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The French term for Mister, Monsieur, looks like it should be pronounced MON-sieur, giving effect to the O and N.

It is actually pronounced more like MISS-sieur. Why is that?

And there is a similar term, Monseigneur. Is it also pronounced MIS-seigneur, or in the more “obvious” fashion, MON-seigneur? If the latter, why the difference?

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Monseigneur is pronounced as it's written. Where did you hear Monsieur pronounced as if it had an i ? (I pronounce it as Meussieu, and I don't know about IPA.) –  Nikana Reklawyks Nov 4 '12 at 19:44
    
@LeVieuxGildas: I said that Monsieur was pronounced MORE LIKE [emphasis added] "Miss-sieur" (to my ear). That does not rule out your more correct transliteration, "Meussieu." –  Tom Au Nov 4 '12 at 20:19
2  
You could easily have checked the actual pronunciation. Originally (old French) written in two words (mon+sieur) and pronounced /mɔ̃sjœʁ/ it started to be written in one word as pronunciation evolved. Evolution of pronunciation of vowel sounds is a feature in most languages (I say most as I am not enough of a linguist to generalise). At one time it was pronounced /mu'sjø/ or /mo'sjø/ but it was never pronounced with an /i/ sound. Monseigneur is only used nowadays for clerics, it used to be used for royals, but we don't have them any more in France. –  Laure Nov 4 '12 at 20:21
    
@Laure: While not exactly France, there is still the Prince of Monaco called "Monseigneur". –  jlliagre Nov 5 '12 at 2:47
    
@TomAu: As to the pronunciation of Monseigneur you could also have easily checked. –  Laure Nov 5 '12 at 7:09

4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The question of the actual pronunciation of both monsieur and monseigneur need not be asked, but I will try and answer the other part of the question, i.e. why is the combination of the letters (o+n) pronounced differently in each word.

I'll start by quoting David Crystal "Languages are always in a state of flux... the most noticeable and frequent changes affect pronunciation and vocabulary...".

Vowel sounds are more prone to evolution than consonants. I suppose it is because phonatory organs are not as easily controlled when sounding vowels than when sounding consonants (just a hint, but the question could be asked on linguistics Stack Exchange1. Another factor in pronunciation evolution is the question of the stressed syllables. Vowels will change more easily when unstressed.

Now, back to monsieur and monseigneur. Both are a combination of the possessive mon + sieur or seigneur, and both were written as two separate words that concatenated as the French language evolved.
When said as two separate words (mon+sieur), had two equally stressed syllables. But as the words evolved into one single entity with a shift in meaning and the loss of the understanding of the original meaning (including the fact that mon was no longer perceived as a possessive) the first syllable became unstressed (French words are regularly stressed on the last syllable), the nasal /ɔ̃/ evolved into the unstressed vowel sound /ə/.
In monseigneur, even when concatenated into one single word the mon has always retained its possessive meaning (I suppose we could say that French people still perceive the word monseigneur as the English perceive my lord), and even nowadays when we say the word we tend to have an auxiliary stress on the first syllable, thus the original /ɔ̃/ sound remaining unchanged.

For more on the evolution of vowel pronunciation in the French language one could have a look at the wikipedia article on Old French and at this book: Introduction à la phonétique historique du français by Annick Englebert for a study of the historical evolution of French pronunciation.

----EDIT----
1 I asked the question on Linguistics and got very interesting answers.

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1  
xkcd.com/859, et cette remarque aussi. –  Nikana Reklawyks Nov 5 '12 at 9:41
    
@LeVieuxGildas - un petit cadeau pour dénouer la tension: ) –  mouviciel Nov 5 '12 at 10:11
    
Une réponse excellente, plus axée sur le pourquoi que nos autres contributions. (+1) –  Romain VALERI Nov 7 '12 at 15:55
  1. You need to say mon like when you say in french me

    for exemple:je me suis fait mal

  2. Then sieur like when you say in french si and yeux

    for exemple:Si tu viens, je viens” and “tu as de beaux yeux

    ME-SI-YEUX → Monsieur

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I think "how is it pronounced?" was already answered many times, while not even being the question. –  Nikana Reklawyks Nov 5 '12 at 21:26

Maybe are you speaking about messieurs, it's the plural of monsieur, or developed, this could come from mes seigneursmes sieurs.

This could be pronounced like mae see eu (not me but mae), unfortunately eu does not have an equivalent in English.

Or maybe you are hearing some joke, as some aim to represent the outlander spoken French of a

  • South African: missié, spoken like miss yeah
  • North African: missiou, spoken like miss you
  • Chinese: missie, spoken like me sea
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Welcome to the site. An upvote to get you going. –  Tom Au Nov 4 '12 at 20:22
    
Merci, je découvre ce cite et vraiment, je ris Gaulle! A little less funny in english, at all ;-) –  F. Hauri Nov 4 '12 at 20:40

The pronounciation of the word is indeed the irregular [məsjø], not naively [mɔ̃sjœr] (though historically it seems to have been the very first way of saying it, then [mɔsjø], then the modern one). I never heard the [misjø] you're refering to.

Monseigneur is pronounced regularly, like the words that compose the expression Mon seigneur (so : [mɔ̃sɛɲœr]).

About the reason that could explain this odd pronounciation, there's a few explanations here, there and even there, but I guess it's not very satisfying or definitive. Anyway, euphony is probably one of the reasons it changed, because the term is one of the most heavily-employed of the language, considering the modern pronounciation is slightly quicker.

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