Beware of the French 'u'

It's been quite a while since I've posted on here, but I feel compelled to share with those of you whose French pronunciation may still be a bit dodgy at times (like mine, as this story will illustrate), the potential pitfalls of not getting the French 'u' sound quite right.

I speak French pretty fluently, enough to work here with a posh investment bank in Paris and to get by with local needs and friends and family etc (the missus being a native of Burgundy). I've now lived in the Auvergne for coming up seven years, after visiting the country very often over the previous 30-odd years. And all is now coming together for us - after six years of renting, we've finally managed to buy a house in the Puy-de-Dôme.

And it's that house that raised the warning signals about 'u'.

In two brackets, by the way, I should have been wary about making sure to pronounce 'u' as clearly as possible - as in 'ee-ew', as opposed to 'yoo' or 'oo'. Because 40-odd years ago, not long after leaving school, I was serving my infatuation with all things French by getting to know the French girls who used to come to our town (Southport) on exchange visits, and benefiting from my relationships with them to learn their slang way of speaking, which of course bore no resemblence to what we'd learned in school.

A couple of said girls managed to get temporary jobs in the Co-op supermarket where I was working, so that was great - at 18, I could 'show off' to the other staff in the canteen speaking French with them. At least it was great until one evening at closing time, when they were leaving and I called 'Salut' to them (thinking it was their cool way to say bye-bye - or ta-ra, where I come from).

They looked at me, first aghast, then appalled, then simply coldly. They had heard not 'salut' but 'salaud', which is the male version of 'salope', meaning 'slut', or similar. They were, needless to say, not happy. It took me a while to work out why.

So, back to the present, and our new (old) house, which has lots of exposed beams in the ceilings. Very nice. Exposed beams in French, as most of you probably know, is 'poutres apparentes'. Note, 'pou..' as in 'poo'. Perhaps you can see where this is going.

Because when I was talking with my French mother-in-law about the house, she thought I said that the house has a lot of prostitutes on show. She had heard what I said as 'putes apparentes', which is a whole other bouilloire de poisson. I had mis-pronounced the 'ou' sound for 'u'.

Much hilarity ensued among the French people around me at that moment, with several of them quickly dreaming up 'Far Side' style cartoons of ladies of disrepute hanging from our ceilings.

So to avoid similar embarrassment, make sure you distinguish aurally between 'u' (ee-ew, with a pursed mouth) and 'ou' (simply oo).

Someone must have been having a joke when they decided that above and below should be very similar in pronunciation, but then at least it wasn't stop and go.

oh yes dessus and dessous - I now use a hand action to say en haut ou en bas followed by dessus or dessous (sinking under as its heavier with the o) it is ridiculous how much I struggle with this. My kids have learnt at school and have no problem whatsoever but I still can't get the u sound correct.

Also need to be careful with cats tail, elbow and the neck....queue, coude, cou...not to be mistaken with cul (butt/ass or one's sex). On another matter talking about cats - don't pronouce the T on chat or that gives chatte which is a word for a different type of pussy...