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Updated on October 12, 2012
LA graffiti
LA graffiti | Source
A cheese omelet. Omelet: another French-derived word! Although, it's not spelled or pronounced quite the same in English.
A cheese omelet. Omelet: another French-derived word! Although, it's not spelled or pronounced quite the same in English. | Source
Poor camel. Here comes the straw that will literally break his back!
Poor camel. Here comes the straw that will literally break his back! | Source

The Problematic French Language (at least for native English speakers)

I just want to preface this hub by saying that I am not some sort of Francophile. In fact, I’m not any sort of Francophile. Not that I have anything against French – it’s just that I can’t stand their language. The nasally, inconsistently pronounced consonant and vowel sounds just drive me crazy, and I’ve never even officially studied the language, except in vocal diction courses and voice classes in college. I’ve sung in French, but I’ve never actually been a fluent speaker. To date, I think I only know about three phrases: “I love you,” “I don’t know,” and “cheese omelet.” Yes, that will get me very far, should I ever travel to France!

What I do love, though, is accuracy – in writing, speaking, pretty much everything. I don’t believe (much) in gray areas. Sure, some things have gray areas, but not language usage. You’ve either got it right or you don’t – unless, of course, you want to go and make up your own words and language rules that suddenly get adopted into pop culture and find their way into the latest edition of the dictionary because of common usage. Okay, so I’ll admit that has happened before, but it hasn’t yet happened with the one word in particular upon which this hub is focusing: voila!

While researching pineapple slicers for another hub, I came across a YouTube video of a “gadget guru” giving a demonstration of one. At the end of the demonstration, she triumphantly proclaimed, “wa la!” Now, I may be wrong about this, but I’m pretty certain she actually meant to say, “voila!” She just left out the “v” sound. And that rankled.

In all fairness to the gadget guru, she is not the only person I’ve heard make this mistake before. In fact, my husband said later that he’s heard it said that way on national television and in movies, although he doesn’t remember exactly where. I don’t remember, either, but I don’t doubt at all the possibility.

The gadget guru’s incorrect word usage on a YouTube broadcast was not the first, and surely won’t be the last, time that word has ever been mispronounced. But, for me, it was the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” so I felt I had to write a bit of a rant about it.

I’m sure, to some, this will sound really pompous, but it’s meant all in fun. We all make mistakes. I’m not perfect, by any means, but I do know how to say the word “voila.” Oh, and I also know how to spell it. I’ll get to that later.

Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary

Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition
Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

Every parent and/or child and/or English language learner or writer should have this dictionary on his/her shelf. It's an invaluable resource on English definitions and pronunciations.

Sardar Fraz Wahlah winning the "Technology Oscar," the International Asia Pacific ICT Alliance (APICTA) Award, in 2010.
Sardar Fraz Wahlah winning the "Technology Oscar," the International Asia Pacific ICT Alliance (APICTA) Award, in 2010. | Source

Voila: Not Wa La, Wahlah, Wallah

The correct pronunciation for the word spelled “voila” is “vwah-lah,” with most of the stress falling on the final syllable. Another common spelling (the one most resembling the French) has the grave accent over the “a.”

At least, this is the pronunciation the Random House dictionary gives. And it is the only pronunciation the Random House gives, aside from the original French, with the very difficult (at least for non-native French speakers) pronunciation of the letter "a." The way the French pronounce it, it sounds like it's between the "a" sound in the English word "at" and the "a" sound in the English word "car." I can hear the difference. I just, as yet, have never really been able to successfully reproduce this French sound. I'm told, though (by native French speakers), that the "ah" sound is close enough. Or maybe they're just being too kind!

Still, "vwah-lah" is in the dictionary as a pronunciation. "Wa la" is not. In fact, I can't find that in the dictionary anywhere! I did find "Wahlah" on wikipedia, but that term applies to a people group living in Pakistan and India. Wahlah in Punjabi means "one excellent warrior." The Wahlah tribe is said to be descended from an ancient ruling class. One notable Wahlah living today is international lawyer Sardar Fraz Wahlah, who is head of the Pakistan Peoples Party. And there is the Hindi word wallah, which is basically a suffix used to describe someone who does something (either an activity or an occupation). Wallah is also an Arabic word, meaning roughly the same as the English expression "by God."

Good Deals on Beginner Violas on Amazon

Viola Davis
Viola Davis | Source

Voila-Viola Confusion

Another interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed is the number of people who do actually seem to have a clue how to pronounce voila, and maybe they have an inkling how to spell it. They just continually get it wrong. I’ve seen several writers write “viola” when they intend to say “voila.” Now, whether they just unintentionally typed the “I” before the “o” and made an innocent typo or whether they really thought the word was spelled that way, I really can’t say. I’d like to give people the benefit of the doubt. I really would. We all make typos. I’ve made about a dozen or so just writing this one paragraph. But when I see viola appearing consistently in place of voila, I have to wonder.

Of course, these people aren’t really talking about violas. A viola is a beautiful stringed orchestral instrument. My college roommate played a viola. A viola is also a plant in the violet family, or the term could even be referring to a girl’s given name, as is the case with Tony Award-winning actress Viola Davis. All of these are violas, and not one of them even comes close to being an exclamation of success or satisfaction (or satisfaction with success).

My 2-year-old has trouble with the word "feather." It comes out sounding like "feh-vuhr." She won't even attempt "voila!"
My 2-year-old has trouble with the word "feather." It comes out sounding like "feh-vuhr." She won't even attempt "voila!"

Why So Much Difficulty with One Little Word?

I think the main problem is that most native English speakers are just not that familiar with the French language. I know I wasn’t. I took Spanish in school instead. French is not intuitive for those of us who speak English as a first language. We are taught as little children to sound words out. So, using that method, the word “voila” would be pronounced something like “voy” (rhyming with “boy”) “luh” or “lah,” depending on how open you want to make that final sound. Now, I’ve never actually heard anyone say the word that way before, but I can see how it might happen. I mean, it seems like the "v" before the "w" is what is messing people up. And, when you think about it, how many other English words have a "v" sound before a "w"? I can't think of any!

It’s the same thing, I think, that happens to people who come into this country and try to learn English as a second language – or for little children just learning to speak. There are so many things that are just not intuitive or easily grasped – “th,” for example. Most of the time, it comes out sounding like a “d” or “f” or “v” sound, depending on the word, because people who speak other languages (and very small children) are more familiar with those single-letter sounds.

People learn language by repeating what they hear. This is true for anyone. If the person from whom they are learning a word is using the word incorrectly, they will learn to use the word incorrectly too. That’s just a fact. Now, I don’t really know how to explain the widespread incorrect pronunciation and spelling of the word “voila,” but I suspect it has a lot to do with people copying and learning from others who are pronouncing and spelling it incorrectly. But, of course, I could be wrong.

Why Do I Even Care?

Well, the short answer is...I'm an editor and a writer. It's my job to care about words and their usage.

I've also spent quite a bit of time teaching English to adults who are trying to learn it as a second language. As I've shown, it's not that easy, especially when we butcher words that we've adopted into our language from other languages.

The take home message here is: Please be careful with your words - both what you say and how you say it.


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    • workingmomwm profile image

      Mishael Austin Witty 6 years ago from Kentucky, USA

      Hi, Hy. Thanks for commenting.

    • profile image

      Hy Keester 6 years ago

      I always pronounce it "Viola" and leave it at that!

    • workingmomwm profile image

      Mishael Austin Witty 6 years ago from Kentucky, USA

      Thanks, Danette. Even though I've worked with ESL students before, it never really hit home how difficult and confusing English can be until I heard my daughter trying to learn it. Still, for a two-year-old, I'd say she's doing quite well. We haven't really started her on any other languages yet. From time to time, I'll try to throw in a little Spanish, but she just gives me blank stares! :-)

    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 6 years ago from Illinois

      My husband would totally agree with you about the annoying nasally French language. You make some good points here. Come to think of it, I don't think I've been pronouncing voila correctly either! Who knows how that got started. Perhaps as you said, we earn a language by hearing others speak it and if they are mispronouncing something, we will too.

      And you are absolutely correct, English is so hard to learn it's a wonder a some non-native English speakers do so well. I don't think I would do as well in another language.

      Voted up.