French Pronunciation: Vowels
January 11, 2020
Learning and teaching pronunciation is difficult, because most people, regardless of the languages they know, don’t have the vocabulary to explain how sounds are made. They’ll give meaningless advice like “no, it’s a fuller sound.” To give a real explanation you need to know basic phonetic theory. I’ll introduce all the linguistics concepts necessary in this article, but you may need to look to other sources to really get it. If you don’t have the opportunity to take an intro linguistics class, I would recommend Xidnaf’s channel for a highly approachable introduction to linguistics concepts.
This article assumes that you’re an English speaker with decent knowledge of French, but you’re looking to improve your pronunciation.
Spelling and pronunciation
Both English and French have rather strange spelling systems where the letters in a word only loosely correspond to its pronunciation.1 For instance “lie,” “Thai,” “my,” “buy,” and “pi” all end in the same sound, which is represented with different letters every time. Likewise, in French, « cent », « s’en », « sang », « sans », « sens », and « sent » are all pronounced the same way. Conversely, the same letter can make different sounds depending on the word: Compare the ‘c’ in « ciel » and « encore ».
While discussing pronunciation, it’s important to be able to talk about sounds independent of spelling. Since no one wants to have to constantly say “‘c’ as in « ciel »,” linguists invented the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) where every sound (phoneme), in every language, corresponds to exactly one symbol.2 This is what you’ll typically see used for dictionary pronunciations. Wiktionary in particular has fantastic IPA coverage for many different languages.
In IPA, « cent » and « s’en » are both /sɑ̃/. Note that IPA symbols are typically surrounded by slashes.3 In many cases, the symbol represents the sound that you would expect: /p/ is the sound at the start of “pig” and « pantalon ». However, in other cases it’s not so obvious: /j/ represents the sound at the beginning of “yam” rather than “jam.” This article won’t teach you the whole IPA, but it will introduce symbols as needed. This website allows you to click on any IPA symbol to hear the corresponding sound.
It’s important to understand that different languages use different sounds. For instance, English has the phoneme /ð/, which is written as ‘th.’ French doesn’t have this sound, which is why French people will sometimes say “zese sings” instead of “these things.” Likewise, English doesn’t have /ʁ/ (the French ‘r’), which is why you might have difficulty saying « ronronner ».
So how do you learn a sound that isn’t part of your language? Besides imitation and practice (which you’ll still definitely need), it helps to think about the features that allow us to differentiate between sounds.
Vowels and features
Vowels, in almost all languages, are distinguished by three properties: height, frontness, and roundness. Height and frontness both refer to the position of the tongue, while roundness refers to the shape of the lips.4
Probably the most noticeable feature of vowels is the height of the tongue in the mouth.5 Say each of the following words in succession, and observe as your tongue progressively falls lower: “beat” → “bait” → “bet” → “bat.”
While height is the vertical position tongue, frontness is the depth in the mouth. It’s slightly harder to detect, but if you go from saying “bet” to “but,” you should notice the difference. It’s more dramatic between /i/, the vowel in “beat,” and /u/, in “boot,” but note that there is also a difference in roundness.
Roundness is just the shape of the lips. In the words “boot,” “boat,” and “bought,” your lips make a round, ‘o’ shape. By contrast, they will be in a more neutral position in “bet,” “but”, “beat,” and “bat.”
The vowel chart
Phonetic properties can be very abstract. There are two important ways you can learn to recognize them: listening and seeing. To visualize vowels, we typically plot them on a chart where the y-axis represents height and the x-axis represents backness. The chart isn’t square, because as the tongue moves lower, it tends to move further back, due to the shape of the human mouth.
Round vowels are placed to the right of each vertical line, while unrounded vowels are placed on the left. Schwa is exactly in the center, because it’s somewhat in-between.
You can click the phonemes on the chart below to hear them and see examples of uses in English and French.
Select a Vowel
/i/ - High Front Unrounded
|English:||Bean, see, me, li|
|French:||Paris, il, lyre|
/y/ - High Front Rounded
|French:||tu, vu, murmure, unité|
/e/ - Mid-High Front Unrounded
|English:||hay, radiation, gaelic|
|French:||et, ses, les, pied|
/ø/ - Mid-High Front Rounded
/ɛ/ - Mid-Low Front Unrounded
|French:||elle, tenis, filet|
/œ/ - Mid-Low Front Rounded
|French:||œuvre, heure, cœur|
/ɪ/ - High Front Tensed Unrounded
/æ/ - Low-Mid-Low Front Unrounded
/a/ - Low Front Unrounded
/ə/ - Schwa
/u/ - High Back Rounded
/ʊ/ - High Back Tensed Rounded
/o/ - Mid-High Back Rounded
/ʌ/ - Mid-Low Back Unrounded
/ɔ/ - Mid-Low Back Rounded
/ɑ/ - Low Back Unrounded
|English:||hot, not, bath (Received Pronunciation)|
|Black||Exists in English and French|
|Green||Exists only in English|
|Red||Exists only in French|
|Orange||Exists in French and some dialects of English|
English has a lot of vowels6, so most of the ones used in French should already be familiar. There are, however, 3-5 that you have to learn (not including diphthongs or nasalizations): /y/, /ø/, /œ/, /a/, and /ɔ/.
/y/, /ø/, and /œ/
Fortunately, the first three new vowels are just rounded versions of vowels that exist in English.
/y/ is the vowel sound in French words like « tu », « vu », « unité », and « bureau ». Do not be confused by the notation: it does not make a sound like the letter ‘y’. Instead, it is the rounded equivalent of /i/, the sound in French words like « si », « île », and « finir » or English words like “me,” “tree,” “sea,” and “funny.” Note that the spelling is totally inconsistent: it’s the sound we’re talking about, not the letter.
To make a /y/ sound, start by saying “me” and hold it. “Meeeee—”. Then, without changing anything, make your lips into an ‘o’ shape, as if you were going to start whistling. Then transition into saying « —uuuuunité ». Maintain the mouth position and say « unité » again. It should now sound similar to the same word said by a native speaker.
You can follow the same process for /œ/ and /ø/.
/œ/ is the rounded version of /ɛ/, which is the sound in “let,” “etymology,” and “meh”. Hold “meeeeeeeeeh—”, then round your lips, and transition to « —oooooœuvre ». This is a nice case where the IPA transcriptions lines up with the spelling, as in words like « cœur » and « mœurs ». However, it’s also the sound when ‘eu’ comes in the middle of a word, as in « heure » and « seul ».
/ø/ is between /œ/ and /y/. It’s the rounded version of /e/, which is the sound in “face” and “may”. Hold “Maaaaaaaaay—” but try not to pronounce the “y” if it comes out in your dialect. Round your lips, then transition to « —eeeeux-mêmes ».
You might already know this vowel. To test if it’s in your dialect, say “cot,” (as in: a little bed) followed by “caught.” If it sounds different, then you probably already know /ɔ/. It’s the vowel in “caught.” In French, it appears in words like « fort », « donner », and « sol ».
If you don’t have it in your dialect, just round your lips as you say the vowel in “cot,” just as in the examples above. Compare to a UK English accent.
In most dialects of English, /a/ (distinct from /ɑ/) appears only in diphthongs, where it blends with another vowel, as in “price” (/praɪs/) or “mouth” (/maʊθ/). In French, /a/ appears in words like « ami », « Paris », and « là ».
To pronounce /a/, first note that it’s at the very bottom of the vowel chart. The lowest front vowel in English is /æ/ as in “cat.” Start with that sound, then open your mouth even wider. It should sound sort of like the ‘a’ in “la” or “ma,” but with the tongue further towards the front of the mouth.
In some dialects of French, /a/ and /ɑ/ have merged into one vowel that’s in the middle between the front and back. You might think that this means you can get away with just using the English /ɑ/ everywhere, but I’ve been told by a Parisian that Americans are always pronouncing our ’a’s wrong, so you should be careful.
If you’ve been studying French for a while, you’ve probably noticed that ‘m’s and ’n’s at the ends of words aren’t usually pronounced. The most obvious example is « faim » vs « femme ». If you pronounce the ’m’ in « faim », you may end up saying “I have woman” instead of “I’m hungry.”
However, the ’m’s and ’n’s aren’t totally silent either. So what’s going on? To understand, note that both sounds, /m/ and /n/ in IPA, are nasal. When you say “emmmmmmmm,” notice that your mouth is closed, and the air comes out of your nose.
When an ‘m’ or ‘n’ comes at the end of a French word, instead of being pronounced itself, it causes the vowel before it to nasalize, meaning that some of the air will come out of your nose instead of your mouth.
In IPA, a vowel will have a small tilde (˜) above it to indicate that it’s nasalized. Thus, « faim » is written /fɛ̃/, while « femme » is written /fɛm/.
The above « femme/faim » contrast in an example of a minimal pair: a pair of words that differ in only one sound. These are very useful for studying languages, and can help you practice you pronunciation. The tables below show commonly confused sounds which you can practice differentiating.
/y/ vs. /u/
English speakers usually mistake /y/ for /u/, the sound in English words like “lose”, “tube”. Remember: /y/, as in « vu » is with round lips.
|vu||vous||« Avez-vous vu ça ? »|
|tu||tous||« As-tu tous les papiers ? »|
|du||doux||« Château du Doux »7|
/e/ vs. /ø/
|et||eux||« C’est entre nous et eux. »|
|héros||euro||« Un héros européen »|
/o/ vs. /ø/
|dos||deux||« la bête à deux dos »|
|peau||peu||« le symptôme : peau peu chaude »|
/ɛ/ vs. /œ/
|sel||seul||« Le sel de Guérande, c’est le seul sel. »|
|sert||sœur||« La sœur sert le dîner. »|
/ø/ vs. /ɔ/
|neutre||notre||« notre Neutre se cherche par rapport au paradigme »8|
/e/ vs /ɛ/
These both exist in English, but the contrast might not be obvious. With /e/, the tongue and pitch will be slightly higher.
/ɛ/ vs. /ɛ̃/
|sec||cinq||« En cinq sec. »|
|aide||Inde||« Pour l’Inde, l’aide est apportée. »|
|paix||pain||« Paix, pain, liberté ! »|
A Final Note
You might have noticed some patterns in how spelling relates to pronunciation. As it turns out, although there are usually several ways to spell the same vowel sound, French is surprisingly consistent and regular in vowel spelling. It is almost always possible to correctly infer the vowel in a word just based on its orthography. I was surprised to learn this, because until recently I was only dimly aware of the vowel sounds that exist in the language. This is why phonetics is so important: it makes you aware of the limitations in your understanding of a language in order to overcome them.
Besides that fact that their orthographic systems were designed before linguistics even existed, English and French have weird spelling systems because in many cases spellings are based on the history of the word rather than its current realization. For instance, the “gh” in “through” and “plough” was once pronounced, but has fallen out of the language. Also, there’s the fact that the alphabet was inherited from Latin, which had a completely different set of sounds.↩︎
Really, the same sound can have multiple symbols due to broad transcription. However, IPA is much closer to a 1-to-1 mapping than any other alphabet.↩︎
Technically, slashes indicate that the transcription uses only symbols that are contrastive in the language. If a feature is transcribed but not contrastive in the language, such as aspiration in English, then the transcription should be put between brackets: […].↩︎
English also contrasts tense and lax vowels: compare “eat” with “it.” However, this contrast does not exist in French, so it can be set aside.↩︎
Sometimes, high vowels are called “close,” and low vowels are called “open.”↩︎
French actually has more vowels than English, but most of them are just nasalized versions of other vowels. English also has tons of diphthongs. Both languages have an unusually high number of vowels: Spanish and Greek, by contrast, have only five.↩︎
Roland Barthes, Le Neutre↩︎