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French Pronunciation

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There is a fine tradition of pronouncing French badly among English speakers: bon-jore, orra-vwah, monge-too, that kind of thing. Adding the odd mispronounced French phrase to your speech can give just the right (or wrong) impression.

Wilful ignorance may not be solely to blame here, since pronouncing French properly is rather hard, for the following reasons. Firstly, English speakers have preconceived ideas of how French should sound. Secondly, while the sound of the French language has greatly changed over the centuries, the spelling has retained its complexity. (French? Looking for an easy job? Try the French Academy.) Thirdly, making a considerable number of unfamiliar sounds and then combining them rapidly makes French physically hard to co-ordinate.

This Entry can help in the following way with these problems. Firstly, expected pronunciations will receive special attention. Secondly, the underlying logic of the French spelling system will be emphasized by taking each sound and the way it is spelled individually. The third problem requires a good model and lots of practice.

Understanding this Entry

This Entry is mostly concerned with the second of the above problems. Although there is often more than one way of spelling the same sound in French, the converse is rarely true. It is possible to isolate letters or letter combinations that are usually pronounced in only one or two ways. Those pronounced in more than one way often have restrictions which guide you to the correct pronunciation.

In the tables, each letter or group of letters is given its own row. The second column has a representation of the word using English-style spelling, with consistent spelling for the same sound. There follows an English word containing this sound, and an example French word. Most of these will be familiar, but should not be pronounced as in English. The fifth column contains positional rules, pronunciation tips and any other notes.

Pronunciation tips appear after the tables, particularly for vowels. Some of the sounds can only be approximated in English: these are in bold. Approximations are made mostly using British accents, but American equivalents are included where necessary. A thorough reading of this Entry will provide a reasonable grounding in French pronunciation, but, for casual reading, just stick to the tables.


French vowels are here divided into single vowels (accented and unaccented), and vowel groups. The letter 'e' is dealt with in a separate section. Note that the vowels 'i' and 'u' can actually be pronounced with consonant sounds.

As French as croissants are the accents peppered over French vowels. The effects the acute, grave and circumflex have on pronunciation are given below. Of the remainder, some serve to distinguish otherwise identical words (eg la vs là, and ou vs où), while others are merely garnish (eg gîte, mûr). In addition, there is the dieresis which separates vowel sounds. For example, naïve is not pronounced 'nev', but as two separate syllables, na-ive.

 Letter  Sound  As in  Word  Notes 
 a  a  sack  sac  generally 
 a  ah  ah  pas  before 's' and 'z'1 
 â  ah  bah  gâteau   
 i  ee  meet  police   
 i  y  yet  bien  before a vowel 
 o  aw  saw  dome  generally 
 o  o  bone  clos  before s and z; finally 
 ô  o  bone  cône   
 u  ew  stew  lune   
 u  w  sweet  suis  before another vowel (usually)2 
 y  ee  meet  système  before a consonant 
  • o (generally) - make with rounded half-open lips.
  • ô - like Scots 'oh': keep your lips tightly pursed.
  • u - hold your tongue in the position for 'ooh' and say 'ee'.
  • u (before a vowel) - like y as in 'yet', but with your lips in position to say 'ooh'.

The Letter E

This letter can be pronounced in several different ways:

 Letter  Sound  As in  Word  Notes 
 e  e  let  cerveau  before two or more consonants3  
 e  uh  about  le  see below 
 e    come  chaise  usually silent – see below 
 ê  e  set  forêt  generally4 
 è  e  set  sèche   
 é  ay  say  blé   
  • é - a single sound between English 'ee' and 'e'.
  • Unaccented e is silent (a) when final (generally) and (b) in the second-last syllable after a single consonant. It is pronounced like 'a' in 'about' (a) in monosyllables (eg de, le), (b) in the second-last syllable after two or more consonant sounds, and (c) when final after two or more consonants.

Nasal Vowels

Essential to any French caricature, nasal vowels are vowels pronounced through both the mouth and nose. Knowing when to nasalise in French is quite easy; actually doing it is harder. Any time 'm' or 'n' comes after a vowel but not before one, you have a nasal vowel.

 Letters  Sound  As in  Word  Other Spellings 
 an  ahn  aunt  tante  am 
 en  on  honk  entier  em 
 in  an  anchor  singe  im, un, um, yn, ym, ain, aim, ein, eim 
 on  o  long  son  om 
  • an - like French a, but nasalised
  • en - like English on, but nasalised
  • in - like English an, but nasalised
  • on - like French ô, but nasalised

Vowel Groups

The following vowel letters in combination make single vowel sounds. Any other vowels that come together should be pronounced separately.

 Letters  Sound  As in  Word  Notes 
 ai  e  set  lait   
 au  o  bone  faux   
 eau  o  bone  eau   
 ei  e  set  beige   
 eu  ir  bird  seul  spelled oeu in a few words (eg oeuf, soeur). 
 oi  wa  wag  toi   
 ou  oo  boot  sou   
 ou  w  wet  oui  before a vowel 
  • eu with rounded lips and no 'r' sound5
  • Before a vowel, ai, ei, oi, and ui are spelled with a y, eg 'mayonnaise', and pronounced with a 'y' sound after them.


Of the 18 French consonants, b, d, f, k, l, p, t and v are pronounced pretty much as in English. The letter w appears in words from German and English and is pronounced as English v or w. As in English, q only appears before u in French - see Consonant Combinations below.

 Letter  Sound  As in  Word  Notes 
 c  c  cash  cache  generally 
 c  s  set  cette  before e, i and y 
 ç  s  set  ça  only occurs before a, o, and u 
 g  g  god  gant  generally 
 g  zh  measure  gens  before e, i and y 
 h    hour  hier  always silent 
 j  zh  measure  je   
 m  m  more  moi  syllable initial 
 n  n  not  non  syllable initial 
 r  r  rolled  rouge   
 s  s  sit  soie  generally 
 s  z  zip  pause  between vowels 
 x  ks  fix  fixe  generally 
 x  gz  exam  exercice  between vowels (words in ex-) 
 y  y  yet  yeux  before a vowel 
  • r - pronounced at the back of the throat, with your uvula. Needs lots of practise.


Of the several consonant and vowel-consonant combinations used in French, two are pronounced as in English: ph and sc (pronounced [s] before e or i).

 Letters  Sound  As in  Word  Notes 
 ch  sh  ship  chic   
 gn  ny  onion  Boulogne  run the sounds together 
 il  y  yet  oeuil  see below 
 qu  k  quiche  quand  pronounced [kw] in a few words 
 tch  ch  check  tchèque  very rare 
 th  t  Thomas  thé  rare 
 ti  sy  pass you  action  before a vowel6 

Features of French Pronunciation

Silent Letters

After uttering gaffes such as 'silz vooz plate', the French beginner painfully realises that final consonants are silent. Usually. Some final consonants are almost always silent: b, d, g, m, n (see Nasal Vowels above for m and n), p and t. Others cannot occur finally: h, j, k, v, w and y.

The rest are variable. Of these, c, f and l are generally pronounced. Meanwhile, r is pronounced except in the endings -er and -ier, s is always silent in plurals but often pronounced otherwise, and x and z are generally silent.

Of the exceptions, many are either very common words (eg 'fils') or foreign words, of which those from Latin are a large subgroup.


However, these final consonants are not entirely redundant. Before a word beginning with a vowel, these letters are generally sounded, forming the start of a new syllable with the vowel. So, 'vous êtes', is pronounced like 'voo zet'.

Aspirated h: the letter h, though always silent, prevents liaison in some words. Which words these are is usually indicated in a dictionary.

Double Consonants

Double consonants in French are similar to those in English, and are always pronounced as a single sound (excepting 'cc' before e or i - pronounced as in English). They only affect the pronunciation of the letter e, as mentioned above.

1The Received Pronunciation version of words like 'bath' was originally an affectation taken from this.2Between g and a vowel, u is silent.3Also pronounced as 'a' in a few words, eg 'femme' and the ending '-emment'.4When ê comes in a syllable before an é sound, it changes to that sound.5Pronounced with tightly rounded lips when final.6Similarly, '-tie' is pronounced like French 'si'.

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