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].
|a||ah||bah||pas||before s and z1|
|i||y||yet||bien||before a vowel|
|o||o||bone||clos||before s and z; finally|
|u||w||suis||before another vowel (usually)2|
|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.
|e||e||let||cerveau||before two or more consonants3|
|e||case||chaise||usually silent when final - see below|
|è||e||set||sèche||usually the second last vowel in a word|
- 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:
- Silent (a) when final (in polysyllabic words) and (b) in the penultimate sylllable when followed by a single consonant sound (eg 'acheter' [ashtay]).
- 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].
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|
- an - like French a, but with air passing through the nose
- in - like French è, as above
- on - like French ô, as above
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.
|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.
- 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.
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.
|c||s||set||cette||before e, i and y|
|ç||s||set||ça||only occurs before a, o, and u|
|g||zh||measure||gens||before e, i and y|
|h||hour||heure||always silent, but see 'Liaison' below|
|m||m||more||moi||starting a syllable - see Nasal Vowels|
|n||n||not||non||starting a syllable - see Nasal Vowels|
|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.
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.
|ge||zh||measure||mangeons||only occurs before 'a' and 'o'|
|qu||k||quiche||quand||pronounced [kw] in a few words|
|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
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.
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 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.