UPDATE: French Pronunciation

4 Conversations

Though French and English share centuries of common heritage, today most English speakers can barely manage a potted bon-jore. Deliberate mispronunciation may not be the only reason for this, since pronouncing French properly is difficult, for the following reasons. First, there are some strange sounds in French and the physical effort of combining these rapidly makes speaking French hard to coordinate. Second, though some progress has been made since 1990, the French Academy has been unable or unwilling to impose effective spelling reform for two centuries, leaving a rather chaotic orthographic system. Third, English speakers' ideas about how French words should sound are ingrained and overwhelmingly incorrect.

This Entry is text only, so it cannot help with the first of the above problems. The Entry therefore concentrates on the second
problem, orthography, by systematically setting out how each letter is pronounced, and the ways each sound is written. The Entry is restricted for space and cannot be exhaustive, so rarer exceptions have been omitted. Note that, with access to a native French speaker, this Entry can also help reduce the third problem.

Here the French spelling system is examined by tabulating each letter or combination of letters with the way(s) it is pronounced. Although there is often more than one way of spelling a given sound in French, the converse is rarely true. Most letters and letter combinations are pronounced in only one or two ways. Furthermore, those pronounced in more than one way often have positional restrictions, detailed in the 'Notes' column.

Guide to the Tables

In the tables below, each letter (abbreviated 'Ltr') or letter combination is given its own row. The second column (Snd) contains a representation of the letter's sound using a unique English-style spelling. There follows an English word which contains this sound, then an example word in French. Most of these should be familiar, but should not be pronounced as in English. The fifth column contains positional restrictions (for example, c is only prounounced like s before e, i and y) and any other notes.

Extra pronunciation tips appear after the tables, particularly for vowels. Some of the sounds can only be approximated in English - these are shown in bold and do not have an English example. The approximations are mostly in British accents, though American equivalents are included where possible. Reading all of this Entry should provide a good grounding in French pronunciation, but, for casual reading, the tables should suffice.

Vowels and their Accents

French vowels are divided here into single vowels (both accented and unaccented) and vowel combinations. Since the pronunciation of the letter letter 'e' is rather complicated it has its own section. All the sounds made with French vowels are included here - vowel letters (i, u and the combination ou) can actually have consonant sounds.

As French as croissants, acute, grave and circumflex accents are peppered all over French vowels. Not all of these have an effect on the vowel's pronunciation - those that do are detailed below. Of the remainder, a few serve to distinguish otherwise identical words (eg la vs là, and ou vs où), while others are purely garnish (eg gîte, mûr). In addition, there is the dieresis which separates vowel sounds. For example, naïve, which contains the vowel group 'ai' (see below), and would otherwise be pronounced [nev], is in fact pronounced as two separate syllables, [na-eev].

 Ltr  Snd  As in  Word  Notes 
 a  ah  bah  pas  before s and z1 
 a  a  sack  sac  otherwise 
 â  ah  bah  gâteau   
 i  y  yet  bien  before a vowel 
 i  ee  meet  police  otherwise 
 o  o  bone  clos  before s and z; finally 
 o  aw  saw  dome  otherwise 
 ô  o  bone  cône   
 u  w    suis  before another vowel (usually)2 
 u  ew    lune  otherwise 
 y  ee  meet  système  before a consonant 
  • o (as in 'dome') - make with rounded, half-open lips.
  • ô - like Scots 'oh' or Spanish 'o': keep your lips tightly pursed.
  • u (lune) - hold your tongue in the position for 'ooh' and say 'ee'.
  • u (suis) - like y as in 'yet', but with your lips in a position to say 'ooh'. Too tricky? A normal 'w' will do.

The Letter E

This ubiquitous French letter has its own section as it can be pronounced in several different ways.

 Ltr  Snd  As in  Word  Notes 
 e  e  let  cerveau  before two or more consonants3  
 e  uh  about  le  see below 
 e    case  chaise  usually silent when final - see below 
 ê  e  set  forêt  usually4 
 è  e  set  sèche  usually the second last vowel in a word 
 é  ay  say  blé   
  • é - a single sound between English 'ee' and 'e', like 'ay' in Scots 'day' or Spanish 'e'.
  • e (before one or fewer consonants) - various pronunciations:
    1. Silent (a) when final (in polysyllabic words) and (b) in the penultimate sylllable when followed by a single consonant sound (eg 'acheter' [ashtay]).
    2. Pronounced like 'a' in 'about' (a) when ending one-syllable words (eg de, le), (b) in the penultimate syllable when followed by two or more consonant sounds, and (c) final when followed by two or more consonant sounds.
  • Note that a consonant before final e is considered to be mid-word and is pronounced. For example, masculine 'petit' [puhtee] vs. feminine 'petite' [puhteet].

Nasal Vowels

Essential to any French caricature, nasal vowels are vowels pronounced through both the mouth and nose. The rule that tells you where to nasalise in French is simple: any time you see m or n come after a vowel but not before one, you have a nasal vowel. Actually making the nasal sounds is harder - access to a native French speaker will be helpful with this.

There are several ways of spelling the three nasal vowel sounds. These are detailed in the final column of the table.

 Ltr  Snd  As in  Word  Other Spellings 
 an  awn    tante  am, en, em 
 in  an    singe  im, un, um, yn, ym, ain, aim, ein, eim 
 on  on    son  om 
  • an - like French a, but with air passing through the nose
  • in - like French è, as above
  • on - like French ô, as above

Vowel Groups

French has many vowel sounds and makes use of the following vowel letter combinations to spell them. Any other vowels that appear together should be pronounced separately.

 Ltr  Snd  As in  Word  Notes 
 ai  e  set  lait   
 au  o  bone  faux   
 eau  o  bone  eau   
 ei  e  set  neige   
 eu5  ir  bird  seul   
 oi  wa  wag  moi   
 ou  oo  boot  fou  generally 
 ou  w  wet  oui  before a vowel 
  • eu with rounded lips and no 'r' sound if you would normally use one. Pronounced with tightly rounded lips when the last sound in a word.
  1. Before another vowel, the 'i' in ai, ei, oi, and ui changes to a 'y', eg 'mayonnaise'[meyonez]. Note that you should put a [y] sound between the vowels.

Consonants

Of the 18 native 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 respectively. As in English, q only appears before u in French, and is treated here as a Consonant Combination. Note that this section only deals with consonants in initial and mid-word positions. The issue of final consonants is dealt with in 'Silent Letters' below.

 Ltr  Snd  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  got  gaffe  generally 
 g  zh  measure  gens  before e, i and y 
 h    hour  heure  always silent, but see 'Liaison' below 
 j  zh  measure  je   
 m  m  more  moi  starting a syllable - see Nasal Vowels 
 n  n  not  non  starting a syllable - see Nasal Vowels 
 r  r    rouge   
 s  s  sit  soie  generally 
 s  z  zip  pause  between vowels 
 x  ks  fix  fixe  generally 
 x  gz  exam  exercice  between vowels (words beginning with ex-) 
 y  y  yet  yeux  before a vowel 
  • r - pronounced at the back of the throat, with your uvula. Needs lots of practise.

Combinations

Of the several consonant and vowel-consonant combinations used in French, two are pronounced as in English: ph (pronounced like f) and sc (pronounced [sk] normally but [s] before e or i). Those that are pronounced differently in French are listed below.

 Ltr  Snd  As in  Word  Notes 
 ch  sh  ship  chic   
 ge  zh  measure  mangeons  only occurs before 'a' and 'o' 
 gn  ny  onion  mignon   
 il  y  yet  oeuil  see below 
 qu  k  quiche  quand  pronounced [kw] in a few words 
 tch  ch  check  tchèque  very rare 
 th  t  tea  thé  rare 
 ti  sy  pass you  action  before a vowel6 
  • il: Note that these two letters make one sound. A common variation is 'ill' which, is pronounced the same except when starting a word, for example 'brouillard' is pronounced [brooyar].

Features of French Pronunciation

Silent Letters

French beginners make gaffes such as 'sil vooz plate' before realising that final consonants are usually silent in French. The following groupings should help you to determine which final consonants should be sounded or not.

  • Usually pronounced: c, f, l and r (except in the endings -er and -ier).
  • Usually silent: s (always silent in plurals but often pronounced otherwise), x and z.
  • Almost always silent: b, d, g, p and t. Also m and n (see Nasal Vowels above.)
  • Cannot end a word: h, j, k, v, w and y.

Of the exceptions, many are either very common words (eg 'fils') or foreign words, especially those taken from Latin.

Liaison

However, silent final consonants are not entirely redundant. Before a word beginning with a vowel, these letters reactivate, forming the start of a new syllable with the vowel. So, 'vous êtes', is pronounced 'voo zet'. The full rules for liaison are complicated and fall outside the scope of this Entry.

The letter h, though always silent, prevents liaison in some words. It is called aspirated h when it does this. Which words these are is usually indicated in a dictionary.

Double Consonants

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

1This sound is gradually being replaced by the following sound.2Between g and a vowel, u is silent3Pronounced like 'a' in 'sac' in the adverbial ending '-emment'and a few individual words, eg 'femme'.4When ê is in an open, non-final syllable, it changes to that sound5this sound has three rare variant spellings: 'oeu' (eg oeuf, soeur), 'oe' (eg oeil), and 'ue' (eg cueillir). 6Similarly, '-tie' is pronounced like French 'si'

Bookmark on your Personal Space


Entry

A801802

Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry


Written and Edited by

Disclaimer

h2g2 is created by h2g2's users, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the Not Panicking Ltd. Unlike Edited Entries, Entries have not been checked by an Editor. If you consider any Entry to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please register a complaint. For any other comments, please visit the Feedback page.

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more