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Foyer: analysis - The Growlery
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Foyer: analysis
Firstly, I apologize for any confusion regarding FOY-eh. FOY-yay might have been less ambiguous; I avoided it because of concern that some people might think there had to be a strongly pronounced 'y' at the beginning of the second syllable. Obviously, that wasn't the greatest concern. My attempt to rhyme it with 'oyez' was also confusing and obscure, particularly since it has multiple pronunciations itself! Anyway, I think I got it all sorted out ultimately. Can't you people all learn to read IPA? ;) Anyhow ...

In standard American English, FOY-er is the more common pronunciation, but is often derided by speakers of standard British English, among whom FOY-yay is standard. My survey indicated, unsurprisingly that FOY-er is primarily an American pronunciation, but also that some Australians pronounce it this way too. No Canadians or Brits chose it, however. FOY-yay was chosen by a minority of American respondents, most Canadians and Brits, and a few others. The French pronunciations (regardless of stress) were chosen by a couple of Americans and a substantial minority of Canadians. As always, there were a couple of exceptions here and there.

Like debacle, foyer came into English only in the mid-19th century (1859), through French, which at the time exercised an important influence on English elite culture. We might expect, then, that it would be less than fully anglicized. Indeed, the French pronunciation [fwaje] (fwa-yay) is fairly uncommon. But in the most common pronunciation, FOY-yay, what we see is an incomplete anglicization, not to the expected FOY-er, but instead an anglicization only of the first syllable. In English, [fw] is not a standard onset cluster; without getting into too much English phonology, as a general rule, any English consonant that can combine initially with [l] does not regularly combine with [w], and vice versa (e.g., flee but not *fwee; twee but not *tlee). Thus, most English-speakers adjust [fwaje] to something close and yet acceptable (the 'o' is a nice rounded back vowel that gets you close to [w]). Some (as in Standard American) take yet a further step and pronounce the word with the [r] at the end. (Ironically, speakers of non-rhotic dialects will then abandon the [r] and pronounce it something like FOY-uh). Only a few retain a more purely French pronunciation with initial [fw], but in doing so they are doubtless aware, at least subconsciously, that it is a foreignism.

Foyer, being a recent loanword, is in the midst of a phonetic shift. Interestingly, because the shift is incomplete, the common pronunciation FOY-yay has no full rhymes in English. Obviously, in its standard American form, it rhymes well with lawyer, sawyer, etc., although perhaps not fully, depending on how you pronounce 'aw' in your dialect). Strangely enough, however, a couple poll respondents indicated that they were abandoning or had abandoned FOY-er after hearing FOY-yay or learning that it was 'correct'. So it may in fact be that FOY-yay may not be simply an intermediate form on its way out, but may eventually replace the more fully anglicized FOY-er. No doubt issues of elite culture and language are implicated in this choice, as are American vs. British language issues. It just goes to show you that predicting linguistic change is a tricky business.

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12 comments or Leave a comment
ymf From: ymf Date: March 5th, 2006 03:23 am (UTC) (Link)
Heh I tried learning the IPA before, but it was too mind-numbing. Oops! x= Gotta add that back to my to-do list!
chickenfeet2003 From: chickenfeet2003 Date: March 5th, 2006 12:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
FOY-er sounds like what an Irishman might say to a FOY-ering squad.
firinel From: firinel Date: March 5th, 2006 09:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
but is often derided by speakers of standard British English, among whom FOY-yay is standard.

Obviously my experience is not scientific, either, but this is directly opposite of what my own experience is. ALL British people I know, and that's a fair amount, say FOY-er, and have tittered at my faux-french pronunciation. Infact all french-loan words that I can think of off hand are butchered by the British, such as 'fillet', which I pronounce similar 'fehl-lay' and which ALL of them pronounce 'fill-it'.

I shall have to direct my resident English linguist to the post.
marnanel From: marnanel Date: March 5th, 2006 09:23 pm (UTC) (Link)
What zie said. :) I've always rhymed it with "employer".

You might be interested to read this sonnet by Hilaire Belloc (who was French, but lived in England for most of his life during the early twentieth century):

The world’s a stage. The trifling entrance fee
Is paid (by proxy) to the registrar.
The Orchestra is very loud and free
But plays no music in particular.
They do not print a programme, that I know.
The cast is large. There isn’t any plot.
The acting of the piece is far below
The very worst of modernistic rot.
   The only part about it I enjoy
   Is what is called in English the Foyay.
   There will I stand apart awhile and toy
   With thought, and set my cigarette alight;
And then— without returning to the play—
On with my coat and out into the night.
forthright From: forthright Date: March 5th, 2006 09:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
Curious, curious! I say that not only because my poll results suggest (though hardly to a scientific certainty) that many UK residents or expats say 'Foyay', but because, having done a little dictionary searching, the OED lists only Foyay (and the pure French variant) and Chambers lists Foyay first with Foy-err a variant, but the American dictionaries all list Foy-err as the first and therefore most common form. Clearly something interesting is going on here.
forthright From: forthright Date: March 5th, 2006 09:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
Interesting stuff! 'Fillet' is a bit different, though, because it's not a recent loanword, but was borrowed into Middle English from Old French. As I understand it 'fehl-lay' is an Americanization, derived from 'fill-it' possibly under the influence of French, but not derived directly *from* French.
From: issi_noho Date: March 5th, 2006 11:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, I don't know if this is relevant, but as far as I can remember, I've only ever encountered the pronunciation 'FOY-er' from Britons, including from my maternal grandmother (b 1906, and who had some very odd approaches to many words).

forthright From: forthright Date: March 6th, 2006 12:54 am (UTC) (Link)
It is fascinating. Many, many Americans say FOY-er (about 50%, seemingly, according to my poll) and it's the first pronunciation listed in most American dictionaries. Almost no Canadians say FOY-er, however, preferring FOY-yay, which is not unsurprising in itself given our French heritage. My exposure to 'foyer' has been entirely through Americans.

On the other hand, the OED doesn't list FOY-er even as an alternative pronunciation. I don't doubt for an instant that your grandmother used it, but this suggests that the OED's entry is significantly flawed, and has been since its inception. It also suggests that Americans who have been told that 'FOY-yay' is the correct pronunciation in contrast to the barbarous 'FOY-er' have been misled.

All of this suggests to me that it may not be a dialectal issue at all, but one related to social status, but I have no idea how to evaluate this hypothesis.
From: issi_noho Date: March 6th, 2006 02:21 am (UTC) (Link)
Hang on, I should have written 'FOY-yay' there. Which should probably underline how pervasive the half'n'half pronunciation is over here.
From: (Anonymous) Date: December 7th, 2010 12:10 am (UTC) (Link)


Foyer is pronounced foy-yer by those with a plebian upbringing. We don't say Chev-ro-let for Chevrolet, now do we?
From: (Anonymous) Date: June 6th, 2011 02:38 pm (UTC) (Link)

Foyer, pronunciation

I grew up in the upper midwest area of the US. I learned the word, "Foyer" and it was pronounced with the "R", rhyming with employer. At one point in my career, I was employed in a historic house museum, where one of the staff consistently pronounced it, "FOY yay". I thought, incorrectly, that he was attempting apply an incorrect French pronunciation of the word. I am used to that, because own sir name is often incorrectly mangled with a French and/or Spanish mispronunciation.

Now, I find that "Foy yay" is the correct pronunciation in England, and it is nearly the same as the French pronunciation, "foy yee"

In looking back over my collection of 19th century architecture publications, I find that leading residential architects in the U.S., such as Downing, Davis, Bicknell, Comstock, Sloane, and Barber, all pronounced it as "Hall".

This is the historically accurate way that I am going to pronounce it from now on. I will pronounce the word, Foyer, as "Hall". :)
From: (Anonymous) Date: April 21st, 2012 04:15 pm (UTC) (Link)

First instance of foy-AY pronunciation

I've been curious about this for a while so had to post - the first time I ever heard the use of foy-YAY instead of foy-ER was when I said it, as a joke, when going to lunch with coworkers in the 1970's. It occurred to me that foyer was spelled like Boyer, as in Charles Boyer, so when we were in the foyer of a restaurant I used the word jokingly, and everyone laughed. A few of the people there were the kind that would repeat something funny like that, and it's occurred to me over the years as I've heard the foy-YAY pronunciation used more and more frequently that maybe I began the trend in the U.S. with my quip. I'll never know but find it interesting that my usage was the first I'd ever heard it!
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