Dangerous Liaisons

In the French language, a liaison is defined as ” the pronunciation of a latent word-final consonant immediately before a following vowel sound.”

As an example, take the phrase “vous avez,” which means “you have” in English. In general, the word “vous” is pronounced “voo.” However, when “vous” comes right before a vowel sound, a liaison is formed with the following word and you must say “voo-zavay.” This is done to avoid awkwardness, because without the liaison you would have to say “voo-avay,” which is more difficult to say, especially in rapid speech.


If you say it loud enough, you’ll always sound…American [source]

The previous example is of a proper liaison; however in French, various words are frequently squished together in normal conversation in other patterns that can be difficult to keep track of (see also: elision). Even if a foreigner knows all the vocabulary words in principle, he or she I may not understand a spoken sentence at all because each word shares sounds from the word that comes before, after, or both. Of course, this happens in English too…and probably just about every language to some extent, because native speakers converse rapidly and enunciate less than non-native speakers.

I experienced an interesting example of this challenge a couple of weeks ago. My rental agency had made an appointment with a painter to come into my apartment early one morning to paint over some water damage in the kitchen. About an hour into the procedure, I told the man that I would have to leave for work soon, and asked if he was almost done. He said he would need at least another hour to finish up, and asked if I could leave him with a key to the apartment, so that he could lock up when he was done. I agreed, and as I was leaving, he called after me that he would leave the key in the “bottelette.” I understood him up until the word “bottelette,” which was unfamiliar. I asked him to repeat the phrase, which he did, and I still didn’t understand what he was talking about.

At this point I was already rattled from several minutes of French conversation before my morning coffee, and too embarrassed to ask for more information. So, rather than doing the sensible thing and telling him that I didn’t understand, I nodded in agreement and fled the apartment. As soon as I got to work, I pulled up Google Translate, and then Google, but I could not find an explanation for this word. Botellette? botelet? battelette? batelot? No imaginable spelling of the word I thought I had heard yielded an explanation.


A bottle? A boot? A tiger? [source]

Finally, afraid I would never see my apartment key again, I called my husband in the U.S. and asked him what on earth a “bottelette” was. He paused.

“You mean, a boîte aux lettres [mailbox]?”

Curses! I immediately saw that I had once again failed to recognize one long French word as several smaller ones stuck together. Later that day, I indeed found my apartment key nestled in with my mail.

Another valuable vocabulary word (and life lesson) gained!



    • scrappytraveler

      You’re the best…Thank you, I am really glad you enjoyed it. Hmm…do you really think people would pay to hear me complain? Maybe if I market it the right way, people won’t notice 🙂 In all seriousness though, if I am still doing this after 1 year in Switzerland, I’ll give it some thought.

  1. Pairodox Farm

    Ha! Great … I really do think it would make for a humorous memoir that folks would certainly read. Behind the humor there is a back story about society, culture, language, and the difficulties of working one’s way through this morass we call ‘life’ that many could relate to. D

  2. Celia

    Great story, Celia! And if you do write a memoir you can put me down for a copy 🙂

  3. purplesnitch

    Hi Celia! Got a good chuckle out of this one. Your writing is wonderful!! After all the confusion and worry, hope the painter did a good job on your ceiling!! 🙂 oxox

    • scrappytraveler

      Aw, thank you very much! Yes, actually he did an impeccable job. Not one little speck of paint or dust left behind, either. All’s well that ends well!

  4. tree girl

    Sent here by your Dad. A few weeks ago I met an Aussie who moved to Switzerland 17 years ago, with not a scrap of French. She related similar adventures with the language.

    • scrappytraveler

      Thank you for the visit and the comment! I am in awe at the thought of having 17 years’ worth of Swiss life experience under my belt. I hope by then I can get through a typical week with a lower incidence of language ‘adventures’! 🙂

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