French place names


I’ve recently come back from France, and once again been puzzled by many place names. They just don’t correspond to any spelling conventions in the everyday vocabulary, and yet the French give us no help: to the best of my knowledge, there is no pronouncing dictionary that includes place names (or family names). The Petit Robert has two appendices – “Adjectifs et noms tirés des noms propres” and “Dérivés des noms de personnes (réelles, mythologiques, imaginaires)” which are very usfeul, except that they give no help with pronunciation.

Even the French are often confused by the pronunciation of place names. Perhaps the most famous difficulty for them is Chamonix, which French friends have told me they used to pronounce /ʃamoniks/ – until they went there, and discovered that locals call it /ʃamoni/.

In no particular order:

Eawy, Bulgnéville, Thueyts, Andernos (-s silent or pronounced?), Villers (several places of this name – /vije, vile, vilÉ›r/?), anywhere ending in -x (silent or pronounced?)



  1. On a visit to Belgium, I learned that Bruxelles – /brysel/ to the French – is pronounced /bryksel/ by Walloons to make sure they don’t get confused with Flemings. I’m pretty sure I heard a taxi driver identify himself as not-a-Fleming by just this ruse.

  2. Mostly because of all those languages, Romance and others, that have been gulped up by Standardised French.

    I saw a list of about 50 spellings for /o/ in French, and could spontaneously add some simply from Alsatian place names.

  3. Léon Warnant 1987 Dictionnaire de la prononciation française dans sa norme actuelle has a big section pp 687 to 974 on les noms propres which includes
    Andernos /ɑ̃-dɛʀ-noːs, rég. -nɔs/
    Eawy (not found)
    Bulgnéville /byl-ɲe-vi(-)l(ə)/
    Thueyts /tɥɛts/
    Villers /vi-lɛːʀ, rég.(en Belgique)/-lɛʀs/
    No difference at seven other names beginning Villers
    His hyphens show syllable divisions.

  4. The reason for the “x” being silent in “Chamonix” is given here:

  5. Thanks, Jack. I’ve never come across this dictionary despite the fact that its first edition was over forty years ago. Eawy is a place signposted on the road south from Dunkirk, south west of Béthune. I assume that if it was written totally in lower case, there would be an acute accent above the E – pronounced /eavi/ according to Wikipedia, and formerly /evi/.

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