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I am always in a predicament when I have to read passages to my students that have words derived from the French language. I have learnt French to a passable level and am particular about their pronunciations. Issues arise when I have to deal with words such as 'renaissance', 'deja vu', 'par excellence', etc. Should I pronounce them in the French way or in the derived English way? Please note that my students are all Indians, and for them French is quite an alien and unpronounceable language.

The same applies when I teach History. I prefer to pronounce Bastille, Robespierre, Mirabeau, Versailles in the French way and I do teach them the same. It would not be correct to pronounce Jacques as Jack I feel. But what about an immensely popular word like Paris? Should I pronounce it as Parh-ee or as Pah-ris, i.e. the French way or the Anglicised way?

Point to note: When pronouncing Les Miserables, we always make a big point about pronouncing it the French way. The same applies for 'reconnaissance' and 'genre'.

It will be a big help if someone can shed light on this.

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    Just a note-- the reason the city is called Paris is because the name of that city was borrowed into the English language before the French language lost the pronunciation of the final s -- it isn't a "spelling pronunciation," just a case of English being more phonologically conservative with final consonants (and less phonologically conservative with the vowels). – hunter Mar 23 '14 at 7:23
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I'm... glad you asked this question. English has a strange way of taking words from other languages and punching them into shape. As with every last rule in English, there are exceptions and special cases to pronouncing French words in English.

Most of it (or so I believe) boils down to convenience. People prefer 'Parriss' instead of 'Parree' simply because the spelling has an 's' on the end, while they will happily not pronounce the 't' in 'ballet'. The only way I can attempt to shed some light on this is to go through every example you've set.

'Renaissance' is its own word in English with its own definition. In this case, you would pronounce it in an English way. Or, for someone who enjoys French, no one would mind a French pronunciation as long as it was accompanied by a heavy English accent.

'Deja vu' is a phrase we stole. 'Deja' isn't in a standard English dictionary, and neither is 'vu'. Thus, you would pronounce it as a Frenchman. 'Par excellence' is also a phrase, so a French feel is the best way to approach it.

History is slightly more difficult. I am no expert, so I'd recommend asking another teacher / historian etc for specific words. I can say with confidence though that 'Versailles' is pronounced in a very French way, as it would sound nasty in an English accent.

'Les Miserables' is part of the culture of Britannia. Everyone is aware of it. And, in English pronunciation, 'miserables' is hardly a fitting name for a show of such majesty (or so its media frenzy would suggest). Whenever culture (film, plays, books, people) is involved, chances are the pronunciation is French.

So... how to make this general. A big challenge for me. I would say: names, cultural references, words that would sound horrible in English, and phrases keep their native pronunciation; places, words we have adopted, and words that would be difficult to pronounce use English pronunciation.

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    A lot of it has to do with the date of borrowing. Since "ballet" was borrowed after the French stopped pronouncing word-final t, we don't pronounce it either; same with valet and chalet. On the other hand, we still pronounce the word final-t in forest, because we borrowed that word much earlier (in fact, the s of forest has even been dropped in French spelling). Same with the word-final s of Paris, etc. – hunter Mar 23 '14 at 8:13
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English has an estimated 29% words of French origin in its lexicon (see Foreign language influences in English). The words were not all introduced at the same time and each word has its own assimilation history.

  • A word like Paris has now been fully Anglicised and should be pronounced the English way: /ˈpæ.ɹɪs/
  • Déjà vu is still considered a foreign, but highly recognisable phrase and should be pronounced (almost) the French way
    • English: /ˌdeɪ.ʒɑː ˈvuː/ (day-zha-voo, not de-dja-voo)
    • French: /de.ʒa.vy/ (de-zha-vu)
  • Envelope is almost completely Anglicised with most people now pronouncing it /ˈɛn.və.ləʊp/ (RP) and a few people still pronouncing it /ˈɒn.və.ləʊp/ (RP). The difference is whether the initial syllable is "en" (the English way) or "on" (the French way)

You should pronounce words the English way when it is different from the French way. Or, in other other words, don't try to Anglicise French words if they are not already Anglicised.

I would suggest that if you are unsure of the usual English pronunciation that you consult a good dictionary with pronunciation such as Wiktionary in most cases. One of the differences between Wiktionary and a lot of other dictionaries is that it shows all different languages on the same page if they the same spelling. For French and English this happens a lot so you can compare how each word is spoken in both languages.

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