Emmanuel Macron: a Pronunciation Guide

Emmanuel Macron will be inaugurated as French president today, so congratulations to him. We’ll be hearing his name a lot over the next five years, and perhaps more, but we probably won’t be hearing it pronounced exactly the same way.

For most of us, it probably seems pretty straightforward. Looking it, especially from an English-speaking perspective, we can probably imagine that it sounds pretty much as it looks. Two syllables, Mac as in Macintosh, and ron as in, well, Ron. Even if we passively listen to a French speaker, that’s what we might hear. But cast your ears over the following video from French TV, and really notice how they say it:

There are a few differences from how we’d pronounce it if it were an English name. First, even though the second syllable is the stressed one, there’s still a noticeable emphasis on the first part. It’s not Muh-cron, it’s Mah-cron. But most importantly, the sound of the -on is very different. The O is very clipped, a sound quite common in French, but not found in English. And the N has a pronunciation that’s very strange to English speakers. It’s kind of half-pronounced, somewhere between being silent and being fully pronounced.

Now I don’t mean to criticize those who don’t pronounce the name exactly as native French speakers do. Why should I expect someone not comfortable with French to adopt the exact features of the language’s pronunciation? But I’m curious about how we pronounce words from other languages. I’ve thought about this before, but I was inspired to write specifically about M. Macron after watching a recent episode of the popular French news/chat programme Quotidien. While reporting on his victory in the election, they featured a selection of clips of various foreign reporters pronouncing his name, with subtitles spelling their wildly-varying efforts phonetically (from a French perspective). I wasn’t sure of the tone of the section at first: were they mocking their pronunciation, annoyed, or simply finding it funny while understanding that it was only natural non-French speakers would not pronounce his name perfectly? I choose to think it was the latter, as unlike other similar French programmes, the humour of Quotidien isn’t usually mean-spirited. Plus, immediately after, they were speaking with a guest about the firing of FBI Director Zhemmes Cummay, so it would be bit rich to mock the pronunciation of Macron taking that into account!

I had mixed feelings thinking about this, because I think we have an instinct to notice when someone pronounces something differently, and we feel that it’s not really correct. But I also understand why we pronounce things differently. As I’ve written about before, we’re not always comfortable pronouncing words from other languages. This is particularly true if a word features sounds not found in our native tongue, as Macron does for English speakers, and Comey for French speakers. It can be quite embarrassing to put yourself out of your comfort zone, and use sounds you don’t normally use. But no matter much I understand this, I still feel a moment of exasperation whenever I hear an English name pronounced differently on French or Belgian TV and radio. And no matter how well-intended the piece on Quotidien, I’m sure at heart there was an element of incredulity at these foreigners’ mispronunciation of a simple two-syllable name.

Because no matter how liberal we are, we get tribal about our own language. It’s part of who we are, and we don’t like it when people do it differently, even when we completely understand why they do so. My idea for dealing with this is to file acceptable variations under “Accent.” If someone pronounces Macron without stressing the A at all, and pronouncing the N fully, I think it’s close enough to the exact pronunciation to be considered to be simply being said in an English-language accent, getting as close as possible to a French-speaker’s accent while using only sounds found in English. It’s simply the nature of our globalised word that we’re going to encounter and pronounce foreign names more commonly. As long as we make a decent effort to pronounce a name, I think that’s enough. Equally, we also need to accept how difficult it might be for speakers of other languages to pronounce words from our own. With the caveat of course that if someone pronounces something in a really funny way, it’s ok to laugh. We have to have some fun sometimes after all.

18 thoughts on “Emmanuel Macron: a Pronunciation Guide

  1. Considering what you’ve written here, and taking into account the fact that there have been dozens of different accents in England in centuries past, I can understand why my husband’s ancestors generated so many different pronunciations and spellings of their name: Goodnough, Goodenough, Goodenow, Goodnow, Goodno, Goodneno, Goodynow, etc. And when we lived in Quebec and francophones took a stab at it… 🙂

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  2. Am i the only one hearing the ‘R’ in the proper French pronunciation as a bit ‘W’-ish? I’m hearing: “Muh-kwon”. It’s subtle, but i can’t NOT hear it. I’m not super familiar with the French language, but i do notice this halway-between-‘R’-and ‘W’ thing in a few French words.

    I try my best to pronounce foreign words ( especially names!) correctly, but i’m sure they still sound wrong to the native speakers. When i hear people from other countries incorrectly pronounce English words, it doesn’t really bother me too much, especially when it’s obvious they’re at least giving it a go. Sometimes it can be quite endearing. But sometimes it’s a little annoying, like when Americans say “Aussie” with the hard ‘S’ sound. That’s quite unreasonable of me, really, as that’s how it looks like it should sound. I think the only thing that justifiably annoys me a bit is when people don’t make an effort to pronounce people’s names properly ( accents aside, of course). It’s not difficult to ask someone how their name should be pronounced. It just seems like basic respect. And even if you can’t ask them- if you were unsure, why wouldn’t you look it up? And if it’s a famous person or something, surely it should be even easier to get right? Like, it always irritates me when people call Björk “Byork”. If they can get what’s happening with the ‘J’, why not the umlaut over the ‘O’??? You’d think they’d say, “hmm, what’s going on with those little dots there? Maybe they mean something..”

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    • Living in Edinburgh for a while, and hearing some American students struggle to pronounce the city’s name, and streets like Cockburn St was always fun, but infuriating for the locals! Making an effort does go a long way. I can’t stand when someone pronounces a name only vaguely like how it’s spelled: at least look at the letters! The French R is absolutely between an English R and W. Not too surprising, as the position of your mouth and tongue while making both sounds is very similar. Sounds like that, that are close to sounds from our native tongue, but subtly different, are trickier than completely new sounds. Our brains will always try to use the sound we know instead.

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      • Haha, i can imagine!
        Totally. I find it hard to do that French ‘R’! But probably only because i’m generally trying to fit a French word into the context of an otherwise very Aussie sounding sentence- for instance, ( and i know this is quite silly) i find it really awkward to ask for a croissant at a bakery, because although my sense of decency wants to wants to pronounce it properly, it feels somehow…pretentious? coming out of my mouth, because all the other words in my sentence are not only English, but sound SO Aussie because of my accent, so my brain wants me to just pronounce it “krossont” for continuity (which is just AWFUL and okker sounding in an Aussie accent!). Sometimes it’s easier to just order a caramel slice to save face. Yet i’m certain that if i was learning French, and included it in a sentence with other French words, i’d be fine. How annoying our brains can be.

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        • Yeah, it really stands out when we pronounce a foreign word exactly as it is in its original language, in the middle of a very English-language phrase. There’s something specifically pretentious sounding about French words for some reason!

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