Thats [pruh-YEE] and [mah-RUH-yuh] in my version for Anglophones.


  1. That's a very helpful post. I know people who claim that French is spelled consistently from a phonetic point of view - which I find bewildering.

    I often find myself trailing off on words as I'm never sure if they're ones with a silent final syllable or not. It's not helped by local Gascon usage which pronounces such final syllables.

  2. Great explanation!
    Whatever made you think that some of us anglophones need help with pronunciation? :)

  3. Do need to be careful with French words. I try, but Mulhouse is not Mull House and it caught me up and displayed my ignorance.

  4. Mike, once you understand French spelling as it relates to pronunciation, it is easier to pronounce a new word than it is in English. I believe that. But the spelling/pronunciation relationship is complex in French.

    The Gascon usage probably calls for pronouncing more final consonants than in Loire Valley or Parisian usage.

    Loulou, :^).

    Andrew, French is not a version of English. That's what I've always been told. Mulhouse [myluz] is perfectly regular in French, as far as spelling/pronunciation goes.

  5. As Diogenes said in a previous post, congratulations Professor B. [I hope he doesn't have a copyright!!]. Your post reminds me of my trying to get the right pronunciation of the string ough when was trying to learn English. LOL

  6. It's the regional differences that confuse me. All the rules of pronouncing "Parisian" French seem to go out the window in the south.
    e.g. vin pronounced "veng", "Condom" as "Condong".

    If I pronounce some words the "Parisian" way, then it's construed as a different word here because of the way the vowels alter and final syllables are treated. "chien" and "chaîne" absolutely need context to distinguish them.

    I've heard from locals here that they can barely comprehend speakers from the far north of France, so I don't feel too bad.

  7. Thank you Ken - saw your initial explanation at Chez L.
    However I do find that even les Français pronounce " Août" differently on TV - another word for you to explain :-)

  8. Wonderful post, Ken. I love these explanations.

    How about the name Neville? This is the name of one of the characters in the Harry Potter books, so, originally, I dealt with it in English. In the French HP versions, however, when I'm reading aloud to my students, I don't know whether or not to pronounce this with a "wet L" or not. Since it has -ville at the end of it, I wondered if it would follow that pronunciation? or not? Has anyone heard JK Rowling pronounce it? Maybe I need to listen to my Quebec-French-dubbed DVD.

    Another question for anyone who knows: can one use the term rouillé in the figurative sense, say, to express, "My French is rusty"? or, "I speak French, but I'm rusty." ? Is there a better phrase?


  9. This has been very helpful to me as well. Thank you!

  10. Thanks! My poor laptop became throughly confused as I sounded out the words in your post. Great pronounciation practice. Antoinette

  11. Interesting and useful post.

    No French person ever understands me when I say "Mareuil-sur-Cher." So now I just say you live in St Aignan.

    Word verification is "ditch."

  12. Mike, oui, ratatouille [rah-tah-TOO-yuh]. I think chien and chaîne are different in all varieties of French. One has a nasal vowel (whether or not there's a slight G sound at the end) and the other an oral vowel (SHEH-nuh) with no nasalization.

    Chrissoup, somebody told me early one that we had managed to find a place to live where none of the village or town names were pronounceable: Mareuil and Saint-Aignan. Congratulations on pronouncing Saint-Aignan. When I tell people on the phone — marketing reps or tech support reps — they seem to get Mareuil [mah-RUH-yuh] right away. A harder one is the town in the western Paris suburbs called Rueil-Malmaison.

    Judy, CHM can tell you better than I can about the use of rouillé as it applies to a non-native language. I found this on the web: « L'expression "être un peu rouillé" est assez courante en français et utilisée pour différentes choses.
    La formule "Mon français est un peu rouillé" est tout à fait acceptable et si cette formule doit être dans une lettre un peu officielle (de demande d'emploi par exemple) on peut mettre rouillé entre guillemets pour montrer que l'on utilise une image, ce qui donne : Mon français est un peu "rouillé".

    As for Neville, I think it should be pronounced [nay-VEEL] or [neh-VEEL] in French as if it were névile. It's a foreign name and then, besides, ville is [VEEL]...

    Beaver, CHM says [u] for août — "le mois doux" — but I often hear [ut]. The older pronunciation [aut] or [ah-OOT] seems to be fading away.

  13. This post will help the Anglophones a lot. Second languages are not always easy
    to learn. Ils vont bien se debrouiller maintenant!
    (I cringe when I hear people pronounce Nashville, Louisville, Breville... the american way).

  14. Judy [and Ken or should I say ckb, I'm lost],
    Anyway. Ken is perfectly right, as usual, about rouillé. I could not say it better.

    Cousine, the pronunciation "le mois doux" is supposed to be the right one, but that might be for Paris only. Just like Ken, I've heard the other two, but I cannot say if it's a question of regionalism or not.

  15. Thank you for this instruction. It is most helpful, especially as I tend to forget and Anglicize the double Ls. My bad.

  16. VERY helpful! I'm learning French out of a book and any and all pronunciation tips are very welcome ;)

  17. The Larousse pronunciation dictionary (1980) says août is pronounced as [u]=[oo] or [ut]=[oot]. It says people tend to say le mois d'août without the T [mwadu] but they say en août with it [ut]. It says the two-syllable [au]=[ah-OO] and [aut]=[ah-OOT] pronunciations are heard in certain contexts.

  18. Your article on French language is awesome. children can easily learn French language from their parents. In that case kids can learn French using flashcards and they will have good command in future for their native French language .

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