French has two vowels that we Americans typically can neither hear the difference between, nor produce the difference between. One is called a high back tense rounded vowel–it’s the vowel in words like food. The other one is called a high front tense rounded vowel. We don’t have that one in English–except, some of us do. Actually, in my dialect, the vowel in food is more of a high front tense rounded vowel. The problem is, we Americans have either one or the other, but French has both; since we only have one or the other, we can’t hear the difference between them, and we can’t produce the difference between them.
Often when speaking French, in daily life an American can use context to have a good guess about which is being used. You’re not that likely to confuse j’ai dû (“I had to,” with the front vowel) with j’ai doux (“I had sweet,” whatever that would mean, with the back vowel) in the course of conversation. Similarly, I would suppose that French people can probably guess which vowel we’re trying to say, even if the failure to distinguish between them does give us a horrendous accent. However, every once in a while, the difference is crucial, and there’s no way to use context to differentiate. For example, I’m not the only person in the world to have complained about the difficulty of hearing the difference between au-dessus (with the front vowel), which means “above,” and au-dessous (with the back vowel), which means “below.” Sigh! (See the video above for how to pronounce and use these expressions.)
Awake at four in the morning today–jet lag–I ran into this vowel contrast within a single email. I was reading a message from the excellent One Thing In A French Day web site about the ordeal of getting the kids up and out the door to school after the spring time change, and having to validate your Pass Navigo. We’ll get to exactly what the Pass Navigo is in a second–for the moment, let it suffice to say that this email caught my eye, because my Pass Navigo is the major enabler of my freedom of movement in Paris. The email contained the word pouce, “thumb,” with the back vowel, and puce, “flea,” with the front vowel. (The words are otherwise pronounced identically. As we’ll see below, there is a gender contrast, so there can be a contextual clue from that. But, on with the examples.)
Regarding the travails of getting the kids out the door after the time change, the email tells us: Lisa qui était déjà allongée sur le canapé, avec le pouce dans la bouche, a soupiré. “Lisa, who was already stretched out on the couch with her thumb in her mouth, sighed.” Regarding the Passe Navigo, here’s the explanation given in the email: la carte munie d’une puce qui permet de voyager, avec un abonnement, en Ile-de-France. “The card equipped with a chip that lets one travel, with a subscription, in Ile-de-France.” (Il-de-France is the part of France in which Paris is located.)
The cafe in my father’s neighborhood isn’t open this early in the morning, so I haven’t even had a cup of coffee, and already I’ve had to grapple with these two challenging vowels! Here are more subtleties, for those who are interested in the details of the French lexicon:
- le pouce: thumb; big toe; inch. As an exclamation: “truce!”
- la puce:
- In computing: chip
- In typography: a bullet point
- (ma) puce: (my) sweetie, sweetheart, darling.