Monday, February 8, 2010

Word: Fleur-de-lis

I was amazed to read in yesterday's NYT that the French pronunciation of fleur-de-lis (or fleur-de-lys) sounds the final s: "fluhr duh LEES," in the TImes's transcription. Amazed not because the pronunciation is odd, but because I've never heard that there was an alternative to the usual American "fluhr duh LEE." I mean, the world is full of people reminding each other that vichyssoise and coup de grace (sorry, no time to find accent marks) do sound those final consonants. And just last week, I was reading that Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, would not (in French) sound the t in Port: "pore oh prahns," it would be.  So why, in all the decades since I studied Little Lessons in French in an antiquated Book of Knowledge encyclopedia, have I never heard the pronunciation police address fleur-de-lys?

I think it must be because the Anglicized pronunciation has been grandfathered (or great-grandfathered) into our vocabulary. Charles Harrington Elster, the pronunciation maven, doesn't list the word in his "Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations." The 1889 Century Dictionary doesn't have an entry for fleur-de-lis, but it has the verb fleurdelised, "adorned or ornamented with fleurs-de-lis," and the sole pronunciation given is (in Times style) "fluhr-duh-LEED." My 1969 American Heritage and my circa 1963 Funk & Wagnalls give LEE as the pronunciation of the singular, but oddly, both sound the s in the plural: fleurs-de-lis is "fluhr duh LEES."

So maybe I've never even heard the French-style fleur-de-lis; certainly I've never heard anyone's pronunciation corrected. But if there are people out there trying to re-Frenchify the word, do let me know how the campaign is going.


Stan said...

I seem to remember learning the French pronunciation in my teens — either in school or in France — so I've sounded the s ever since. It comes up so infrequently in conversation, though, that I couldn't claim to have campaigned for it!

In the plural, fleurs-de-lis (or fleurs-de-lys), the ending is voiced: "leez". There is is some discussion here that suggests pronunciation of the s was dropped through hypercorrection.

GeorgiaGirl said...

Just yesterday I was listening to an audio book being read by a British speaker, and was astounded to hear him pronounce valet with a final T: VAL-it. When I looked it up and discovered that that's in fact the way it's pronounced in the UK, I was horribly embarrassed that I'd never known that.

A free online encyclopedia that shall remain nameless says "Since the 16th century, the word has traditionally been pronounced as rhyming with pallet, though an alternative pronunciation, rhyming with chalet, as in French, is now common, especially in American English."

Gee. Who knew? I certainly didn't.

empty said...

(Presumably by LEES the NYT author means LEASE, not LEAZE.)

My 1982 Webster's New World gives two pronunciations for the singular: first LEE, second LEASE. For the plural it gives only LEAZE!

Fowler's Modern English Usage has only LEE for singular and plural.

I grew up assuming the s was silent in French and therefore in English; years ago I picked up (somewhere) the fact that the s is not silent (in French); and ever since I have been unsure how to say it: it's one of those could sound ignorant either way words.

Of course it doesn't come up much, but even in the silence of your own head you don't want to sound ignorant, or even lacking in conviction, do you?

Charles Matthews said...

My Webster's New World gives -lee as the first pronunciation, -lees as the second. The Google dictionary includes a recorded pronunciation, which ends with -lee. But Wikipedia has the phonetic transcription as flœʁ də lis. Weird, huh? I wonder if the -lee pronunciation started as a hypercorrection like the one that led some people to pronounce coup de grâce (I have the international keyboard turned on) as coo duh grah?

Picky said...

Both pronunciations of valet are used in the UK, GeorgiaGirl. As usual with BrE there's a class difference, I'm afraid. With-the-t is posher than the Frenchified version.

Urbane Legend said...

Re: Valet - I've actually heard the guide for whether or not to pronounce the 't' as follows: a valet rhyming with chalet is a fellow who parks your car for you, a valet rhyming with pallet is a gentleman's personal servant.

Unknown said...

It's a weird exception in French. The "s" is pronounced to distinguish the word from "lit" (bed). As my college French teacher told us, "bed-flower" would have an entirely different connotation.

Ernie said...

Of course the s is sounded in "Fleur de Lys." Why do people go to an English dictionary for this? Go to a French, or French-English dictionary. Americans mispronounce many foreign words with the intention of sounding "correct" or erudite. I call these mispronunciations "pretentious speech." I taught French, Italian and German diction for several years at the university level.

Adrian Nagy said...

As a French speaker, I can say with authority that it is not really a pronunciation problem at all, but rather a spelling one. "Fleur de lis" literally means "lily flower" but there are two ways of spelling it: "lis" and "lys". This is because it's an old word and during periods of foreign influence in France, many words that were spelled with i began being spelled with y (just like king, which is spelled as both "roi" and "roy"). But y is not really a French letter, and most French people make a point of this by changing the pronunciation by stressing it. Therefore, if it's spelled as "lis" it should be pronounced LEE, because a lone s after an i is normally silent in French. If it is spelled "lys" however, it should be pronounced LISS, like in "kiss", although the s sound isn't that hard. ( But NOT LEES, no one says Fleur de LEES!!!)

Long story short, it is either "fleur de lis" = Fluhr de LEE, or it is "fleur de lys" = Fluhr de LIS. Neither "lis" nor "lys" should ever be pronounced LEES.

Maggie MacIsaac said...

I think perhaps it is pronounced "liss" in Quebec, and maybe the U.S., while in France it is pronounced "lee". I am from Quebec and have always pronounced it as "liss". However, it could be confusing in France, because the French word for bed is "lit", pronounced "lee". So, it is possible that the person listening would hear "bed flower".
My pronunciation was constantly being corrected when I was in Paris.

Eben said...

I lived in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, in the South of France during my work on my graduate degree. I, too, was surprised to learn that the proper French pronunciation for Fleur-de-lis is " FLEUR de LEESE" Yes. The final "s" is pronounced.

Flower of the lily.

Too, the proper spelling for "bistro" is "Bistrot" - always add that final "t".