No French needed to pronounce 'fiancée'

Mar 31, 2013

We've all been there: You come across a word in a written text and realize, to your embarrassment, that you haven't a clue how to pronounce it. On this edition of "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller and Professor Anne Curzan discuss why the pronunciations of those tricky little words cause us the most strife.

What should you do when you come across one of these words? As Anne Curzan did when she encountered with the word "islet" during one of her lectures at the University of Michigan, just ask the audience.

"So I get up to the word, and I think, 'Well I could just mumble it or something,' but then I think, 'Well that's not appropriate.' So then I turn to the class and I say, 'How do you all pronounce that word?' And they say, 'We don't.'"

Unlike the word "islet," however, some of these mispronounced words are an unavoidable part of our everyday language, even though we may butcher the pronunciation daily. For host Rina Miller, as a child she battled with how to pronounce her favorite movie theater candy, "nonpareil." According to Curzan, this is because it is a borrowed name.

"It's [pronounced] 'non-parell,' and it is a French borrowing, and some of those French borrowings are where we run into some trouble with pronunciation," explains Curzan.

For those who can't speak a lick of French, or other languages for that matter, have no fear. According to Curzan, once foreign borrowings become adapted into English, they take on their own specific pronunciations.

Examples include the Italian-borrowed "balcony," and the French-borrowed "fiancée." These words, though not sounding like their originals, still have the same meaning -- and no French is required.