User:B jonas/French pronunciation

Definition from Wiktionary, the free dictionary
Jump to navigation Jump to search

This page tries to be a quick reference of pronunciation rules for the French language for beginners.

This is a wiki, feel free to improve this. Also, if you are familiar with French pronunciation and have read this and think it's mostly okay, drop me a line please. Thanks.


In first approximation, French has eight different vowel sounds. Here is the list of them, with the most frequent spelling first and then the pronunciation symbol this guide will use.

  • "i" [i]
  • "u" [y]
  • "è" [e]
  • "eu" [ø]
  • "e" [ə]
  • "a" [a]
  • "o" [o]
  • "ou" [u]

Four of these however, [e a o ø], have an open and a close variant. The pronunciation of these differ only in openness, and so they're not easy to tell apart. (This is in contrast with, eg., UK English, which has pairs of vowels differing in both length and openness. French does not have long vowels.) Except for the case of [e] this guide won't tell you which of the variants to use.

Here is the list of how you pronounce written vowels. (Some more rules are told later.)

  • "i" is always pronounced as [i].
  • "é" is always a closed [e].
  • "è" or "ê" is always an open [e].
  • "ai" or "ei" is usually an open [e] but can sometimes be a closed [e].
  • "e" followed by two consonant sounds is pronounced as [e] (usually open). This only applies when the consonants are actually pronounced, not, eg., at the end of words such as verbs ending in "ent".
  • "e" followed by a pronounced consonant but no other vowels (only possibly silent consonants) is pronounced as [e] (open or closed). "e" followed by an "r" or "z" but no other vowels is also pronounced as [e], even if the "r" or "z" is not pronounced. The most frequent case is verbs ending in "er" or "ez", where the [e] is closed; in most other words, eg. "mer, enfer, quel, avec" the [e] is open.
  • "e" is also pronounced as a closed [e] in a few grammar words, namely "les, des, mes, tes, ses, et".
  • At other times, "e" is pronounced as [ə], which is often optional, as explained later.
  • "eu", "oe", "oeu", "œ", "œu", "ue" are pronounced as [ø]. (As an exception, the word "eu", when it's the participe passé of the verb "avoir", is pronounced as [y] instead. Note that "ue" occurs most often in the sequence "gue", in which case this rule doesn't apply.)
  • "a" is pronounced as [a].
  • "o" is pronounced as [o].
  • "au" and "eau" are also pronounced as [o].
  • "oi" is pronounced similar to [oa] with a short [o] (or the "wa" in the English word "watt" but with a closed [a]).
  • "u" is pronounced as [y].
  • "ou" is pronounced as [u].
  • "y" most often appears in the digraphs: "ay" or "ey" denotes [ei], "oy" denotes [oai]. Alone, "y" is pronounced as [i], and "uy" is pronounced as [yi]. (The [i] in these is a short semi-vowel similar to the "y" in the English "buy".)
  • Other vowel combinations are pronounced similarly to when they were separate vowels. In particular, "ui" is pronounced as [yi] with a short [y].
  • The circumflex and grave accents don't change the pronunciation, except when on an "e": "à" or "â" counts as an "a", "î" as an "i", "ô" as an "o", "ù" or "û" as an "u". These can appear in digraphs like the base letters.
  • The trema (diaeresis) diacritic does not change the value of the base vowel but does not allow the letter to form a digraph. Thus, "ï" is pronounced as [i]. Similarly, "ë" is pronounced as an open [e] (not [ə]). There are also two very rare letters, "ü" and "ÿ".

The schwa[edit]

The case of [ə] requires special discussion. This sound, denoted by "e", is often optional, that is, you need not pronounce it, and indeed, most speakers will elide it as much as they can. You must pronounce the [ə] when it would break a cluster of three pronounced consonants, even when this cluster has a word boundary in it. (Consonants not actually pronounced don't count in this respect. When in doubt of whether you can elide it, pronounce the [ə], as that's never an error.) Finally, you must pronounce the [ə] in the word "que" (unless it becomes "qu'" when it's followed by a vowel in the next word).

Nasal vowels[edit]

French also has four nasal vowels which are written as a vowel (or vowel digraph) followed by a letter "n" or "m". You pronounce these as if you had caught cold.

  • "in" or "ein" or "ain" stands for [ɛ̃]. It sounds similar to an [e].
  • "en" or "an" stands for [ɑ̃], and "on" for [ɔ̃]. These sound similar to each other or an [o].
  • "un" stands for [œ̃]. It sounds like an [ø].

Whether the consonant is "n" or "m" does not matter, so, eg., "em" also denotes [ɑ̃].

Here are the rules for nasalisation. A vowel can only be nasalised when a vowel (whether written as a single letter or a digraph) is followed by a letter "n" or "m". If this happens, the vowel is replaced by the corresponding nasal vowel listed above, and the "m" or "n" is not pronounced. If, however, the nasalisation does not happen, the "n" or "m" is pronounced as a real consonant.

  • When the "n" or "m" is followed by a consonant in the same word, it does nasalize.
  • When the "n" or "m" is immediately followed by a vowel in the same word, nasalisation does not happen. A silent "e" counts as a vowel for this purpose.
  • When the "n" or "m" is at the end of the word or is only followed by (silent) consonants before the end of the word, it does nasalize.
  • However, an "ent" suffix of a verb is pronounced as just an [ə], that is, there is no nasalisation and the "nt" consonants are silent. (This does not apply to nouns or adjectives ending in "ent".)
  • "mm" or "nn" is usually a consonant and does not make a nasal vowel, eg. "femme".
  • However, if the "nn" or "mm" is created by an "em" or "en" prefix to a verb starting with "m" or "n", there is both a nasal vowel and a consonant, eg. "emmener" is pronounced [ɑ̃məne].

Silent consonants[edit]

The most important rule of French pronunciation is that any consonants after the last vowel of a word are not pronounced. An "e" counts as a vowel for this purpose even when it's not pronounced. This most often consonants that appear in such position are "s", "t", "d", or "x", but can also happen with other consonants: "z, p, c, g, b". Such a silent consonant need not follow the last vowel immediately, there can be other consonants before it: other silent consonants, pronounced consonants, or a nasalising "n" or "m", eg. in "enfers", "r" is pronounced but "s" is not. The consonants in the "ent" suffix of a verb are also silent.

Some consonants are not silent even in final position: these are "r" and "l" and the rarer "c, f, q, k". That is, these consonants are still pronounced at the end of a word or when followed by other (silent) consonants only. However, in verbs ending with "er", however, the "r" is not pronounced as a consonants, it only makes the "e" a closed [e] sound (instead of an [ə]; this exception does not apply to nouns ending in "er" such as "mer, enfer", or verbs ending in "ir", the "r" is a pronounced consonant in these afterall).

These rules aren't always true, there are some rarer exceptions of words where the final consonant is silent or not silent against these rules.

Value of consonants[edit]

Most consonants are simple, because they have a single sound value: "b, d, f, p, r, t, v" and the rare "z, k". Here is a list of the others.

  • "c" is pronounced as a [k] (like "k" in English or French) when followed by one of "a, o, u, r, l" (or accented variants); but is pronounced as a [s] (like "s" in the English "sea") when followed by an "e" or "i" (or accented variants).
  • "ç" is always pronounced as an [s].
  • "ch" is always pronounced as [ʃ] (like "sh" in the English "she").
  • "g" is pronounced [g] (like "g" in the English "go") when followed by one of "a, o, u, r, l" (or accented variants); but is pronounced as [ʒ] (like "s" in the English "measure") when followed by an "e" or "i" (or accented variants). The "u" is silent whenever it occurs in the cluster "gue" or "gui" (or accented variants), and serves only to change the value of "g" to [g], eg. in the word "guérir". Similarly, the "e" is silent in the cluster "geo", but changes the value of "g" to [ʒ], eg. in the word "mangeons" (but "é" is not silent in the cluster "géa").
  • "gn" is a single consonant [ɲ] (similar to the "n" in the English "new"), eg. "oignon".
  • "h" is not pronounced. It usually doesn't have any value, it does not even count as a consonant (eg. "l'habitude"), but at the beginning of a few words it counts as a consonant for most purposes like liaisons (eg. "le héros") which is still not pronounced, when it's called an h aspiré. Thus, "th" is pronounced as [t] just like a plain "t" would be. However, the cluster "ch" is an exception as mentioned above. If "h" occurs between two vowels (eg. "trahir"), those vowels are pronounced separately, not as a digraph.
  • "j" is always pronounced as a [ʒ].
  • "l" is usually pronounced as [l] (like in English). "ill" in the cluster "ille" is pronounced as [ij] (with the [j] being a short sound similar to "y" in the English "eye"), eg. "fille"; and "il" at the end of a word is pronounced as [j], eg. "œil". As an exception, the "l" is still pronounced as an [l] in the words "il", "mille", "tranquille", "ville".
  • "m" and "n" are pronounced as [m] or [n] (same as in English) unless they make a nasal vowel as described above.
  • "qu" is pronounced as [k], so the "u" is silent in it. Rarely, "q" stand alone at the end of a word, when it is pronounced as [k].
  • "s" is pronounced as [s] or [z] depending on the word, just like in English.
  • "w" occurs only in foreign words like "week-end".
  • "x" is pronounced as two consonants [ks] (just like in English), eg. "axe".
  • "z" is pronounced as [z], eg. in "seize".

A doubled consonant (eg. in "appeler"), or two adjacent consonants with the same value (eg. in "descendre"), are usually has the same value as a single, except as mentioned above. French doesn't have long consonants.


See also[edit]