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Pardonnez-moi, do you speak Frenglish?

With a few tricky English words borrowed from the French, it doesn’t always help us to think about how the French would say it.

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan says a colleague asked her about the pronunciation of the word “forte.” Is it one syllable, read as “fort,”or two syllables, pronounced “for-tay?”

Curzan says the answer seems to be both.

“The American Heritage usage panel has addressed this. Most of the panel likes it with two syllables, which would not be the French pronunciation,” she says. “The French would not pronounce the 't' – they would say ‘for.’”

Curzan says when the word is borrowed into English, it becomes “fort,” but a lot of people do say “for-tay.”

"We think this may be influenced by the Italian word “forte,” which is a musical term relating to loudness," Curzan says.

Then there’s the word “niche.”

Is it pronounced “nitch” or “neesh?”

“This was borrowed from the French in the 1600s and quickly became pronounced the English way, “nitch,” Curzan says.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, in the 1900s some people began to adopt a more French pronunciation, which sounds like  “neesh.”

“I have to say, some people think that “neesh” sounds a little too French, and there are apparently some people who are doing a kind of blend of both pronunciations, and saying something like ‘neetch,’ which rhymes with “bleach.”

And how do you pronounce the word “nee,” which is used before a woman’s maiden name if she’s changed her name after marriage?

“’Nay’ is how I would say it,” says Curzan.

Here’s another one: “homage.”

“When you brought this to my attention, I thought ‘how DO I say that word?’ I tend to say ‘HOM-edge’ or ‘OM-edge,’ Curzan says.

And if you were going to say it the French way, it would be “oh-MAHJ.”

Now put on your beret and go out for a nice croissant. 

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
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