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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.
|a||ah||ah||pas||before 's' and 'z'1|
|i||y||yet||bien||before a vowel|
|o||o||bone||clos||before s and z; finally|
|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:
|e||e||let||cerveau||before two or more consonants3|
|e||come||chaise||usually silent – see below|
- 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.
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|
|in||an||anchor||singe||im, un, um, yn, ym, ain, aim, ein, eim|
- an - like French a, but nasalised
- en - like English on, but nasalised
- in - like English an, but nasalised
- on - like French ô, but nasalised
The following vowel letters in combination make single vowel sounds. Any other vowels that come together should be pronounced separately.
|eu||ir||bird||seul||spelled oeu in a few words (eg oeuf, soeur).|
|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.
|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|
|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).
|gn||ny||onion||Boulogne||run the sounds together|
|qu||k||quiche||quand||pronounced [kw] in a few words|
|ti||sy||pass you||action||before a vowel6|
Features of French Pronunciation
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 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.