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Last week, we shared a photo on Facebook listing the 10 hardest French words to pronounce. “Hardest” can definitely change from speaker to speaker, but I can attest that some of these words have certainly thrown me off in the past. Today, we’re going to look at all 10 of these words one by one with some pronunciation tips and tricks. Included are the IPA spellings (not sure what that is? Check out this guide.) and a recording of each word (first quickly then much slower) by a native speaker.
accueillir – v – to welcome, to make someone feel welcome
Ok, I’ll admit it. I’ve always hated this word. I was able to get the pronunciation down, but to this day, 15 years after my first formal French lessons, I still have to write this word slowly. c-c-u-e-i-l-l. Not so hard, but I still do it. Other than the spelling, the issue for anglophone speakers is the “euil” combination since it’s a sound we do not have in English. So what’s the trick? This is something a teacher in high school taught me, and it’s quite easy to master. Take the word book and pronounce it without the B and K. Once you have the “oo,” you need to glide another sound at the end of it. Take the word see and remove the initial S. You’re left with the “ee” sound. Put them together and voilà!
bouilloire (une) – n – kettle
Fun fact: I never used a kettle in my life before moving to France. In my family, if we wanted hot tea, we’d put a mug of water in the microwave like true savages. Once I was in Angers and saw how convenient these counter top tools were, I haven’t looked back. While it’s an essential kitchen gadget, it’s a difficult one to say in French. The difficulty here lies in the succession of 3 very different sounds, none of which are difficult to say. Bou- is easy to say (make sure you’re not saying it like bu! Read this lesson to master that tricky French U.). Be careful to pronounce the i by itself. You don’t want to say bou-il-loire: keep those Ls together*. The penultimate sound is the “wa” sound at the beginning of the word watch. The final sound is the wonderfully fun French R. Want to master the French R? Learn it here with Beyoncé.
Got it? Now say le brouillard (fog). Much harder in my opinion as there’s another R. How this word missed the list is beyond me.
* LL is pronounced in 2 ways in French: either like a “yuh” sound (like in la vanille) or a simple L (un pull, for example). Stay tuned for another lesson!
cueillir – v – to pick (flowers, nose), to pluck
The beauty of this word is it’s the same as the first word in this list minus the initial sound. Très facile !
écureuil (un) – n – squirrel
This word, both in English and in French, always seem to end up on “hard to pronounce” lists for beginners. Let’s nip that in the bud now. If you’ve followed this guide from the beginning, this word should be a piece of cake! The é in this word is the easiest part – it’s like a long English A (like in the word bay). The next sound combo, -cu-, simply requires mastering the French U (is you missed the link earlier in the article, here you go). Next you have that fun French R (Encore, Beyoncé, encore!). The R slides right into the placement of -euil (see accueillir at the beginning), so there’s no awkward mouth repositioning. Awesome – now you can talk about squirrels en français!
quincaillerie (une) – n – hardware store
Why such a hard word for such a useful store? This guy poses a few problems, and it starts with one of French’s famous nasal sounds. There are 2 different types of vowels: oral and nasal. For oral, air only passes through the mouth. For nasal vowels, air passes through the nose and mouth. The easiest example would be the indefinite articles, un and une. A vowel is nasalized if it precedes an N or an M with nothing else beside it (unless it’s in a different syllable). Un (/œ̃/), since there’s nothing following the N, is nasalized. Une (/yn/), on the other hand, is not nasalized and the N is pronounced. The second part to quincaillerie is the “yuh” sounding glide we discussed in bouilloire. The last, and easiest part for me, is the French R going into a long English E. Once you’re doing the R, you’re setting your vocal placement up for the -ie.
rassasié(e) – adj – to be full
The issue with this word is not (this time) the R sound, but the S sound. In French, a double S spelling creates a S sound, but when an S is on its own, you pronounce it like a Z (most of the time). In that sense, this word is very regular.
rare – adj – rare
If you’re reading this, you know it’s no secret that the French R is not the easiest sound to make as a learner (unless you’re lucky and your native language has it as well). Even if you’re able to make it, there are some environments where it’s easier to pronounce it than others. For me, it’s always easier to end a word with an R than it is to begin. But not here: in this word you have to both start and end your word with the R. And that’s precisely why this word is on the list.
Reims – proper noun – Reims
Fun fact: Reims is a city in the Champagne province where French kings were crowned from 861 with Louis le Pieux to 1825 with Charles X. Unfun fact: the pronunciation of -eims is going to make you scratch your head. The 4 letters make the same nasalized sound discussed in quinaillerie plus a voiceless -s. Not sure what that means? S has both a voiced and voiceless counterpart. All the “voiced” part means is you’re vibrating your vocal cords. For example, the -s in books is voiceless, while the -s in bags is voiced. The closest English approximation to the words might be “rance,” as in rancid. Just nasalize it!
serrurerie (une) – n – locksmith
If you hear this one fast, it sounds like it’s 3 syllables. Spoken slowly, it’s 4 distinct syllables. That might help you with your own pronunciation, so don’t be scared of all the Rs and surrounding the U.
verrerie (une) – n – glassware
If you can say serrurerie, verrerie should be a walk in the park. Same deal: spoken quickly, it sounds like it’s one less syllable. Once you can say it slowly, saying it faster and sounding like it’s missing a syllable will have you sounding like a native.
How about you? What are the hardest to pronounce words for you?