20 June 2011

La cathédrale de Reims

Two questions come to mind on the subject of the cathedral at Reims. First, how do you explain in English how the name of that city is pronounced? Second, what do you take pictures of when you are inside a very dark church?

A picture of Reims cathedral, with people in it for scale.
Click the pictures (twice) to enlarge them.

In English, we don't even spell Reims the same way the French do. We add an H — it becomes Rheims. And we say it this way: [REEMS]. The spelling with an H comes from old French. We also use old spellings for two other French cities that come to mind: Lyons and Marseilles. In French those names were simplified to Lyon and Marseille centuries ago. I couldn't tell you why. And I'm not going to spell Reims with an H.

Another picture, from farther back, to show
the scale of the building once more

When it comes to Reims, the French spelling, the H is gone but the S is still there. And it is pronounced. The problems that Anglophones have with the pronunciation are the other two sounds (or phonemes) — the French R and the nasal vowel that follows it. It's impossible to transcribe the pronunciation using the 26-letter alphabet so that an English-speaker can understand how to pronounce the word.

Outside and inside shots

Reims and the French word rinse — meaning, well, "rinse" — have exactly the same pronunciation. The R is a uvular trill and the vowel is nasal. Does that help? Probably not. Say the R as if you were gargling. To get Reims right, you just have to listen to a French person say it, and then imitate. Sorry I can't be of more help.

Detail of one of the rose windows

And what do you take pictures of inside a dark church? The stained glass — what else? The church is dark because of the stained glass, in fact. Reims is like Chartres in that regard. Unless you're there on a very bright, sunny day, it's going to be pretty dark inside. La cathédrale de Reims has a lot of beautiful stained glass, both ancient and modern.

Two modern windows in Reims cathedral

Reims cathedral is where a lot of French kings were crowned over the centuries. In fact, only five of the 37 Capetian kings of France since the year 987 were not coronated at Reims. Of course, the current building was constructed only in the 13th century, so many kings were crowned in an even older cathedral there. This building is celebrating its 800th anniversary this year.

The cathdral's Ange au sourire — the smiling angel —
has become the symbol of the city of Reims.

Notre-Dame de Paris and Notre-Dame de Chartres are both older than Notre-Dame de Reims — that's the cathedral's official name. The cathedrals at Amiens, Strasboug, and Beauvais were built a little later. Notre-Dame de Reims had to be rebuilt after intensive bombardments by the invading Germans in 1914.


  1. The correct pronunciation of "Reims" has us flummoxed every time. Try as we might, we always feel like idiots every time we say it. Thanks for the tip !!

    We have spent many a happy time in Reims, a lovely city.

  2. Thinking about the pronunciation. It's kind of like "rants" but without the T. And of course the French R as much as you can.

    By the way, we are planning a trip to Epernay and Reims for October.

  3. Lovely photographs. One of my new discoveries is that I can google "pronounce Rheims" or almost any other word and hear a native speaker say it. Or even two or three different native speakers. This is not just for French and I think it is amazing and wonderful that this is possible.

    For example:http://www.forvo.com/word/reims/

  4. Thanks, Kristi. I had found that forvo.com site before but couldn't find it this morning. That's the best way to get the pronunciation.

    Here's the link: forvo.com pronunciations.

  5. We are going to Reims and Epernay next summer when we are in France, thanks for the heads up. I heard someone say that the best way for Americans to pronounce it is just "Rams". They said we would never get any closer. :)

  6. Oooooooh, such beautiful photos :) Ken, I'm going to put a link on my Cathedrals web page, if that's okay with you?

    Krisi, thanks so much for that Forvo.com website!


  7. I visited this cathedral on the way to the Mumm champagne caves. I loved it. As I recall, Marc Chagall did some of the modern stained glass windows.


  8. Ken... that angel looks rather smug!!
    But the stained glass... ancient and modern... is superb.

  9. You can get close by saying "rems". It's not exact, but you'd probably be better understood than if you said "rheems".

  10. I suppose you could say Reims in French rhymes with "dance" in English....

  11. Beautiful stained glass. And I love the down to earth smiling angel.

  12. Ken,
    Nice photos, once again.

    When speaking to fellow anglophones, I think it sounds pretentious to pronounce the names of French cities as the French do, e.g. saying "Pa-ree" vs "Par-is".
    However, my anglicizing of the names of other cities in France leads to confusion. When I talk about my stay in Rennes, people always mention the delicious Champagne wine produced there (Reims)...and after my visit to Caen, my friends all asked if I'd seen any stars at the film festival (Cannes).
    I usually just do an awful, full-on American butcher job of the city's name and they all get it.

  13. Dean, I agree. Just look at this list of city names starting with R:


    I think I forgot one, but never mind. As far as pronouncing the names in English goes, that's up to us English speakers. But when you are trying to communicate with French speakers, even in English, if you don't say the name approximately as it is said in French, you won't be understood.


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