In English, the spelling of a word doesn’t tell you how to pronounce it—it just gives you some clues about how to pronounce it. Through, though, tough, and plough are famous examples. French is the same. But, even more so, it’s the case that in French, knowing how to pronounce a word only gives you the slightest clue how to spell it. In a previous post, we looked at several ways to spell words that sound like mur. Here are nine different words that all sound identical in French. Specifically, they all sound like the English word oh:
- o: this is the letter of the alphabet.
- ô: this is the poetic “oh”–“Oh, bird of my soul, fly away now, For I possess a hundred fortified towers.” (Rumi)
- au: in theory, this means “to the,” but you see it in lots of other uses, like things that would be compound nouns in English— for example, pain au chocolat, a delicious chocolate-filled square croissant.
- aux: “to the” again, but this time plural.
- eau: water.
- eaux: waters.
- haut: high (male singular)
- hauts: high (male plural)
- os: bone
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the same letters or letter combinations always sound the same. My favorite is notre and nôtre. Despite the fact that the words o and ô are pronounced the same (see above for their meanings), notre and nôtre, which mean almost the same thing (roughly “our” and “ours”), are pronounced quite differently.
Incidentally: the technical term for words that sound the same as other words is homophones. You see them in lots of languages. They may or may not also be homographs—words that are spelt the same. We talked about the ubiquity of ambiguity in human languages in a previous post–homophones are a source of ambiguity in spoken language, and homographs are a source of ambiguity in written language.
Can you add any more words to my list of French words that are pronounced o? If so, how about putting them in the Comments section?