How to Pronounce French Vowels

Learn the pronunciation of French pure vowels

This tutorial presents an overview of the rules of European/metropolitan French pronunciation, focusing on the vowels, consonants, stress, and intonation patterns that are different from American English. For more practice with comprehension and pronunciation, please check the listening and repetition exercises.

For more French learning through authentic videos, I recommend Yabla French and FluentU. For audiobooks and lessons of modern French, try French Today. I've recommended some French books at Amazon, and Interlinear books are great for learning French by reading literal translations in English. French Listening and Authentic French provide audio and video clips of real, spoken French in various accents with transcripts so you can listen and read along, plus some exercises to test your comprehension. Need even more French? Try the French courses at Udemy or consider purchasing French Language Tutorial as an e-book to support ielanguages.com.


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For more French learning through authentic videos, I recommend Yabla French and FluentU. For audiobooks and lessons of modern French, try French Today. I've recommended some French books at Amazon, and Interlinear books are great for learning French by reading literal translations in English. Need even more French? Try the French courses at Udemy

Pure Vowels

Vowels in French are pure vowels, i.e. they are not diphthongs as in American English. Americans pronounce a and e with an extra yuh sound at the end, and o and u with an extra wuh sound at the end. You must not do this in French. The distinction between long and short vowels exists in French, but a few American short vowels do not exist ([ɪ] as in did and [ʊ] as in put) so make sure to never pronounce these vowels when speaking (European) French.


Vowels in Contrast

Long Vowels Short Vowels Similar English
[a] [ə] not - nut
[i] ---- sheep
[e] [ɛ] wait - wet
[o] [ɔ] coat - caught
[u] ---- moon


Words in Contrast

[a] - [ə] rapporter reporter
[e] - [ə] des mains demain
[e] - [ɛ] pré près
[o] - [ɔ] paume pomme

 

On the other hand, French has three front rounded vowels that do not exist in English, which may take a while to get used to since English only has back rounded vowels. However, they are the rounded counterpart of vowels that do exist in English, so you simply need to round your lips when pronouncing these vowels.


Vowels in Contrast

Unrounded Rounded
[i] [y]
[e] [ø]
[ɛ] [œ]

Many English speakers tend to say [u] instead of [y] and [ə] instead of [ø] or [œ]. Personally, I still find it hard to hear the difference between [ø] and [œ] in fast speech, but I can distinguish them if they are isolated vowels.


Words in Contrast

[u] - [y] sous su
[ə] - [ø] ce ceux
[ø] - [œ] jeûne jeune

 

Here is a review of the vowels in French, with phonetic spellings for American English speakers (forget the diphthongs though!), sample words in French and the general spelling for these vowels in French orthography.

 

Pure Vowels

IPA Phonetic spelling Sample words General spellings
[i] ee vie, midi, lit, riz i, y
[y] ee rounded rue, jus, tissu, usine u
[e] ay blé, nez, cahier, pied é, et, final er and ez
[ø] ay rounded jeu, yeux, queue, bleu eu
[ɛ] eh lait, aile, balai, reine e, è, ê, ai, ei, ais
[œ] eh rounded sœur, œuf, fleur, beurre œu, eu
[a] ah chat, ami, papa, salade a, à, â
[ɑ] ah longer bas, âne, grâce, château a, â
[u] oo loup, cou, caillou, outil ou
[o] oh eau, dos, escargot, hôtel o, ô
[ɔ] aw sol, pomme, cloche, horloge o
[ə] uh fenêtre, genou, cheval, cerise e

 

[ɑ] is disappearing in modern French, being replaced by [a]. Vowels that do not exist in English are marked in blue.


Other rules to remember about pure vowels in French:

  • Vowels are pronounced slightly longer when they are in the final closed syllable (a consonant follows the vowels in the same syllable). For example, the vowel [i] in tir is longer than the vowel [i] in tirer because tir is a closed syllable, while ti is an open syllable (and rer is a closed syllable). This is represented with a colon in IPA: long [i] = [i:]

  • The vowel [e] can only occur in open syllables (no consonant follows it in the same syllable) in French. In closed syllables, [ɛ] is used; however, [ɛ] can also be found in open syllables. (This is a major difference with English as [ɛ] can never be found in open syllables at the end of a word.)

  • In stressed open syllables, only [ø] is possible. In stressed, closed syllables, only [œ] is possible, unless the syllable ends in [t], [tR], or [z] - in which case, [ø] can occur. In unstressed syllables, whether open or closed, either vowel can occur.

  • Generally, [o] always occurs in stressed open syllables, and [ɔ] occurs in stressed closed syllables. Nevertheless, [o] can also occur in stressed closed syllables, depending on the spelling of the word: when the letter o is followed by [m], [n], [z]; when the letters au are not followed by [R]; and by the letter ô.

 

French Phonetics: Learn French Pronunciation



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