Sunday, July 15, 2007

Unlocking the French "R"

Serrurerie. A locksmith's shop. I pass it every day. I can say the word locksmith just English, that is. En francais, I'm fluent enough that I can even pronounce the word serrure ("lock") using my hard-earned correct French r. But to say serrurerie? Forget it. It is not happening. It requires too many mellifluous, throaty French r's in too short a time frame. I practice pronouncing it smoothly. Serru-re-rie. To no avail: every time I try, I find that I've barely recuperated from rolling out the first r when the next r and the next r need to come flying out of my tonsils.

I discover this dilemma when innocently asking my proprietaire if there is a locksmith who can make a copy of a key. "Madame, est-ce qu'il y a une serruheuh-hlerie...," I end up gargling, the pitch of my voice sliding from its habitual soprano to a gutteral baritone in the space of five words.

Apparently I am not alone in this; many Anglophones with decades of practice in phonetics classes, language labs, and even living extensively in France, have triumphantly mastered the French r, but their exhausted epiglottis just comes to a dead halt on serrurerie. Conquering just one French r, of course, is the bête noire of French majors and their long-suffering professors -- so learning to say it three times in rapid succession is the Final Frontier. I am not even near the edge.

A while ago, when I was a French teacher, I remember trying to train my students to pronounce the French r, using a clever method I'd just read about in a language journal. It went something like this. First say, a-ab. Repeat that several times. A--AB ... A-AB... A-AB. Then a-hab. A--HAB, A-HAB, A-HAB. Then while your throat is thus warmed up and newly phlegm-free, you take the plunge. You cough out, a-hrab. A--HRAB... A-HRAB... A-HRAB. In theory, with time, the r should be forthcoming. Nice idea, but it was a total flop in my class of 8th-graders. "But Mrs. L," they insisted, "like, why are you trying to get us to say, like, Arab?"

It was futile. I made no more Henry-Higginsesque efforts in French elocution.

My own acquisition of the "proper" French r came quite by surprise. The summer before entering college, I was an au pair in France, and one of my young charges was named Corinne. I stumbled along for the first month of vacation calling her something that vaguely resembled Co-heen. Then one August evening I was calling her à table, and I yodelled, "Corrrrine!" Out flew that French r like a lark rising to the treetops. Startled, pleased... thrilled, I wandered around the garden repeating "Corinne, Corinne, Corinne," like a singsong lunatic, afraid that the this had been a one-shot deal. But it stuck with me, that French r. At dinner that night, no one else in the French family noticed that suddenly, magically, I had IT! It was my happy secret, like losing my no-French-r virginity. In an instant, I had become a different person.

But that summer I had no need of a locksmith. In all the years of subsequent French speaking, reading, and writing, I never found the need to croak out the word serrurerie. But if you live in Paris and you have keys, chances are that someday you will have to face the serrurerie-pronunciation beast. You must do so at your own risk. If you insert three plain-ruh-ruh American r's in the word, you sound like Lucy drunk on Vitameatavegamin: suh-roo-roo-ree. Try to trill it correctly with the French r and your poor uvula gets chafed with a bad case of friction burn (diction burn?).

Here, take the keys. Go ahead and give serrurerie a try. Then spritz a little Chloraseptic and call me in the morning.


Unknown said...

Very interesting article. I really enjoyed reading. I lost the keys from the front door of my house. And I called a locksmith and he is also said that will come in 30 minutes, but he came in 25 minutes. And I was surprised; because I thought that he will come after one hour, cause locksmith usually has a lot of work. He opened the door in 5 minutes. So, the locksmith was very handy for me in this tight situation.

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Locksmiths in Paris are a wonderful breed. Where would we be without them? But I wonder -- did your serrurier charge you much?

I haven't needed a locksmith to open my door for me, yet. But one friend told me a horror tale of having to pay 1000 euros to get back into her apartment after being locked out. Yikes! I hope that price was the exception, not the rule.

But I still can't pronounce serrurerie correctly. I'm working on it!

Anonymous said...

i was reading a book of sagan essays and came across the word, "rhododendron" and ever since I've been repeating it in my head endlessly.

tu peux sentir les rhododendrons?
ouais! j'adore les rhododendrons!
moi, je les trouve bizarres.
les rhododendrons? non, les rhododendrons sont pas bizarre. les rhododendrons sont supers!

and so on and so forth.

your blog is incredibly well written and insightful. thank you.

Anonymous said...

The one that ALWAYS got me was "Chirurgien" -- you? puis il y a aussi "cimetiere" and when my kids were in CM1, those blasted adjectifs "qualificatifs"

See you around Paris!


Lea the Firebender said...

Ok so I have a French speaking quiz this Monday, and the teacher said we HAVE to use the French sounding R (which I could just not do :O). So I, on Saturday :), searched Google for help pronouncing the French r (almost as a last resort). I happened to stumble on this website, and tried the "Arab" thing. It TOTALLY worked. Thank you so much you might have just saved my butt on this quiz


Karen said...

As I am notoriously bad at pronouncing anything non-English, I also Googled this to no avail... but after several tries of this method, all of the sudden I realized my soft palate was doing something funny. Thank you so much! My first step in sounding less American! :)

Judy said...

The worst word, for me, is rhume. My French friend Philippe was quite cruel to me when I tried to pronounce it. It has not only the r sound but the awful "u" as in "tu." The combination of the two sounds is impossible!

maan said...

i stumbled upon your blog while doing some research for an article i am writing about a French chef. it brings me back to my college days when my professor would call me for recitation if only for the pleasure of saying my name (marie antonette) in its correct pronunciation. :-)

William said...

I don't think the native speakers pronounce it as:


It's written like that phonetically but remember that the 'e caduc' often gets dropped in speech.

It may be easier to pronounce it if you think of it as


Think of how "Acheter" is pronounced "Ash-té" instead of "A-she-té"

Then, you can chain the ending sound of "serrure" to "rie" and it would sound smoothly: "serru-rie"

Polly-Vous Francais said...

William, that is absolutely brilliant. I just tried it and... it worked! Now all I need to do is lock myself out of an apartment and call a locksmith. Merci mille fois!

Gordon Stubbs Locksmith said...

Wow This post is what i am looking for it is so very interesting i love to read this. thanks for sharing this.

tesalonica said...

apparently your method of a-ab ahab ahrab is working for me. I have a quiz on pronunciation and I can't get the R :D thanks

tesalonica said...

apparently your method of a-ab ahab ahrab is working for me. I have a quiz on pronunciation and I can't get the R :D thanks

CGC said...

Je vais essayer ça avec mes étudiants anglophones,car m'appelant Corinne j'ai un double intérêt en la matière. Bravo pour votre blog, je n'ai lu que deux billets mais j'adore l'écriture et le style.
Pas de tuyau pour les francophones pour prononcer le TH par hasard?

Polly-Vous Francais said...

CGC, Wow le TH n'est pas donnee... comme toutes le prononciations en anglais. La difference entre THird et THis? Comment expliquer?

Anonymous said...

Thanks! The a-hab trick worked really well for me.

Unknown said...

Wow, I'm so glad I found this blog. Lots of great information and tips. I'm cursed with the American southern draw, so speaking French is a true challenge. I love the language tho and not giving up. The French "R" is almost impossible for me to pronounce but I will try these tips. Thanks :)

Anonymous said...

I have an oral French exam coming up and I tried the gargling and the "arab" thing as well, but my "R's" are very inconsistent and come out more like "hhuruh". Also, "prefererai" always gets me. Help! Qu'est -ce que je fais??
My throat hurts.

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Dear Anonymous,
Good luck on your oral exam! Ooh, prefererai is another toughie. Practice, practice, and listen to French books on tape or French news online. Bon courage!

Malcolm said...

Funny article. It has happened to me of having an "epiphany" moment while learning to pronounce, just at home alone, when I really get the right sound. Then I start repeating for an hour because I want to exactly remember what I am doing, otherwise it can get lost.

But the way, there are two different 'r' variants in current French:

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