Managing to get some noodles: tougher than you might think

French spelling and English spelling are equally whack, in that in both systems, the way that a word is spelt doesn’t tell you how to pronounce it–it just gives you hints about how to pronounce it.  If you see lead, do you pronounce it [lid] (present tense of the verb to lead) or [lèd] (the metal)?  What about the first r in February?  Neither language has a goal of reflecting pronunciation in spelling–rather, the writing systems of both languages seek to reflect the meanings of words in the spelling.  So, we spell electric, electrician, and electricity with a c in all three forms, even though that second c is pronounced differently in all three words (k in electric, sh in electrician, and s in electricity)–the spelling reflects the fact that there’s a shared element in the meaning of all three words, rather than trying to reflect the pronunciation.  French spelling works pretty much the same way.

Lately I’ve been struggling with the French letter sequences ouille and ouilles.  They’re actually quite simple to pronounce (for an English speaker)–[uj] in the International Phonetic Alphabet, or something like the oo of food followed by a y.  I think I have a mental block related to my inability to accept the fact that such a long sequence of letters could correspond to such a short sound.  Also, I get tripped up when they’re not at the end of the world.  Um, word.  Here are some examples–a combination of material from Christopher and Theodore Kendris’s Pronounce it perfectly in French and my own random adventures:

  • la nouille: [la nuj] noodle
  • les nouilles: [le nuj] noodles
  • des nouilles: [de nuj] what you actually have to say to the server in the cafeteria at work if you want some noodles
  • la citrouille: [la citruj] pumpkin–there was pumpkin soup all over Paris last fall
  • les citrouilles: [le citruj] pumpkins
  • la grenouille: [gʀənuj] frog. Transcription from
  • les grenouilles: frogs
  • l’andouillette: [ɑ̃dujɛt] kind of sausage.  Transcription from
  • se debrouiller: [debruje] to manage, to figure things out for oneself
  • la rouille: [ruj] rust
  • rouiller: [ruje] to rust
  • barbouiller de: [barbuje] to smudge with

Se débrouiller is an especially important verb in my life, as I frequently berate myself for not being able to do it in France.

English note: you probably shouldn’t use the English word whack as an adjective (meaning something like crazy, not sensible, not good) unless you’re a hell of a lot younger than I am, but I include it here for didactic purposes.

Linguistics geekery: we say that a spelling system that mostly tries to reflect pronunciation is phonological.  We say that a spelling system that mostly tries to reflect meaning is morphological.  We say that a spelling system that mostly tries to reflect the history of words is etymological.  The French spelling system is usually described as etymological, particularly with respect to diacritics (accent marks) that reflect sounds that have disappeared over the course of history (a common source of French accent marks in the spelling system).  I think that morphological spelling systems can often also be described as etymological, but can’t swear to that.  Fun ouille words welcomed in the comments, native speakers…


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