Prepared by Robert Dickey
revised by François de Dardel with audio examples
It is impossible to learn the adequate pronunciation of a language in a book, or an article such as this one. Only voice recordings, or many months with a good teacher can give you the correct sounds to imitate. The present article aims to give you a systematic, though not scientific presentation of French pronunciation to help you understand why you have difficulties with certain sounds and hopefully to help you solve them. Specifically, it points out subtle differences in the pronunciation of certain French and English sounds that can seem identical to the untrained ear but contribute to give you the foreign "accent" that people claim to love.
Remember that, contrary to English, French has very definite vowel and consonant sounds that, as far as you are concerned, are not negotiable. Of course there is a "tolerance" in each sound, which allows for individual and regional differences. But the limits are very narrow. If you don't want an "accent", aim for perfection.
If you don't have an adequate voice source of French pronunciation and would like a reference you can go back to occasionally, you can ask a native French-speaker to record for you the "practice words" listed throughout this article. Make sure they leave spaces on the tape so you can repeat the sounds you hear. If you have a choice, use a person of your own sex, possibly urban (middle size towns are best), from the North of France. In principle, Ile-de-France is best, but not necessarily Paris, where "fashions" come and go. Of course French-born, trained teachers of French are the ideal, no matter where they come from.
Before we start, it is important to distinguish between "spelling" and "sound". Like English, but unlike Spanish and Italian, French is not necessarily written at is is spoken. When we refer for example to the "an" sound (nasal a), we mean a sound that can be written as "an", "en", "aon", "ent", "ant", "ens", "ans" etc.
For proper rendering of some phonetic characters (IPA) in this page, a suitable Unicode font must be used. The default font here is Lucida Grande. Lucida Sans Unicode and Helvetica are replacement fonts. If your computer does not have any of these three fonts, the phonetic characters may not show correctly.
French has sixteen vowel sounds.
Open a — IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) representation: a (normal "a")
This is the most open sound in French. It is possibly the sound you make when the doctor says to open as wide as you can. The closest English sound is the "a" in "hat". But you have to be aware that "hat" ends with an "e" sound (as in "get") that has to be eliminated in French. [You don't believe me ? Then why do some foreigners, notably Germans, pronounce "het"? It's because it is the sound that they recognize in that word. The open "a" sound is unfamiliar to them.] Give a short, sharp sound. This is the usual "a" in French. Normally, you do not pronounce "a" as in "father" (the "closed a"). Example of "open a": "patte" (the leg of an animal).
PRACTICE OF "OPEN A"
patte - sac - madame - gare. Papa est capable.
Closed a — IPA representation: ɑ (an "a" similar to a script "a").
This is similar to the "a" in "father", the Italian "a" and the Spanish "a". In spelling it often has the circumflex accent or is followed by an "s". Example of "closed a": "pas" (step). (Note: in some areas of France, or with some French-speaking individuals, "patte" and "pâte" are pronounced almost identically).
PRACTICE OF "CLOSED A"
pâte (circumflex on "a") - bas - pas - tas. Ne casse pas les noix.
Nasal a — IPA representation: ɑ̃ (closed "a" with a tilde).
This sound, often represented by "an", is the nasal version of the "closed a". In other words, you have to make sure you pronounce the "closed a" correctly first. Just remember there is no "n" in it. It's like you began to say "n" and didn't finish it. Example: the "en" in "pente" (incline, hill).
PRACTICE OF "NASAL A"
pente - banc - lent - temps. Cet enfant apprend lentement.
Mute e ("e muet") — IPA symbol: ə (an upside down "e").
It is called "mute" because frequently, it is not pronounced. This usually presents no difficulty to speakers of English. It is similar to the famous "uh, uh" of hesitant public speakers. Speakers of Italian or Spanish will often pronounce it as their own "e" (similar to "get"). This is totally unacceptable.
So, when is it mute and when is it pronounced? Many foreign speakers of French tend to exaggerate the elimination of the "mute e". They mow them down like they were dangerous enemies. When in doubt, pronounce it. You'll never be wrong. On the other hand, if you twist your mouth to avoid it, you'll only attract attention to your inabilities.
In general, you should pronounce the "mute e", to avoid the clash of consonnant sounds that don't blend easily with each other. Also, you should always pronounce the "mute e" a the beginning of a sentence or a phrase, in other words after a pause. "Serez-vous là ?" (The first "e" should be pronounced). On the other hand "Vous serez là ?" is pronounced "Vous s'rez là ?".
What happens when two or more "mute e's" follow each other? The rule is: Pronounce the first one and every other one after that. Example: "Je ne serai pas là" is pronounced "Je n'serai pas là."
Finally, the more colloquial the language, the less "mute e's" we pronounce. In poetry and song, most of the "mute e's" are pronounced, or at least counted as syllables.
PRACTICE OF "MUTE E"
premier - genou - petit. Le menu de mercredi. Je n(e) le r(e)verrai plus.
Closed e — IPA symbol: e (regular printed "e").
Usually represented by "e" with an acute accent (slanted [ascending] toward the right: é). Some books would like us to believe that this is pronounced like "ay" in English. This is misleading. The "ay" sound in English is actually a diphthong, composed of something close to "e acute" followed by a "y" sound. If you can eliminate the "y" sound in "day" you'll have something close to the French word "dé" ("e acute") meaning "thimble" or "playing die". Again a short, sharp sound, not prolonged.
PRACTICE OF "CLOSED E"
été - nez - céder. J'ai décidé de parler.
Open e — IPA symbol ɛ (like Greek "epsilon" or an "m" on its side).
It is usually represented by "e grave" ("e" accent grave [descending] toward the right: è) or "e circumflex" ("e accent circonflexe": ê). This is pretty much the equivalent of the English "e" in "get". Example: "mer" (sea), "mère" (grave on first "e") (mother), "maire" (mayor), all pronounced the same way. Also: "arrêt" (stop).
PRACTICE OF "OPEN E"
bec - palais - père - tête. Une belle semaine chez la reine.
Nasal e — IPA symbol: ɛ̃ (the "open e" with a tilde).
This is usually represented by "in", but it does not belong with the "i", since it is the nasal equivalent of "open e". To get it right, pronounce "mais" (but) then nasalize it. What you should get is "main" (hand). This sound is represented by many spellings beside "in". Examples: "bain" (bath), "bien" (well), "rein" (kidney), "rien" (nothing).
PRACTICE OF "NASAL E"
train - loin - demain - teint. Lucien peint tous les matins.
There is only one "i" sound — IPA symbol: i
Books often tell you to pronounce it like English "e". Again, English "e" is a diphthong. Pronounce only the first part of it, make it short and sharp. If you can pronounce a very short "meet" without saying "mit", then you'll be close to the French "mite" (moth).
PRACTICE OF "I"
ici - lime - bise - site. Voici la liste des victimes.
Closed o — IPA symbol: o (regular o).
This is the "Oh!" of a surprised reaction. Again, be careful, because English "o" is a diphthong, ending in a "u" or "w" sound. (There is a reason for the "w" in "row" !) It is most often represented in French by "au" or "eau". Also by "o circumflex". If you can pronounce the "bow" in "bow and arrow" without the "w", then you're pretty close to the French "beau" (beautiful, pretty). If you say "rose" in French, don't pronounce it "Ro-ooze" as you would in English. Make it snappy.
PRACTICE OF "CLOSED O"
Beau - mot - côte. Le veau est trop chaud.
Open o — IPA symbol: ɔ (an o that is open on the left hand side).
Most French "o's" are open. Few speakers of American English are familiar with this sound. The "o" in "hot" as pronounced by some Southern British speakers is close to it.
If you can pronounce a short "paw", you're on the way to saying "pomme" (apple).
PRACTICE OF "OPEN O"
pomme - octobre - fort. Nicole porte une robe à la mode.
Nasal o — IPA symbol: õ (open o with a tilde).
This is the nasal form of "open o". It is usually represented by "on". Once you're good with "pomme", try "pont" (bridge). Don't pronounce the "n" or the "t".
PRACTICE OF "NASAL O"
pont - long - rond. La maison de mon oncle.
Ou — IPA symbol: u
This is Italian or Spanish "u", often represented by the English "oo" in "boot". But again this is not a pure sound in English. A quick "Boo!" is quite close. Example: "cou" (neck).
PRACTICE OF "OU"
cou - moule - douze. Il joue aux boules dans la cour.
French u — IPA symbol: y
Same as German "ü" (with dieresis umlaut) or Swedish "y". The position of the mouth is the same as for "ou", but the tongue pushes against the lower teeth. It is the position for whistling. There is no tolerance possible here. Either you have it or you don't. "Ou" is unacceptable. Example: "lune" (moon).
PRACTICE OF "FRENCH U"
lune - pure - buste. Une vue sur la rue.
Closed eu — IPA symbol: ø (an o split by a diagonal bar).
Same as German "ö" with dieresis. No English equivalent. Mouth is in a position similar to that for "French u", but slightly more open. Example: "feu" (fire).
PRACTICE OF "CLOSED EU"
deux - jeu - pneu. Les peureux sont malheureux.
Open eu — IPA symbol: œ (oe ligature).
No English equivalent. However, the vowel sound in the word "purr" as pronounced by educated speakers of Southern England and parts of New England and Manhattan seems to be close. If you are careful to eliminate the final vowel sound that poses as an "r" and replace it with a French "r" (see below), you could possibly achieve "peur" (fear). The shape of the mouth is similar to that used to pronounce "open o". The sound approaches "mute e", but it is more open. Example: "seul" (alone).
PRACTICE OF "OPEN EU"
peur - seul - feuille - heure. L'œil de ma sœur. L'œuf et le bœuf.
Nasal eu (=un) — IPA symbol: œ̃ (oe ligature with a tilde).
This is always represented by "un" or "um". If you learn to pronounce "open eu", this should come easier. No English equivalent. In Paris, you often hear this sound pronounced as ɛ̃ "in" ("nasal e"), but this trend should be discouraged. Example: "chacun" (each). See: "quatre nasales" (in French).
PRACTICE OF "NASAL EU" (="UN")
aucun - brun - lundi. Un parfum pour chacun.
Many French consonants are said to be pronounced as in English. However, in actual fact, this is rarely the case, especially at the beginning of a syllable. The English and French methods of forming a syllable are different. In French, you get your mouth in position before you produce the sound. In English, you form your mouth as you produce the sound. In French, this results in a softer, smoother "attack", whereas English initial consonants have an "explosive" quality. For example the "p" in French "patte" (leg of an animal) is much softer than the "p" in English "pat", where you'd think an "h" had been introduced between the "p" and the "a". Try forming the "p" before you actually say it.
This being said, we'll deal only with those consonants that are pronounced "differently" in French.
"d","t", "l", "n"
In French, the tongue is applied to the back of the upper front teeth, whereas in English the tongue is much farther back, which gives the English "t" and "d" an "aspirate" quality, the "l" a "gargled" quality and the "n" a certain je ne sais quoi. Examples: "toux" (cough), "doux" (soft, mild),"lac" (lake), "non" (no).
PRACTICE OF "T", "D", "L", "N"
toux - doux - lac - non.
Toutes tes tantes. Donne deux dollars. La lune luit longtemps. Le notaire note les noms.
"s" and "z"
Speakers of English (and many speakers of French) keep the tip of the tongue close to, but not touching the back of the upper front teeth. The recommended French way is to keep the tip of the tongue pushing against the back of the <lower> front teeth. This gives a slightly less sibilant "s", but needs a lot of practice, as it tends to turn to a lisp. Examples: "soleil" (sun); "gaz" (gas). Note that "s" between two vowel sounds is pronounced "z". Example: "maison" (house).
"s" is a voiceless consonant, "z" is the corresponding voiced consonant.
PRACTICE OF "S" AND "Z"
Selon Sara, seule sa sœur sort. J'ai choisi des roses et des azalées.
"ch" and "j" — IPA symbols:
for the "ch": ʃ (an elongated "s" or, if you wish, an "f" without the bar);
for the "j": ʒ (a "z" shaped like a "three").
The "ch" is similar to English "sh", as in "shot". The "j" is similar to English "s" in "Asia".
"j" is the voiced version of the "ch" consonant.
PRACTICE OF "CH" AND "J"
Charles est chanteur de charme. Je joue avec Jean et Jacques.
Two problem consonants
gn — IPA symbol: ñ ("n" with a tilde).
This is equivalent to the italian "gn" and to the Spanish ñ. No corresponding English sound. What it is not: "ny" or "y": "compagnon" is not pronounced "companyon" or "compayon". Some people have obtained results by practicing the pronunciation of "oignon" (onion), (pronounced as if it were spelled "ognon") Say "ong" as in Hong Kong and immediately add "yon".
PRACTICE OF "GN"
agneau - beignet - champagne. Sa compagne a gagné sur toute la ligne.
Velar r — IPA symbol: ʀ (a small capital "R").
When a native speaker of French hears a person who otherwise speaks perfect French, mispronounce his "r's", the result is bewilderment, then irritation. The English "r", especially as pronounced in North America is a foreign as you can get in French. This is not negotiable. Get it straight and get it now. Here is some help. The modern French "r" (the Parisian or velar r) is produced by having air from your lungs vibrate against the palate. It sound somewhat like the noise you make when trying to dislodge a fish-bone from your throat.
However, this does not happen in the throat (as in some other languages). The velar "r" happens along the palate and it happens at different places, according to the vowel it accompanies. In this, it is similar to the sound "k". Pronounce "k" with different French vowels: ka, ko, ke, ki, ku. You will see that the impact of the air moves from the back to the front of the palate. As it turns out, the "r" is pronounced at the same place on the palate as the "k".
So to acquire the correct pronunciation of "r", pronounce it together with "k". Say "ka-ra" (feel both letters at the same place). Then practice it with other vowels: ko-ro, ke-re, ki-ri, ku-ru, kou-rou, kan-ran, kin-rin, kun-run, kon-ron, keu-reu. Then try ak-ra, ek-re, ik-ri, uk-ru, ouk-rou, ank-ran, etc.
It can take some time before you get it, but it is absolutely essential. If you can pronounce the "trilled r" (Italian or Spanish "r"), this is more acceptable than the English "r", but it is considered dialectical and linked in comedy to backward farmers.
PRACTICE OF "R"
air -rang - rare - entre - quatorze. Pierre creuse trois trous.
LENGTH OF SYLLABLES
Some vowel-consonnant combinations produce a distinctly long sound. I don't think it would be helpful to go into this question here. However, let me point out that, when both the consonants and the vowels are pronounced properly, the length has to come out right. Just don't feel akward about it. It sounds good to a French ear. Examples: the "o" in "rose"; the "a" in "gare"; the "in" in "cinq"; the "an" in "France". Under the IPA system, long vowels are followed by a colon (:).
PRACTICE OF "LENGTH"
rose - gare - cinq - France. Onze lampes rouges.
FRENCH WORD STRESS.
A common defect among non-native speakers is treating every French word as if it had an accent of its own. (I am talking about wordstress of course, not diacritical marks). It is commonplace to hear that French words are stressed on the last syllable. This is false. As a matter of fact, French speaking people don't even know what "word stress" is, because there is no such thing in French. The fact of the matter is, voice modulations that could be interpreted as stress are used in French only at the end of a phrase and are always followed by a pause.
If I say: "Le bébé de ma sœur a eu une mauvaise grippe la semaine dernière", the only real stress, within the sentence, will be on "sœur" because there is normally a pause between subject and verb.
Secondary "stresses" might be felt at the end of "bébé" and "grippe". Now the normal way for an English-speaking person would be to say: Le beBE de ma SŒUR a EU une mauVAISE GRIPPE la seMAINE derNIERE. That's because English stresses every two or three syllables as in U -ni- V E R - si- TY. In French "L'université de Montreal" has only one stressed syllable: AL. In a word, syllables are "stressed" only before a pause.
I know that this may sound somewhat pedantic (and totally new even to native French speakers), but unless you learn French as a child, there is no way you will pick this up intuitively. And thank God, there are people who want to be as correct as they possibly can.
As in the case of the mute "e", this is an area where non-native speakers tend to exaggerate. Outside of the "obligatory" liaisons, native speakers use very few of them. We refer you to specialized works for a complete treatment of this subject. A good summary is to be found in the recent editions of "Le bon usage" by Maurice Grevisse, as revised by Andre Goose. See paragraphs 41-50. Just remember these cases where liaison is not proper:
after a singular noun: sujet intéressant (don't pronounce the "t" of "sujet") - after "-es" in the second person singular: Tu portes un livre (pronounced "portun")
after the word "et": Pierre et Alain (don't pronounce the "t" of "et")
before an "aspirate h": Les Halles (do not pronounce the "s" of "les"). Of course, the real aspirate "h" has disappeared from pronunciation. But the habit of avoiding the liaison has remained. How do you know whether an "h" is aspirate or not? Look it up, making sure you understand how your dictionary identifies it.
NOTES ON FRENCH AS SPOKEN IN CANADA.
Just as there are differences between British and American (or other kinds of) English, as well as between Iberian and non-Iberian Spanish, there are differences between French as spoken in Europe and French as spoken in Canada. These differences relate to vocabulary, pronunciation and intonation and they increase as the level of speech goes down from the "very formal" through the "colloquial" to the "vulgar". (My remarks here do not apply to French as spoken by persons of Acadian descent).
The "standard" of educated French speech in Canada is generally accepted to be reflected in the news broadcasts of the French arm of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (SRC or Société Radio-Canada). Some differences in pronunciation are:
1) the introduction of an "s" sound after the sound of "t" preceding "i" or "u": tu = tsu, partie = partie - partsie
2) the introduction of a "z" sound after the sound of "d" preceding "i" or "u": disons = dzisons, duplex = dzuplex
3) differences in the quality of nasal vowels, which are difficult to describe here
Some differences in vocabulary relate to different realities. Thus the Canadian "débarbouillette", meaning "face-cloth" (from "se débarbouiller", to wash up) replaces "gant de toilette", which is actually a "glove" that you wash with. Quebecers invented the macho sport of snowmobiling (motoneige) so they feel entitled to name it. (Notwithstanding the dictionaries, the European French media seem to call it "scooter des neiges", something for young grandmothers, no doubt).
Other vocabulary habits have been influenced by English. Thus the frequent use of a rare French word: "dispendieux" to mean "expensive", where "cher" would be sufficient. But there is a major difference between the attitude of Europeans and Canadians to the use of words borrowed from the English. Whereas in Europe, use of English has snob-appeal, in Canada, it is perceived as a sign of ignorance. This is because English words were first spread by factory workers who had learned them from their English bosses.
A word of warning. Please don't feel you have to "adapt". You are not expected to, and in fact it can be resented as being patronizing or "talking down". Most of all, don't you give any credence to the list of "Canadianisms" or "Quebecisms" you might find in guidebooks. Very often they are not understood even by the locals!