French and English have pretty different sets of vowels. (Vowel inventories is the technical term in linguistics.) One of the basic facts of humans and languages is that we can be unable to hear differences between sounds that we don’t have in our native tongue, and each of the two languages has lots of vowels that the other doesn’t have. When I say that we can’t hear differences between sounds, that implies that there are sounds with which we confuse them, and which sounds those are is not random at all: people categorize the sounds of their language in pretty structured, principled ways, and when they fail to distinguish the sounds in other languages, that “failure to distinguish” manifests itself as (se traduit par, I think, in French) putting sounds from the other guy’s language into the same category as some sound in your language.
The principles by which this kind of thing gets structured can be described in terms of the articulatory characteristics of the sounds (what you do with your mouth parts to make them), the acoustic characteristics of the sounds (what the waveform would look like if you graphed it), and the auditory perception system (how your brain and your peripheral nervous system interpret incoming sounds). I mention this not because I think that you’ll be fascinated by the details of the effects of, say, Helmholtz resonators versus two-tube models (see the picture) of vowels, but so that you know that there’s a reason that you (if you’re a native speaker of English), me, and all of our fellow “Anglo-Saxons” (a term which seems to be falling out of use in France today, but which I still find amusing, since if there’s anything that I’m not, it’s an Anglo-Saxon) are confusing the same vowels.
For English speakers (Americans, anyway–I don’t know very many of our friends from the Commonwealth and wouldn’t presume to speak for them), one problem pair in French is the vowels that are spelt ou and u. Technically, those are both what are called high tense rounded vowels (here’s a post with a link to a nice video about them from the Comme une française YouTube series). In English, we only have the vowel that’s written ou, which is more or less the same vowel that we have in the words who’d and boot. We tend to hear French words with the vowel spelt u as the vowel spelt ou. Both of them are super-common in French; here are some examples, from the amazing site MinimalPairs.net (y is the International Phonetic Alphabet symbol for the French vowel spelt u):
Most of the time, even us Anglo-Saxons (see the disclaimer above) can get by on context: there just aren’t that many times when the situation doesn’t let you figure out whether your waiter is asking you about joue (cheek) versus jus (juice), or when the rest of the sentence won’t give you a pretty good guess as to whether your interlocutor just said coup (a blow, roughly) or q (the letter of the alphabet).
However: there’s one French “minimal pair”–set of two words that only differ by a single sound–that can pretty much always show up in the same context. To wit: au dessus and au dessous. What those mean: roughly, over and under. The only difference in the sounds of those is the ou (which we have in English) of under, and the u of over. Have you seen my cigarettes? Yeah, they’re (on top of/underneath) your sweater. Would you do me a favor and put this (on/under) that box? It happens all the time.
To wit: I was feeling badly in need of an actual meal the other day, but too tired to cook after work. Not a problem, as there’s a little Breton place right across the street from the metro station that’s popular for take-out. I popped in on my way home and ordered a couple gallettes de sarazin–a buckwheat crêpe–one a complet (“with everything”), and one with zucchini and cheese. The nice lady brought them out to me in the bag that you see in the picture, and explained: The complet is on the (top/bottom), and the gratinée is on the (top/bottom).
Fuck: my old nemesis, au-dessus and au-dessous. I gave her a baffled look. She gave me a baffled look right back: what could I possibly not be understanding?? We’d just had an involved conversation on the topic of why I should really be topping off my dinner with her home-made apple crumble (her position on the topic) and why my general fatness suggested that I should not, in fact, be doing so (my position), so why would I suddenly be confused by something that any French toddler would understand? She looked at me for a bit, with that look on her face that means Is this bizarre foreigner jerking me around, or what?, and then finally tried again: en haut–gratinée. En bas–complet. No verbs, no pronouns, none of that fancy stuff–two prepositions, two nouns.
Message received. I left a good tip in hopes of maintaining some semblance of normalcy in the relationship, ’cause I am, in fact, de souche Bretonne (half, anyway), and I do love my cider and chicken gizzards, and that restaurant is the best place in the neighborhood to get them. It’s not like there aren’t other good Breton restaurants in Paris, but this one’s mine, damn it.