Bastille Day was celebrated last month and it got me to thinking about all the ways the French have influenced life here in the USA. Just kidding. Seriously, all I want to do is complain today, so please allow me to vent about a totally inane aspect of our language that will most assuredly have very little impact on your day-to-day existence as writers or normal human beings. It’s a simple matter of pronunciation, and if it makes you feel any better, you may call me a Language Freak.
So, I live in Louisville, Kentucky, and as I’m often wont to do, I like to sit by the window on a sunny day and contemplate the Gallic influence that has contributed to our fair city’s cultural make up. Joking again. All kidding aside, though, there is a considerable amount of French heritage in this part of the country, and in Louisville much of it goes back to 1780, when Kentucky was still part of Virginia. In that year Thomas Jefferson was governor and the General Assembly approved a charter naming a city, our city, after King Louis XVI of France. Louisville. The idea was to honor the French troops who had come to the aid of the American colonies during the Revolutionary War. As a result, we in the know do not say “Lewis-ville” today, but rather drop the s for a more francophile “Louey-ville” (or one of the other s-less variants that appear on tourist tee shirts). Gratitude to the French royalty was expressed even further when the young river city adopted the noble iris or lily flower as its own symbol. But just how do you pronounce “fleur-de-lis” or “fleur-de-lys,” as it’s also spelled?
Enter the Language Freak.
Most English-speakers drop the s, and say something akin to “fleur-duh-lee” (flûr’də-lē‘ or flʊr’ də-lē‘ according to the International Phonetic Alphabet) – a conclusion reinforced by no small number of English dictionaries, including the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language – but is this the real way the word should be pronounced?
Although this humble Language Freak would by no means profess any degree of fluency in the French language, he has had enough college French and upper-level linguistics to offer his two centime’s worth to those who’d care to know the answer to this burning issue: The authentic pronunciation of “lis” in this case is actually more like the English word “lease,” but not so strong on the s. The ultra-correct way to say the word therefore is “fleur-duh-lees” – i.e. pronounced with the s – and not “fleur-duh-lee” with a silent s. Why? Because that’s the way Francophones say it.
“Non, non, non,” says Danielle Day, a native speaker of French and longtime colleague of mine. “Americans say it wrong! It is fleur-de-lees! – lees, lees, lees!” Although the French s is often silent at the end of words or syllables, this is not always the case. “If you say ‘lee’ without the s,” scolds Danielle, “it sounds like the French word for bed.”
Drop the s, and you’ll sound like many, many speakers of English who haven’t had the benefit of this quick tutorial; keep the s if you want to preserve a somewhat accurate pronunciation of the original.
On a pedagogical side note, the s in the English pronunciation of fleur-de-lis most likely fell away in a linguistic phenomenon known as hypercorrection. In this case of over-correcting, individuals overcompensate and “correct” things that weren’t wrong in the first place. A common example of hypercorrection in English occurs when speakers say things like “between you and I” in lieu of the correct “between you and me” because they have learned it is incorrect to say things like “You and me went to the store.” (It is incorrect to say “You and me went to the store” because “me” is an object, and in this case, a subject, “I,” would be in order. By the same token, it is grammatically incorrect to use “between you and I” because “I” is a subject and the preposition “between” requires an object, i.e. “me.” But you all knew that already.)
Then again, we might be dealing with a case of hyperforeignism, a linguistic phenomenon resulting from an unsuccessful attempt to apply the rules of a foreign language to a loan word, such as fleur-de-lis. Or it might be both. Ooh la la.
That’s most likely what happened to our sibilant friend, the s, in fleur-de-lis. Individuals with some knowledge of French pronunciation realized that the s went silent at the ends of many words in that language and liberally applied this rule to all French words, even those where the s needed to be pronounced.
Chances are, however, that if you say fleur-de-lis the correct way, i.e. with the final s, someone here will correct you. So, the question becomes: Do you really want to be a salmon swimming up the turgid stream of linguistic precision when you know most will not recognize you for the sophisticate that you truly are? I hate to say it, but I often choose to go it alone and say it the way it was intended, knowing that I’ll most likely end up in a linguistic throw-down. When I’m not itching for a phonetic fight, however, I just slum it and say it like everyone else.
I guess I’m sort of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde when it comes to these matters. I want to be a standard bearer for good speech and writing whenever possible, but at the same time I also realize that language is a living thing that changes and adapts to the needs and trends of the times. What about you? Are you someone who swims upstream when grammatical correctness and other issues of language are concerned, or do you just go with the flow?
So, think about the pressing issue of how you pronounce fleur-de-lis tonight as you and your sweetheart clink together your glasses of Beaujolais (where the s is indeed silent, by the way. And the B should be capitalized.) While you’re drinking your wine, I’ll be toying with the idea of contacting the noble citizenry of the nearby town of Versailles, which is pronounced “ver-sales” in Kentucky. Versailles, like they say in France? I somehow don’t see Kentuckians switching over to the real French pronunciation here, but, who knows? Stranger things have happened.