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The X Factor

This lesson is brought to you by the letter x, an exaspérante (exasperating) letter that can morph into several different sounds. How do you extract a meaningful rule out of this unruly letter? Are you ready to explorer (explore) this exciting letter x? Fear not, the French pronunciation of the letter x is similar to English, at least at first glance. However, there are some notable differences that we will explore.


You may have noticed that some of the cognates mentioned in the previous paragraph share the same x sound in French and in English. Here is an example using the word explorer (to explore):


Il faut les explorer, les décrire, en faire une carte et en découvrir d'autres.

We have to explore them, describe them, map them, and discover some more.

Caption 12, Il était une fois: les Explorateurs 10. Amerigo Vespucci - Part 3

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Here is another example, with exacte (exact):


Du coup, c'est très compliqué d'avoir la date exacte.

As a result, it's very complicated to get the exact date.

Caption 37, Lionel Le musée de Jeanne d'Arc - Part 2

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In a few instances, an x at the end of a French word will render the same x sound as in English. The video below refers to l’Académie des Lynx, named after the wild animal le lynx (lynx), renowned for its sharp eyesight: 


Le prince Federico Cesi, fondateur de l'Académie des Lynx

Prince Federico Cesi, the founder of the Academy of the Lynxes

Caption 33, Il était une fois: Les découvreurs 9. Galilée - Part 7

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Likewise, words ending in -ex are usually pronounced as in English:


C'est-à-dire, vous faites un barré avec votre index

That is, you do a barre with your index finger

Caption 10, Leçons de guitare Leçon 3

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But words ending in -ex or -nx are not that common in French and tend to be of foreign origin. Instead, typical x endings come in the following combinations: -oux, -aux, -eaux, and -eux, which all call for a silent x. (We’ll explore exceptions further on.)


In the video below, the speaker, a British server, has never heard of a silent x… She tries to entice Sam and the gang with some “gâtox," which has everyone flummoxed. Fortunately, Sam saves the day and explains that she meant to say gâteaux (cakes), with a silent x. Listen carefully to learn how NOT to say gâteaux:


"Gâtox"... Je crois qu'elle veut dire "gâteaux".

"Gâtox"... I think she means "cakes."

Caption 45, Extr@ Ep. 11 - Les vacances - Part 6

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Here is an example with the correct pronunciation of nouveaux ("new," plural):


Les nouveaux livres qu'on a reçus.

The new books that we've received.

Caption 14, Gaëlle Librairie "Livres in Room"

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Since the x is silent, gâteaux and nouveaux are pronounced the same as singular gâteau (cake) and nouveau (new). But listen carefully to this sentence with the same word, nouveaux (new). Why does the x now sound like a z?


Afin de développer de nouveaux outils de pilotage...

In order to develop new steering tools...

Caption 10, Canal 32 Le futur de l’éolien se joue dans l'Aube

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This is not a mistake. The speaker formed what we call in French une liaison by joining two words together—the first one ending with a consonant, nouveaux, and the following one starting with a vowel, outils (tools)—rendering a z sound: nouveaux-Z-outils. (Notice how the speaker runs the two words together without pausing to make them sound like one word.) You will find more information on liaisons in the lesson Liaisons, Numerous and Dangerous.


So, look out for nouns (sometimes adjectives) starting with a vowel. It is a signal that you should sound the x like a z! Here's another example:


Les vieux époux ont décidé de mener leur vie

The old couple decided to lead their lives

Caption 4, Le Jour où tout a basculé Mes grands-parents sont infidèles - Part 9

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And here's one with a very short word, the determiner aux ("to the," plural):


Nemours a un passé particulièrement intéressant et très intimement lié aux États-Unis pour deux raisons.

Nemours has a past that is particularly interesting and very closely linked to the United States for two reasons.

Captions 5-6, Voyage en France Nemours - Part 2

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So we have: les vieux-Z-époux and aux-Z-États-Unis. 


In short, when a word ends in x, the x is usually silent unless there is a liaison. If you are still unsure, don’t worry. Many liaisons are optional, and French people don’t apply the liaison rule to the letter, so to speak. Just remember, though, that in some situations, liaisons are de rigueur. The examples given above are very common and always call for a "liaiZon."


On the flip side, when a French word begins with x, it does not sound like a z, as it would in English. Instead, it's pronounced more like the x in exemple (example):


D'un symbole d'unité française, ce drapeau a été utilisé parfois comme symbole de xénophobie.

Once a symbol of French unity, this flag has sometimes been used as a xenophobic symbol.

Caption 41, Le saviez-vous? Histoire du drapeau français

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Stay tuned for another X-rated lesson on the numbers deux, dix, et six (two, ten, and six) and find out what is special about them. Thank you for reading!


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