Cross-language blues’

I found this week an odd blend of English pronunciation and spelling with French pronunciation and spelling. Writing about last Saturday’s Football World Cup match between England and France, a journalist wrote the following:  

Philippe Auclair, the French writer, calls him Les Bleus’ “beat-giver”.

The Times, 12 December 2022
(‘him’ refers to the French footballer Antoine Griezmann.)

This sentence does a strange job of applying the English genitive –‘s suffix to the French noun Les Bleus, to create a form spelled as Les Bleus’.

The English –‘s suffix

English creates the genitive form of nouns by adding the suffix spelled as <-‘s>. The pronunciation of this suffix is:

  • /-ɪz/ or /-əz/ after final consonants that are sibilants (/s, z, ʃ, ʒ, tʃ, dʒ/)
  • /-s/ after all other final consonants that are unvoiced (/p, t, k, f, θ/)
  • /-z/ after all other consonants and vowels

This suffix is generally spelled as <-‘s>.  But it is spelled differently in some cases:

  • the suffix is spelled <-’> for plural common nouns (ie not names) ending in the regular plural suffix spelled <-s>. For example, the <-’s> form of dogs is spelled <dogs’>.  
  • the spelling <’> is also used for singular common nouns ending in a final consonant spelled as <s>. For example, the <-’s> form of barracks is spelled <barracks’>. This spelling shows that only one copy of the sibilant is pronounced: /dogz/, not /dogzɪz/; /baraks/, not /barəksɪz/.
  • for proper nouns ending with the consonant spelled as <-s>,  the suffix may be spelled either regularly as <-’s> or instead as just <-’>.
    For example, the -’s form of James is spelled either as <James’s> or just as <James’>; it is pronounced with either one copy of the sibilant as /dʒeimz/ or 2 copies as /dʒeimzɪz/. Even when this form is spelled just as <James’>, it is often pronounced with 2 copies of the sibilant as /dʒeimzɪz/.

Writing for second-language readers of English
When there is a choice between spelling the ending as <-’s> and spelling it just as <-’>, I generally use the longer spelling. This is clearer and more visible to readers, especially readers who didn’t start acquiring English soon after birth.

For more discussion on writing English in a way that makes reading easier for readers who didn’t learn English from birth, please see https://languagemiscellany.com/2022/04/writing-english-to-help-second-language-readers/

Les Bleus

Les Bleus is, of course, a common name for the national football team of France. Meaning ‘the blue ones’, it reflects the fact that the French team usually play in a blue shirt. So do French national teams in other sports.

Les Bleus is pronounced /le blø/. Although the spelling ends in <s>, the pronunciation contains no final consonant. Using normal English spelling conventions applied as they apply to standard British English (‘Received Pronunciation’), the French pronunciation could be transcribed very roughly as <lay blur>.

Forming an ’s-genitive from Les Bleus

To English speakers who don’t speak French, the French spelling might suggest that the pronunciation of Les Bleus includes a final /s/. If the pronunciation did include a final /s/, it would indeed be a good idea to create an English genitive form pronounced /le bløz/ (and spelled <Les Bleus’>)—or a form pronounced /le bløzɪz/ (and spelled <Les Bleus’s>).

But, of course, the final <s> is silent. So, it makes no sense to create an English genitive form that would be appropriate if the French speakers actually pronounced an /s/ or a /z/ at the end of les Bleus.

Is there a better solution?

One alternative would be to use the of-genitive instead. The offending sentence could then read as follows:

Philippe Auclair, the French writer, calls him the “beat-giver” of Les Bleus.

That alternative version does a better job of creating a genitive form of Les Bleus. But that version also has a drawback: it puts the stress at the end of the sentence on Les Bleus, whereas in this context the stress probably belongs better on the “beat-giver”.

Because of that drawback, I think the best solution, though not perfect, is to write:

Philippe Auclair, the French writer, calls him Les Bleus’s “beat-giver”.

The form <Les Bleus’s> keeps the original spelling of Les Bleus and, in a transparent manner adds to it the normal suffix –‘s.

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