These are two of the six basic topic areas that form any French learning course, not least the GCSE syllabus. We might know what they mean (easy) and indeed, have some interesting things to say about them (open-ended) but what about how to pronounce the words themselves?
In other words, what is the rule for French words that end in –ille?
There is unfortunately not a straightforward single answer because ville is pronounced rather like the English ‘veal’ with the ‘l’ definitely audible, whereas fille is closer to ‘fee’ where the double l has become a different sound –inaudible as an ‘l’; more like a ‘y’ sound.
My own response to the question of why this is, was to suggest that it is to differentiate between pairs of words that would otherwise have sounded confusingly similar:
La ville (the town) is pronounced ‘veel’ to distinguish it from la vie (the life), pronounced ‘vee’.
This would make it similar to my theory for why the final –s of fils (son) is strongly pronounced: in order to distinguish it from fille (daughter).
This little rule has always been good enough for me, and whilst I can make it sound plausible, I accept the limitations, such as how to tackle a new word with no apparent minimal pair, for example, the word for shellfish: coquillage.
Does it rhyme with le village, in that we pronounce the double ‘l’ sound as we would in English?
Answer: No, it is that ‘y’ sound again! ‘ko-key-ahge’
I mused aloud on this conundrum to the most advanced French group I teach, and true to form, Tony Stevenson, a long-time member of the SameSky French community, offered this elegantly learnéd explanation, shown below. I defer to his great learning and am extremely grateful for his comments:
I think the answer may reside in the respective Latin derivations of the words.
Fille derives from filia (daughter), so the 'y' sound is already there; ville is derived from villa (country house / farm), in which there is no 'y' sound to pass down the ages. Similar French words with no 'y' sound, and therefore pronounced with an 'eel' sound because of their Latin derivation are: tranquille (Lat. tranquillus), bacille (Lat. bacillum - little stick).
And not forgetting the city of Lille, pronounced 'Leel', which started life as L'Isle (The Island), so no 'y' sound. I understand that the old town of Lille was pretty well surrounded by the arms of the River Deûle, bestowing upon it the look of an island.
So there we have it. In order to be confident in our pronunciation of a French word containing a double l, we must think back to the Latin root. (!)
Luckily, for those of us whose Latin is rusty, there are more accessible ways to check how any given words are pronounced, although not necessarily why: simply check the phonetic spelling, which can be done easily if you are in possession of a decent dictionary, or with a click on the little ‘speaker’ icon, if you are using an online dictionary. Or ask a native speaker, of course, or a friendly, erudite person, such as Tony, who has spent much of his adult life studying the minutiae of this fascinating language.
Andrew Wenger, with substantial assistance from Tony Stevenson
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