Unlocking the French "R"

Serrurerie signSerrurerie. A locksmith's shop. I pass it every day. I can say the word locksmith just English, that is. En français, I'm fluent enough that I can even pronounce the word serrure ("lock") using my hard-earned correct French r. But to say serrurerie? Forget it. It is not happening. It requires too many mellifluous, throaty French r's in too short a time frame. I practice pronouncing it smoothly. Serru-re-rie. To no avail: every time I try, I find that I've barely recuperated from rolling out the first r when the next r and the next r need to come flying out of my tonsils.

I discover this dilemma when innocently asking my proprietaire if there is a locksmith who can make a copy of a key. "Madame, est-ce qu'il y a une serruheuh-hlerie...," I end up gargling, the pitch of my voice sliding from its habitual soprano to a gutteral baritone in the space of five words.

Apparently I am not alone in this; many Anglophones with decades of practice in phonetics classes, language labs, and even living extensively in France, have triumphantly mastered the French r, but their exhausted epiglottis just comes to a dead halt on serrurerie. Conquering just one French r, of course, is the bête noire of French majors and their long-suffering professors -- so learning to say it three times in rapid succession is the Final Frontier. I am not even near the edge.

A while ago, when I was a French teacher, I paris locksmithremember trying to train my students to pronounce the French r, using a clever method I'd just read about in a language journal. It went something like this. First say, a-ab. Repeat that several times. A--AB ... A-AB... A-AB. Then a-hab. A--HAB, A-HAB, A-HAB. Then while your throat is thus warmed up and newly phlegm-free, you take the plunge. You cough out, a-hrab. A--HRAB... A-HRAB... A-HRAB. In theory, with time, the r should be forthcoming. Nice idea, but it was a total flop in my class of 8th-graders. "But Mrs. L," they insisted, "like, why are you trying to get us to say, like, Arab?" It was futile. I made no more Henry-Higginsesque efforts in French elocution.

My own acquisition of the "proper" French r came quite by surprise. The summer before entering college, I was an au pair in France, and one of my young charges was named Corinne. I stumbled along for the first month of vacation calling her something that vaguely resembled Co-heen. Then one August evening I was calling her à table, and I yodelled, "Corrrrine!" Out flew that French r like a lark rising to the treetops. Startled, pleased... thrilled, Paris lock and keyI wandered around the garden repeating "Corinne, Corinne, Corinne," like a singsong lunatic, afraid that the this had been a one-shot deal. But it stuck with me, that French r.

At dinner that night, no one else in the French family noticed that suddenly, magically, I had IT! It was my happy secret, like losing my no-French-r virginity. In an instant, I had become a different person. But that summer I had no need of a locksmith. In all the years of subsequent French speaking, reading, and writing, I never found the need to croak out the word serrurerie. But if you live in Paris and you have keys, chances are that someday you will have to face the serrurerie-pronunciation beast. You must do so at your own risk. If you insert three plain-ruh-ruh American r's in the word, you sound like Lucy drunk on Vitameatavegamin: suh-roo-roo-ree. Try to trill it correctly with the French r and your poor uvula gets chafed with a bad case of friction burn (diction burn?). Here, take the keys. Go ahead and give serrurerie a try. Then spritz a little Chloraseptic and call me in the morning.

Polly is a Boston born Baby Boomer living on the Left Bank in Paris and blogging about it at Polly-Vous Francais. © 2006-2008, Polly-Vous Francais, all rights reserved.

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