French pronunciation can be a nightmare for learners of the French language. But why is it so difficult? To get straight to the point, one of the main culprits is, undeniably, the spelling — with its voiceless vowels and consonants, its nasal sounds and letters with a symbol that looks like a hat. Unlike other Romance languages like Italian, Spanish or Romanian, French spelling is not exactly transparent. And by transparency we mean when the spelling of a language follows a phonetic spelling pattern, as is the case in the other Romance languages mentioned above. In other words, when the spelling of a language is transparent, you only need to see the written word to easily guess how it is pronounced. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case in French… that is, unless you get some help!
Although not as opaque as its English counterpart, French spelling is still unpredictable — even for the most gifted of language learners. Two voiceless letters at the end of the word doigt, five letters for just one syllable with temps — it’s enough to make you pull your hair out! Despite the successful attempts at simplification over the centuries, we are still a very long way from Voltaire’s idea that “writing is the painting of the voice; the closer the resemblance, the better it is.”
Same sound, but different words? The trick behind French spelling
The dual influence of Latin and Frankish (a Germanic language), partly explains French’s complexity. While in Italian a doubled consonant is usually used to indicate or place word stress (for example, in allievo, “pupil”), it does not provide any indication of pronunciation in French. So what use is it?
The answer can be found in homophones — two or more (different) words which are pronounced exactly the same way but have neither the same meaning nor the same spelling. And for good reason: the spelling serves to distinguish the written form of these words which are otherwise aurally completely identical. Double consonants, therefore, make it possible to differentiate homophones, such as date and datte, without making any changes to the pronunciation.
This, among other things, is one of the reasons why (in addition to a few etymological reasons) some words can be written in several different ways. How else can we explain the fact that we have three ways of writing the sound [e] if it is not meant to differentiate né from née or from nés?
In other cases, the roots of some contemporary French spelling deformities can be attributed to the increasingly marked difference between spoken and written language. The voiceless letters used today, especially those at the end of a word, are a perfect example of this kind of linguistic evolution. Even though we gradually stopped pronouncing certain elements at the end of a word around the year 1200, they are still preserved in writing. These letters and syllables ended up becoming atonic (not stressed in spoken language), such as the final e, which is is generally only pronounced at the end of a word if it has an accent.
Such discrepancies between written and spoken language present a major difficulty for learners of the French language. One only need take a look at our non-native friends attempting to read the word houx to know for sure: two voiceless letters and one change as a result of the combination of the vowels o and u. This means there are three “traps” for just four letters… and one syllable!
But spelling isn’t the only surprise in store for those wanting to get nearer to the language of Molière, which has more than one trick up its sleeve. Nasal sounds, for example, are particularly difficult to reproduce, especially for English speakers who have no equivalent in their own respective languages. But fortunately, as the French so aptly put it, nothing is impossible!
With some basic knowledge and a little practice, you should be able to overcome these traps. To help, we took a closer look at some of the most difficult words for non-natives to pronounce.
Pronouncing French Sounds
QUINCAILLERIE – GROIN
French has four nasal vowels which, as you will see, are worthy of their name. When the letters e, a, o, i, u are followed by m or n, their pronunciation changes and becomes… nasal. What’s the difference? When you pronounce these vowels normally, air flows through the mouth. For nasals on the other hand, the sound is formed further back in the mouth, and the air flows both through the mouth and the nose. To practice, place your hand in front of your mouth and alternately repeat the sounds [a] (like in abracadabra) and [ã] (like in chantant). You will immediately feel the difference!
Examples: emprunt, rotonde, champagne, entête
2. Voiceless letters
HOUX – QUINCAILLERIE – COQUELICOT
For the reasons given above, we rarely pronounce the final letter of a word. Therefore, the e in the final position, which often indicates female gender, is generally only pronounced if it has an accent. For example, né and née are pronounced in exactly the same way. However, there are some regional peculiarities: in certain regions of Switzerland, there is a tendency to pronounce the final e as an i, thus [ei] instead of [e].
Examples: fusil, beaucoup, autant, poing
The letter h in French, unlike the h in English or German, is also voiceless, just like the letter u when it is follows a q.
Examples: houle, rhum, quelqu’un
However, do not assume that these letters are completely useless — they know how to make themselves heard — but we will save that for later on.
3. Letter combinations
ŒIL – BREDOUILLE – YEUX – TILLEUL
Depending on how the letters are arranged, certain letter combinations can change their individual pronunciation. Here is a short and non-exhaustive list — because you have to know now that the French love exceptions!
The letter Œ:
Let’s start by taking a looking at our dear friend œ, which can, for example, be found in the words œil or cœur. Is this a c? An o? An e? Actually, it’s none of these. As a point of interest, the letter œ comes from the Greek diphthong oj, which became oe in Latin and then œ in French. The language ended up intertwining these two originally distinct letters to such an extent that they now only form one letter (French has the reputation of being the language of love, and here the language is certainly living up to that reputation!). This is called a ligature.
Œ is pronounced in three ways:
- [ø] — for example: nœud, œufs
- [œ] when the letter œ is followed by u, then by f, r or l. For example: œuf, cœur, sœur
- [e] (a traditional form of pronunciation which is no longer used). For example: œnologie, œsophage (pronounced as énologie, ésophage)
As for the other vowels, here are a few examples of phonetic alteration:
E > EU: there are two ways of pronouncing eu:
- [ø] — for example: joyeux, peureux
- [œ] — for example: tilleul, filleul
E > ER: pronounced [e] at the end of a word.
For example: manger, nouer, pérorer
U > OU:
This difference is often difficult to identify because both sounds do not exist in all languages (English, for example, does not have the sound [y]). On its own, the letter u is pronounced at the front of the lips and corresponds to the phoneme [y] of the International Phonetic Alphabet. On the other hand, when the letter o comes before, it is pronounced as a [u].
- Examples: fourbu, voulu, moussu
O > OI: [oi]
- Examples: oisiveté, choisir
A > AI: [e]
- Examples: chair, volontaire
A > AU/EAU: [o]
- Examples: aurore, roseau
As with vowels, the pronunciation of consonants sometimes changes when they are followed by certain letters or when they are doubled up.
L > LL: [j]
- Examples: famille, babilles
T followed by the letter i: [s]
- Examples: péripétie, obstruction
G followed by a, o, u: becomes a hard [g]
- Examples: guitare, gui
G followed by i or e: becomes a soft g [j]
- Examples: geôle, Georges, gitan
G followed by n: [ɲ]
- Examples: gnôle, oignon
4. Accents, cedilla and diaeresis
There are three accents in French: acute accent, grave accent and the circumflex accent, which the French particularly like for their pleasing appearance.
- Examples: gérer, étoile
- Examples: grève, délétère
- Examples: tête, fête
To summarize, practice using the word EXTRÊMEMENT which includes four different ways of pronouncing the letter e.
Now for the cedilla. You are going to love the cedilla, not only because it is a little bit exotic but also because it is very easy to master: the cedilla is always placed under the letter c (ç) and changes the hard sound [k] to [s].
- Examples: caleçon, garçon
And finally, we come to diaereses. The diaereses are used to separate two vowels which, because they are joined together, would normally be pronounced together. So in the word mais, the ai is pronounced as [ɛ], while in the word maïs, it is pronounced as [ai].
- Examples: stoïque, héroïque
Sometimes two words are spoken in a way that runs together, making them sound like a single word. This is called liaising and it’s another great example of an exception in French! But don’t panic: Not liaising words does not mean that you won’t be understood!
Again, it is difficult to establish rules here, as its usage fluctuates greatly. You normally liaise words (though not always) when a word, which ends in a consonant, is followed by a word beginning with a vowel — maybe the voiceless letters are getting their revenge?
- Examples: “J’ai beaucoup appris pendant ce voyage.” or “Je suis allée au cinéma.”
The letter h plays a special role in liaisons. You could even argue that it is the diva of the French language, changing its mind like people change their underwear… So in most cases, it prevents liaison, like in “Les | haricots sont cuits.” But that’s not always the case because in “Les heures passent,” for example, you liaise between the s and the h. It is a fussy old one this letter h, isn’t it?
How to practice
French pronunciation is a whole universe unto itself, with a large number of rules and perhaps an even larger number of exceptions. Above all, it requires practice and more practice.
To help you out, check out our online course, Listening and Speaking. With pronunciation exercises adapted to your mother tongue, presented in a fun and engaging way, you don’t have any more excuses! But rest assured, having a slight accent is always charming. 😊