A very good strategy to survive
When you want to speak a foreign language, it is very useful to know strategies that can help you, for example, to compensate for a lack of vocabulary. As far as you are concerned, one of these strategies is to use the transparent words of French. We talk about cognates: they are words that look like English words, which are sometimes written in the same way (radio, pizza) or that can vary by one or two letters (soup, carrot).
Knowing them is not enough
Being aware of this strategy is a good thing. Knowing these words (the cognates) is even better. But is that enough? To survive in a French-speaking country, you will need something more. Because even if these words can be written (practically) in the same way, are they pronounced in the same way?
A few rules for more than a thousand words
Well, no ! There will always be a difference in pronunciation. But rest assured, a limited number of rules can solve this problem. Once you know these differences in pronunciation, you will be able to correctly pronounce hundreds of words, and at the same time thousands of words which are not cognates, but which follow these same rules of pronunciation.
What if you want to sound like a native
In this article, I will present 15 cases of pronunciation of English-French cognates. The audio files will give the right pronunciation. With this article, you will be able to significantly reduce your English accent when you speak French.
1. The unvoiced final consonant
In general, the final consonant of a word is not pronounced in French. It’s the same for cognates:
l’alphabet, le chocolat, l’idiot, le passeport, le porc, le respect, le robot, le sport
2. Words with suffix -able or –ible
abominable, acceptable, accessible, audible, un cable, capable, exploitable, une fable, portable, profitable, une table, possible
3. Words with a nasal vowel as suffix
French knows many nasal vowels: -an/-am, -en/-em, -in/-im, -on/-om, -un/-um. In none of these combinations is the ‘n’ or ‘m’ pronounced; the combination of the vowel (a, e, i, o, u) and the consonant (n, m) in writing gives the oral a nasal vowel.
l’absence, une banque, le cousin, la danse, le dentiste, le melon
4. Words with -ple
As in the previous cases, some cognates who end in –ple have a… French pronunciation.
simple, le temple, le couple
5. The ‘qu’ like a ‘k’
If part of the French words written with “qu” are pronounced more or less like in English (aquarium), the others cognates have another pronunciation which sounds more like a “k”
une qualité, un liquide
6. Words with suffix -tion, -sion (-zion)
action, accumulation, admission, attention, conversation, nation, télévision, passion
7. Words with suffix –isme
anglicisme, fatalisme, féminisme, socialisme, terrorisme
8. The French ‘r’
The French ‘r’ is pronounced in the back of the throat. It is a sound that does not exist in English. This is why you have to make more effort to take the correct pronunciation if you do not want to be assimilated to a tourist.
abracadabra, un opéra, un docteur, rare
9. The French sound ‘i’
The letter ‘i’, when this vowel is without combination, has a sound more or less similar to ‘ee’ of ‘bee’. You also find this French sound ‘i’ with the letter ‘y’. The cognate ‘dynamite’ has two ‘i’ in his pronunciation.
crocodile, dynamite, style
10. The French ‘u’
In English, the letter ‘u’ has several possible pronunciations. In French, if the ‘u’ is not in combination with another vowel (au, or) or with a consonant (un), this letter has a unique sound.
le bus, la sculpture, la justice, la musique, la nature, public, la république, l’université
11. The final ‘-al’
l’animal, brutal, illégal, légal, le métal, national, normal, total
12. The French pronunciation of ‘th’
There are two letters, just use one of them : the ‘t’.
éthique, une lithographie, les mathématiques, pathétique, le théâtre, une théorie, une thérapie
Many cognates fall under several of the rules seen above:
absent, un accent, un accident, un concert, un éléphant, final, un gouvernement, important, impossible, une information, long, un monument, une orange, un rat, un restaurant, urgent, vital
Could you recognize in the words above the rules to which they belong?
14. Various cognates
We could accept the French word “alcool” among cognates. But be careful with its pronunciation. The two “o” are quite rare in French, but they are common in English. However the pronunciation is far from the pronunciation of an English ‘oo’. You have to say :
Sometimes you find real English words in French, but with another pronunciation, like the word ‘hockey’ whose pronunciation is:
Be careful with the pronunciation of cognates with a combination ‘í’ + another vowel:
un biscuit, un client, un fruit, un lion, la science
15. The exceptions
Of course, there are exceptions! A language always has exceptions. Here they are:
abdomen, abject, aluminium, atlas, cognac, concept, cosmos, direct, gaz, parc, maximum, minimum, test, tennis, surf
It’s worth it
As you can see, there are a lot of French-English cognates. If you know them, you quickly gain more vocabulary. But you also see that the pronunciations are different. The danger is to have too much self-confidence and to pronounce them according to your mother tongue. Be aware of the difference between English and French. And you will sound more like a French native.
Do you know other French-English cognates that I did not mention in this article? Then write them below in the comment.
If you want more information about French pronunciation, read the very complete article by Frédéric Bibard on the blog TalkinFrench -> French Pronunciation: The Ultimate Guide for Beginners
Coming soon: the French Survival Kit -> 14 strategy sheets and 7 basic needs sheets that will help you get out of your comfort zone to finally speak French – including a sheet ‘mots transparents’.
A bientôt, Jérôme