French Pronunciation - Spiff's edit

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Few people in England realise the extent to which the French and English languages have long been intertwined. Following the Norman invasion and William the Bastard of Normandy's accession to the English throne in 10661, French was imposed as the courtly language in England for three hundred years. The existing 'Anglo-Saxon English', spoken by the Saxon nobles continued to be spoken by 'ordinary' people, ie the common people, the minor gentry and those English nobles who accepted the Norman overlords. As a language of literature, however, English became very rare in the years after the conquest. Although the Norman barons retained their language, business in England was still conducted in Englishm and gradually the older saxon tongue assimilated many French words as it developed into what we call Middle English. So in fact, a great many words look exactly the same or very similar in the two languages. Unfortunately, none of them are pronounced the same.

French pronunciation adheres much more closely to written forms than English. While a specific combination of letters such as the notorious 'ough' can be pronounced differently in a dozen English words, French tends to pronounce given combinations of letters standardly throughout the lexicon. There are exceptions, but not nearly as many as in English. When you know how to pronounce a sequence of letters, you can be fairly sure that the same sequence will be pronounced identically in another word. This is a huge aid to students of French as a foreign language.

Understanding this Entry

This entry is intended as a reasonably comprehensive guide to French pronunciation, and thus uses some technical terms, but aims to remain understandable and useful to a more casual reader.

The tables break down as follows:

  • Column One gives the letter in French.

  • Column Two gives a representation of the sound of the letter
    using English-style spelling.

  • Column Three has an English word containing this sound.

  • Column Four contains an example French word. Most of these
    will be familiar - but should not be pronounced as in English.

  • Column Five is a notes column where there are detailed
    positional rules and pronunciation cues.

Some of the sounds can only be approximated in English. These will appear in bold, and more information about them will be provided in the notes column. Due to their importance, the vowel sounds will receive special attention. Approximations are made mostly using British accents, but American equivalents are included where necessary.

Features of French Pronunciation

Nasal Vowels

Nasal vowels are probably the single greatest pronunciation difficulty for native English-speakers. English simply doesn't use them as phonemes. Phonemes can be thought of as the 'sound building blocks' we use to construct spoken words. That doesn't mean to say English-speakers can't produce these sounds. It means that these sounds don't figure among the 'sound building blocks' from which English words are constructed. The greatest difficulty is usually experienced in differentiating between 'u' and 'ou' and between 'on' and 'an' (or 'en' which is usually pronounced identically to 'an'). And of course the rather different French 'r' sound.

Silent Letters

Are there any silent letters in French? Well, the 'ph' in 'phase' and other 'ph' words is pronounced as in English, but the 'ps' of 'psychology' and other 'ps' words is pronounced. The letter 'g' is awkward, as it is pronounced as a hard 'g' when followed by an 'a', an 'o' or a 'u', but soft, as in English 'measure' before an 'i' or an 'e'. This is carried over into some English words with an apparently redundant 'ue' after a 'g', such as 'catalogue' or 'dialogue'.


Unaccented Vowels

 Letter  Sound  As in   Word  Notes 
 a  a  sack  sac  produced with the lips drawn wider and tighter than in English 
 à  ah  ah  pas  not as 'long' as the English long a, but produced with a similar shape of the mouth;
 e  e  let  cerveau  before two or more consonants 
   @  about  le  in unstressed syllables before a single consonant 
     come  chaise  word final 
 i  i  police  police   
 o  o  bone  dome  generally 
   aw  saw  clos  before 's' and 'z' 
 u  ew    lune   
  • e (short) - like e in let. Mouth is open wide with the lower jaw pulled up (as for a northern 'aye up'

  • i (long) - the lips should be spread wide, and the sound kept distinct.

  • o(before 's' or 'z') - like Northern English or Scots 'oh': lips should be quite tightly pursed, lower jaw is pulled down to produce a small round open mouth.

  • u - tongue should be in same position as for 'I'; lips should be in a very tightly pursed 'o' shape.

Accents and Accented Vowels

As in English, some vowels can be pronounced in more than one way but unlike English, French indicates this with diacritical marks comprising three accents, a diaresis (called a 'tréma' in French). There is also a symbol called a 'cedilla' that indicates whether the consonant 'c' should be pronounced as a 'hard' [k] (without a cedilla) or a 'soft' [s](with a cedilla).

  • The acute accent ´ (accent aigu) can only be on an 'e'. At the beginning of a word, it often indicates that an s used to follow that vowel, e.g., étudiant. The lips are less rounded
  • The grave accent ` (accent grave) can be found on an a, e, or u. On an e it it is pronounced with the mouth slightly less widely open and the lips slightly more rounded. On the a and u, it usually serves to distinguish between homonyms, e.g., a (has) vs à (at), ou (or) vs où (where).

  • The circumflex accent ^ (accent circonflexe) can be on an A, E, I, O, or U. It usually indicates that an s used to follow that vowel, some of which are still present in the derived English word, e.g., forêt. It is also used to distinguish between homonyms; e.g., du (contraction of de + le) vs dû (past participle of devoir).

  • The dieresis or umlaut ¨ (tréma) can be on an e, i, or u. It is used when two consecutive vowels must be pronounced, e.g., naïve, hiätus.

  • The cedilla¸ (cédille) is found only on the letter c. It changes a hard c sound (k) into a soft c sound (like s), e.g., garçon. The cedille is never placed in front of e or i, because c is always soft before these vowels.

Vowel Combinations

Although there are many different vowel sounds in French, there are no diphthongs - every vowel is part of its own syllable. Therefore, several combinations of vowel letters are needed for the various sounds.

 Letter  Sounds  As in  Word  Notes 
 ai  e  let  Mai   
 au  aw  saw  faux    
 eau  aw  saw  eau   
 eau  aw  saw  eau   
 eu  euh bir heure   


There are 21 consonant letters in French ('y' is considered a consonant).
As in English, q only occurs before u, and is dealt with in the 'Combinations' section below.

Although basically the same, the French 'b' and 'p' sounds are actually pronounced subtly differently to their counterparts in English. A clue to the difference lies in the fact that in either direction 2, the one is mistaken for the other, especially when at the beginning of a word.

H is a tricky letter in French. Depending on the etymology (or sometimes to distinguish homonyms), some initial h's are 'aspirate' and others are 'not'. If the h is aspirate, there is no elision. If the h *is* aspirate, there *is* elision. This means that along with all the other aspects of a word to be considered when constructing a sentence, you have to take into account whether this bloody 'h' is aspirate or not. The h in 'hommes' is not aspirate (fortunately!) so it's [lez ommes] whereas 'les haricots' is correctly pronounced [ley arico]. These are not the correct phonetic transcriptions, but the distinction is clear.

R also presents a problem because once again, it is not used by English-speakers as a phoneme. The French r is (Jack, correct term... glottal fricative... no, not glottal... go on, put me out of my misery!) which means that it is produced when the passage of air between the top part of the throat and the rear part of the roof of the mouth is restricted creating a 'scraping' sound. If you could make any sense of that description, give it a try... Obviously, not if your boss is watching! For one thing, it can only be done with the mouth well open. And it produces quite a bit of noise, generally, especially when you haven't really got the hang of it. Any can do it, though. Like whistling. It isn't necessarily intuitive, but with practice anyone can do it.

 Letter  Sounds  As in  Word  Notes 
 b  b  buck  bon  pronounced with the lips slightly more pushed out 
 c  k  sack  sac  initial 
 c  s  trace  trace  before an e 
 d  d  deck  dette   
 f  f  fair  faire    
 g  Gaul  Gaulle;  g  before 'a', 'u' or 'o'; see above 
 g  zh  Gaulle;  g  before 'i' or 'e'; see above 
 g  nasal vowel  ???;  sang  final position after 'n'; see above 
 h    hour  heure  'h' is always silent in French 3
 j  zh  measure  je  
 l  l  lake  lac  the tongue should touch the gum ridge 
 m  m  mat  matte  
 n  n  not  ne;   
 p  p  park  parc  pronounced with the lips slightly more pushed out; 
 q  kw  aqua;  quoi  in some words?????Don't know the rule :(  
 q  k  cheque;  cheque  final consonant 
 r  R     route  The r is produced at the top of the throat and slightly rolled 
 s  s  soup  soupe; initial 
 s  s  soup  soupe; initial or preceding a consonant 
 ss  s  passage  passage  double-s only 
 s  z  disaster  désastre  intervocalic 
 t  t  table  table    
    v  vase  vase   
 w  w  week-end;  week-end  mostly in words imported from Anglo-saxon 
 w  v  Wagnerian;  wagon  mostly in words imported from Germanic or Slavic 
 x  ks  exclaim  exclamer  before a consonant 
 x  gs  exotic  exotique  before a vowel 
 y  y  yes  yeux  also represented by 'll' in some words and an midword 'ie'; 
 z  z  zoo  zoo    


There are several consonant combinations in French.

 Letter  Sounds  As in  Word  Notes 
 ch  sh  ship  chic   
 gn  ny  onion  Boulogne  the sounds should be run together 
 ph  f  ph  phase   
 qu  k  uniqu quand   
 th  t  stop  thyme   


Stress in French, unlike the rest of this entry,could hardly be simpler. There is one main rule; stress the last syllable.

French is spoken in over fifty countries worldwide, as the first language of over 50 million people, and the second by further nearly 80 million. While this is not a huge number, compared with English, Chinese or even Spanish, it's influence has spread to every corner of the globe.

1ie since the Norman victory at the Battle of Hastings; a pivotal event in the history of the British isles, since which nothing of any great note has happened in Hastings...2ie a Frenchman speaking to an Englishman, or vice versa3See notes above for details of 'aspirate' h

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