Um…

Peplums. Picture source: http://heartsandpurses.blogspot.com/2015/01/peplum.html
Peplums. Picture source: http://heartsandpurses.blogspot.com/2015/01/peplum.html

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.

4 thoughts on “Um…”

  1. Thanks, I’d never heard of it in either language! I thought you might actually be joking this time round, but found such great pictures of the dresses online that prove they do exist 🙂 I’m also impressed by your fascination with French pronunciation: most foreigners aren’t sensitive to the fine points of final Ms!

    Like

    1. I’m an academic, so I run into “symposium” a lot, and an informatics person, so I run into “forum,” and I specialize in medical language, so I read things with “sternum” in them, and…you see where I get into trouble with -um.

      Liked by 1 person

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