French place names – again


The tragic events in France have once again shown the difficulties reporters have in knowing how to pronounce the names of the places involved. Obviously, they have rather more important things on their minds, but when names are constantly repeated, you would think that at some point they would have a few seconds to check with either a local – if they’re at the place itself, or with experts back at base (in the BBC’s case, of course, the Pronunciation Unit – and why, by the way, have they dropped the word “Research” from their title?)

Alec Bamford, an avid reader of this blog, has sent me the following:

“Amid the desperate ad-libbing by talking heads who knew no more than the average viewer, the attempts by various BBC personnel to pronounce Dammartin-en-Goële provided some interest. At least it kept changing which is more than can be said for the repetitious waffling. We had a variety of mid central simple vowels, one ‘goal’, Lyse Doucet, who is Canadian and should have known better, came up with Dammartin-en-Gueule which does not sound appetising, but the winner must be Kasia Madera. Despite getting a 2:1 in French (or so Wikipedia tells me), she decided, correctly, it was bi-syllabic. And pronounced ‘Go-hell’. With a [h], would you believe.”

Villers-Cotterêts was another one ripe for mispronunciation: ‘as any fule kno’ final -er in French is pronounced /e/ (the first verbs we learn are the -er class). But this time it isn’t just English learners who can be tripped up: many French people are uncertain about final -er in proper names. My late wife, when a student in France (before she met me) had a boy friend whose name was Roger Maler. While Roger is /rɔʒe/, Maler is pronounced /malɛːr/. What makes this doubly confusing is that at home the Maler family spoke Catalan, and in Catalan, the name is pronounced /male/… Anyway, there are several places in France containing the word Villers in their names, and in every case, it is pronounced /vilɛːr/.


  1. Is it really disyllabic? Not according to Wikipedia it isn’t:ële . And that would have been my guess based on poële ([pwal]), frying pan (if I’m remembering my A-Level French from 30 years ago correctly).

  2. Paul – Your memory is quite correct: poële is monosyllabic, but according to my Dictionnaire de la prononciation française (Léon Warnant), 1968, this does not mean that all words containing -oe- are. Poëme, poésie, poète are all disyllabic, and Dammartin-en-Goële, according to the same dictionary, is also disyllabic: /da-maʀ-tɛ̃-ɑ̃-gɔ-ɛ(-)l(ə)/ (the round brackets are for optional features of the word). It has often been said that Wikipedia is very good if you already know what it is you are looking up, and I see that the article admits that a citation is needed to verify the pronunciation. You read it here (the citation, that is) first!

  3. Goële is necessarily disyllabic; that’s the whole point of the diaeresis over the ‘e’!

  4. Alon –

    I can’t agree with you: the Petit Robert dictionary gives, for the word poêle, the alternative spelling poële, but the pronunciation remains the same: /pwɑl/. The diaeresis does not force a disyllabic pronunciation in all cases, and the Wikipedia entry you quote does not say that -oë- is ‘necessarily’ disyllabic, only that “the second vowel letter is to be pronounced separately from the first”. In poële, the two letters are certainly pronounced separately, but within a single syllable.

  5. Very impressive homework done. Could you please provide more such articles relating characteristics to specific languages?

  6. Excellent observations. I noted these while I was attending my French classes.

  7. Being in the field of languages, I really like some of your article. Please continue with it.

  8. Good refresher and thanks for posting it. It is going to be an ever-living post.

    C A R E F U L – Remember this (omit vowels).

    When a word has the last syllable ending in C R F L, then it should be pronounced.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.