7 French words in English and the great question of pronunciation

By Laurine Tiran / February 24, 2021
French words in English

Languages aren’t impervious to each other, they are intermingled and French words in English are more common than you think. 

Languages have evolved mostly with history and with the links between first France and Great Britain, and then France and other English-speaking countries, but also the French-speaking parts of Canada, it is not surprising to see the two languages mixed. Since the era of invasions and colonialism, French and English speakers have exchanged words and sayings. 

In French, English is everywhere, and most people know the English words they are using and that they come from globalization and the expansion of the American culture. Here the French-speakers from Quebec stand out: they use even less English words than French people do. “Weekend” and “chewing gum” are common, and French people usually find it very funny to know that Quebec people could say “fin de semaine” or “gomme à macher”. 

French words in English are also very common, even if you might not know that. “I’ve grown up with them but didn’t know they were French until I was older,” said Sophie, an English woman, and she is probably not the only one. If you haven’t learnt a little bit of French in school or if you just never pay attention to these words because you thought they sounded too English to come from another language, you probably don’t know. 

French words in English

English words have been influenced by their French counterparts, which were transformed and very often Anglicised. These are not the most interesting ones because they have changed, or they have been a part of the English vocabulary for so long that you don’t even see the French origins anymore. Alysa Salzberg wrote a very interesting and detailed article on the question for French Together. “It’s amazing to me how history can continue to touch us,” Salzberg comments.

French words are well-known in some sectors. It is interesting to see that they are very often assimilated to a certain standard, applied mostly to prestigious sectors. Who doesn’t use the word cuisine when they go to a restaurant to talk about the amazing work of a chef? There were three French words in this single sentence. If you like fashion, you probably know haute couture. Artists sometimes enjoy avant-garde arts. 

Then you have the French words that are used mostly because they describe French things that just can’t be translated. Or that could have been, but someone decided that it wasn’t necessary. Baguette is probably the most famous one. Champagne couldn’t be called anything else, because it is a specific drink from a French region. Croissant is a tricky one, because it’s clearly a French word, but the pastry actually comes from Austria.

And finally you have the French words used in English, neither anglicized nor describing a particularly French thing. Here you’ll find seven French words you know and use for sure, with their specificities regarding their French counterpart. But since explaining pronunciation without actually saying the word or using the phonetic alphabet is difficult, you’ll also find links to a French online dictionary where you can find those words pronounced. Enjoy the French sound.

7 French words in English: you can use them daily  

French words in English

Café: For those who don’t know, café in French means coffee, but it can be used with the same meaning it has in English. Maybe you knew it came from another language because of the accent on the “e”, which looks weird in English. At the pronunciation level, just know that if you do the sound “ey” at the end, then you’re not pronouncing it the French way. 

Déjà-vu: With the accents and the pronunciation, you probably already knew it wasn’t an English word. It literally means “already seen”. Talking about pronunciation, here again the main difference between the French and English ones is on the last syllabus. On online English dictionaries, you can sometimes find the French pronunciation but usually, English speakers don’t use it because the sound French makes for the vowel “u” is not very common in English.

Encore: Maybe this one looks “normal”, so you didn’t know it wasn’t English. The meaning isn’t quite the same in both languages: when in English it’s about repetition or reappearance (for shows), in French it only means “again” or “yet”. So basically, when you’re asking for an encore at the end of a concert, you’re asking for an “again”. Which makes sense. A French speaker who doesn’t speak English may not even recognize this word spoken by an English speaker. Indeed, there’s a nasal sound in French, and also a specific way to say the “r”. Difficult, I know.

Cul-de-sac: Here again, a French speaker may not understand that you’re using the same word they do to talk about a dead-end street because the pronunciation is so different, especially on the first syllabus (the “l” is supposed to be silent in French here) and when it’s plural. Fun fact, in French it literally means “bottom of the bag”, with a not-so-polite way to say bottom. But it’s not a vulgar saying in French, so it’s okay don’t worry when you use it. 

Cliché: On the writing, the same comments can be done about “cliché” and “café”. The accent gives it. And for the pronunciation, it’s also the same thing. This “ey” sound English speakers put at the end of French word finishing with an accent is usually understandable for French speakers. This word is probably one of the most famous in English for French people. French speakers who also speak English usually know they can use this word freely. And they will probably put an English accent on it, just to be sure it fits. 

Souvenir:  This one looks like “encore” when it comes to the difference between French and English pronunciations and meanings. First on the pronunciation, same problem with the “r”. Second, the written form, not standing out in English. And for the meaning, when in English a souvenir is only an object to keep as a reminder (usually something you bring back from holidays), French people use souvenir as a noun for the object but also for the thought (a memory) and as a reflexive verb, translated by “to remember”.

Fiancé / fiancée: Here’s another tricky one for English speakers. Let’s start with the pronunciation, quite difficult: nasal sound and accent on the final “e”. However, it might be okay, because it’s not such an uncommon way to call an engaged man or woman, so people are used to this pronunciation. But here comes the funny aspect of the French language with the question of gender: yes, French puts gender everywhere (here it’s for people so it’s okay, but objects’ nouns are also gendered). When you speak, no problem. When you write, don’t forget to put an additional “e” if you talk about a woman. Good luck. 

The great question of pronunciation 

As you already know, when it comes to French words in English, pronunciation is usually the main difference. It is also the main difficulty because some sounds are just so uncommon in a language that speakers don’t know how to pronounce them. It’s true for English speakers speaking French but also for French speakers speaking English. 

French words in English

Talking about the word “lingerie”, the American writer Alysa Salzberg said: “If you say it this way [with the American pronunciation] or even put a slight French accent to it, French people will have no idea what you’re talking about. And when a native English speaker hears the actual French pronunciation of lingerie for the first time, they’ll probably also be a bit confused.”

Salzberg has lived in France and knows a lot about the differences in pronunciation, and if she has remarked the difficulties some English speakers have with French words, she comments the same thing in the other way. “This goes both ways,” she affirms. “When I went to see the latest ‘Spider-Man’ at the movies, I had to pronounce it the French way to be sure I’d be understood by the person at the ticket counter: ‘Speeder Mahn’.”

“We think people don’t realize the number of French words used in the English language,” Alex and Tom, two French guys living in the United States, explained. But some words, and their English pronunciations, are so common in English that it even influenced these two French: “we often have the habit to pronounce French words with an English accent when we speak English at the university.” If even French people adopt an English accent on French words, then couldn’t we say that this pronunciation is also right? 

That’s what Salzberg thinks, because the habit then creates the norm: “All languages that borrow words will adapt them to their pronunciation and, often, usage rules, and that’s totally normal, since languages are a living, evolving thing.”

Alex and Tom chose to transcribe this funny language difference into videos on Instagram and TikTok. “All our friends at university laugh when we speak English.” They tell. “So we tell ourselves why not doing videos called ‘Hardest English words to pronounce’.” And it worked, because they now have 113 thousand followers on Instagram and 1,3 million on Tik Tok. Not so bad for French guys speaking English.

Languages are an interesting thing, especially when you dig into the links they all have with each other. French words in English are common, the contrary is also true, but the pronunciation and sometimes the meaning can be different. Did you know these words used in English were French? And their original pronunciation? Let us know in the comment section!

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About the author

Laurine Tiran

I'm a French student doing a Master's degree in International Politics at the University of Toulon, France.

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