I’ve loved a small number of women and an even smaller number of dogs, and I’ve loved them a lot. But, I’ve never loved anyone as much as I love the word peplum. Wikipedia defines peplum as “a type of elongated hem resembling a short skirt, worn to lie over another garment, either another skirt such as a petticoat or underskirt, or breeches.” Mind you, I don’t love peplums–they can go really, really wrong. It’s the word that makes me smile.
So, you can imagine my excitement when I learnt that peplum (actually, péplum) is a French word. It refers to a kind of movie–what we would call in English a sword-and-sandal movie. That’s a genre of movie set in the classical world. Once I met my love in French, though, I had a problem: how do I pronounce it?
You see, I always get thrown off by the pronunciation of French words that end with -um. They sound odd–not typically French. I’ve now looked up a number of them, and it appears that they systematically violate the normal rules of pronunciation of word-final vowel-nasal sequences. Briefly, they get pronounced with a final [ɔm].
Why this is surprising: usually, if something is spelt in French with a vowel and then a nasal at the end of a word, it’s pronounced as a nasalized vowel. For example (pronunciations from WordReference.com):
- un: [œ̃] one; a, an
- le poing: [pwɛ̃] fist
- le sein: [sɛ̃] breast
- le flan: [flɑ̃] pudding, custard
- la faim: [fɛ̃] hunger, famine, desire
Furthermore, an m at the end of a word would not normally be pronounced as a consonant–it just nasalizes the vowel in front of it:
- la pomme d’Adam: [pɔm dadɑ̃] Adam’s apple
- le prête-nom: [pʀɛtnɔ̃] front man, figurehead
Also, the written vowel u is almost universally pronounced as the high tense front rounded vowel that is written as [y] in the International Phonetic Alphabet. The only counterexample to this that I know of is -um at the end of words, actually, so I won’t even bother with examples.
I found a web page with the amazing title 1,006 French words ending in M. If the page is to believed, the majority of French words that end in m actually end in um. Many of them have the air of the Scrabble word about them, though, and don’t have pronunciations listed in the dictionary. Here are the ones that I could find–as you can see, the pattern is consistent.
- le péplum: [peplɔm] sword-and-sandals movie
- le symposium: [sɛ̃pozjɔm] symposium
- le forum: [fɔʀɔm] forum; fair, show, exhibition; discussion group (Internet); court
- l’uranium (m.): [yʀanjɔm] uranium
- le sébum: [sebɔm] sebum, smegma
- le sternum: [stɛʀnɔm] sternum, breastbone
So, say the word peplum all you want, but think twice before you wear one–and be careful about asking for one in Paris, because if you ask for a sword-and-sandals movie in a clothing store, you’re going to get some funny looks.