Kingsley Coman

In French broadcasts of the ongoing UEFA Euro 2016 tournament, the name of the French forward Kingsley Coman is almost universally pronounced as [kiŋs.lɛ.kɔ.man] by commentators, with the final n realized as a consonant. This is in contrast to what many learners of French would guess, based on the fact that a final n in French in combination with the preceding vowel usually produces a nasalized vowel. Specifically, a final -an is usually [ɑ̃], as in Jean [ʒɑ̃], Alban [al.bɑ̃], Florian [flɔ.ʁjɑ̃], and Lacan [la.kɑ̃].

In fact, according to Kingsley Coman himself, the original pronunciation of Coman in the French Caribbean territory of Guadeloupe, where his parents hail from, is [kɔ.mɑ̃] with a nasalized vowel. However, this makes it an exact homophone of the French word comment, “how”, which led to a lot of teasing growing up for the young Kingsley who was born in Paris. So he came into the habit of saying [kɔ.man]; he also thought it sounded better. But both [kɔ.man] and [kɔ.mɑ̃] are fine, he now says.

In English, therefore, it would be perfectly fine to use the pronunciation with the [n] instead of imitating the nasalized vowel. KOH-ma(h)n [ˈkoʊ̯.mɑːn] is a reasonable approximation. In American English, where French names are often given final syllable stress to imitate the phrase-final emphasis in French prosody, it could also be koh-MA(H)N [koʊ̯.ˈmɑːn].

French final n following a vowel is commonly realized as a consonant in names of foreign origin, such as Kevin [ke.vin] from English, Erwan [ɛ.ʁwan] from Breton, and Bergson [bɛʁk.sɔn] from Yiddish. The Arabic element Ben is [bɛn]. The element van which is common in Dutch names can be either [van] or [vɑ̃].

Final -en following a consonant is more likely to be [ɛn] in general—this occurs in words of learned Latin origin such as abdomen [ab.dɔ.mɛn] and lichen [li.kɛn]; however, examen is [ɛɡ.za.mɛ̃] with a nasalized vowel. So names ending in -en following a consonant are almost exclusively pronounced with [ɛn], not just in names of more obviously foreign origin such as Le Pen [lə.pɛn] and Le Guen [lə.ɡwɛn] from Breton but also in cases such as Suffren [sy.fʁɛn] and Lenglen [lɑ̃.ɡlɛn]. Belgian footballer Eden Hazard, also currently competing in UEFA Euro 2016, is likewise pronounced [e.dɛn|a.zaːʁ → e.dɛ.na.zaːʁ].

Similarly, Citroën is pronounced [si.tʁɔ.ɛn] in French, although in many other languages it is pronounced as if it had the nasalized vowel based on a mistaken assumption about the French pronunciation. Citroën Korea uses the form 시트로엥 Siteuroeng [ɕʰi.tʰɯ.ɾo.eŋ] instead of 시트로엔 Siteuroen [ɕʰi.tʰɯ.ɾo.en], for example (Korean approximates French nasalized vowels with the velar nasal [ŋ]). The name comes from a spelling-based French alteration of Dutch citroen [si.ˈtrun], where the oe digraph represents [u].

When the French final n is doubled as -nn, it is a guarantee that it is pronounced as a consonant, as in Yann [ʽjan] from Breton and the ubiquitous -mann ending from German as in Hausmann [ʽos.man] (in the transcription of French used here, the symbol [ʽ] indicates that the following vowel or glide does not undergo the normal processes of contraction and liaison). This can also be seen in the surname of Kingsley Coman’s international teammate Antoine Griezmann [ɑ̃.twanə.ɡʁi.ɛz.man]. The non-native spelling -hn is another giveaway, as in Kahn [kan] from German.

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Dimitri Payet

With the French midfielder Dimitri Payet [di.mi.tʁri.pa.jɛt] achieving national hero status for the host nation with his exploits in the ongoing UEFA Euro 2016 football tournament, a newspaper from his home island territory of Reunion published an article exclaiming in its headline, “Maintenant, ils savent que ça se prononce ‘paillettes’ [Now, they know that it’s pronounced ‘pie-ette’]”.

Payet is a common surname in this overseas department of France in the Indian Ocean, where it is pronounced [pa.jɛt], identical to the French word paillettes. In English, this could be approximated as PY-et [ˈpaɪ̯.ɛt] or py-ET [paɪ̯.ˈɛt] (different dialects of English have different preferences when it comes to stressing French names). However, it is fair to say that until now the continental French were mostly not familiar with this pronunciation. The article noted that even the comedian Manu Payet had to resign to being called Paillé, with a silent t.

It was only those in the know who were pronouncing the t, but crucially, these included the French football commentators. The millions of French viewers who tuned into the matches to witness Dimitri Payet exploding onto the scene were thus made aware of the unusual pronunciation of Payet. It is a small detail perhaps, but the author of the article certainly derived satisfaction from this.

Apart from in recent loans such as Najat [na.ʒat] from Arabic, word-final t following a vowel is nearly always silent in French names. You see this in Fermat [fɛʁ.ma], Mahaut [ma.o], Monet [mɔ.nɛ], Petit [pə.ti], and Peugeot [pø.ʒo], for example. It is no wonder that most French speakers not familiar with the name would pronounce Payet with a silent t.

But there are exceptions. Some are short, one-syllable names like Lot [lɔt], the name of a river in the southwest of France and the department named after it, and the surname Cot [kɔt]. Final t is also usually pronounced in more obscure Hebrew or Latin names, like the biblical name Josaphat [ʒo.za.fat] or Expédit [ɛks.pe.dit], the name of a Roman Catholic saint.

The name Moët [mɔ.ɛt, mwɛt], famous for the champagne, also is properly pronounced with the final t, as is the surname Abauzit [a.bo.zit]. The Canadian French surname Ouellet [wɛ.lɛt] is yet another example, and now the Reunionese surname Payet can be added to this list.

Most instances of word-final t in Old French ceased to be pronounced as it developed into Middle French and then Modern French. There were variations in which words kept the t sound, which is why even today there are cases such as août [u(t)] and but [by(t)] where the final t may be either silent or pronounced. In Canadian French, final t tends to be pronounced more frequently than in European Standard French, e.g. juillet is [ʒɥi.jɛt] instead of [ʒɥi.jɛ]; this is why the t is pronounced in the Canadian surname Ouellet [wɛ.lɛt]. In fact, Canadian French also extends this tendency to other surnames such as Brunet, pronouncing it [bʁy.nɛt] whereas European Standard French has [bʁy.nɛ] with a silent t. However, Ouellet is almost exclusively Canadian, which is why the pronunciation with the final t is recommendable even in Standard French. As Payet is almost exclusively Reunionese, it seems similarly reasonable to follow the local pronunciation with the final t even in Standard French, as is currently happening.

While most surnames ending in -et or -ot ended up with silent t in Standard French, it seems that a select few such as the Reunionese Payet and Canadian Ouellet ended up with the t pronounced because the more peripheral varieties of French spoken in the areas where they were used were more likely to retain the final t sound.