There are 16 vowels in the French language as it is spoken in France. There are 14 if you eliminate two vowels that some specialists think might be on the way out.
That might surprise you, because we all know there are just five vowels in our alphabet. A, E, I, O, and U. And sometimes Y.
But those are written vowels. When I say there are 16 vowels, I'm talking about vowel sounds
in the language.
You need to be able to pronounce them and tell them all apart in order to become fluent in speaking and understanding French. If you are learning French, I think it helps to be aware of the fact that there are 16 (or at least 14) distinct vowels to learn.
These are the accents commonly used in French.
One appears in only one word in the language,
but it's a very common word. Do you know it?
Beware: spoiler in the comments
To explain the vowel sounds, it's probably easiest to start with the French nasal vowels. There are four of those, and they are a type of vowel that we don't exactly have in English. The nasal A is the vowel in dans
, which are pronounced identically. The nasal I is the sound in fin
, which all rhyme with each other. The nasal O is the sound in bon
. The nasal U is the sound in un
The nasal U is one of the two vowel sounds that might be disappearing from the language. Nasal U is merging with nasal I, so that the word défunt
, for example, sounds exactly like the expression des fins
sounds like the exclamation hein
. So you could argue that now there are just three nasal vowels in French: nasal A, nasal I, and nasal O.
There is no nasal E, as such. When a written E vowel is nasalized, it has either of two other sounds. In words like dent
, it is pronounced as as nasal A. The words en
are pronounced identically. In words like moyen
, the nasalized E is pronounced as a nasal I. Bien
rhymes with vin
The vowels that are not nasalized are called oral vowels. There are 12 of them. Or maybe just 11 nowadays.
In traditional French, there are two A vowels. The first and most common is the A in the article la
, or the words chat
, or bois
. The second is the A in words where A is followed by an S, for example: gras
, or pas
. Or words where the A has a circumflex accent on it: pâté
. A lot of younger speakers no longer pronounce the A circumflex (â) differently from the plain unaccented A. So you don't have to worry about it much. The A with a grave accent (à) in là
is not pronounced differently from A with no accent on it at all.
At first, E seems a little more complicated in French, but it kind of takes care of itself. There's the "closed E" which is often represented by E with an acute accent (é), as in été
. The "open E" is often an E with a grave accent (è) but not always. Another spelling is AI, as in lait
. The E in words or syllables that end with a consonant sound is an open E: père
, or peine
. An E with a circumflex accent (ê) is generally pronounced the same way — fête
, for example.
The third pronunciation of E in French is called the "mute E". It never has an accent on it. It's the E in the first two syllables of the word revenir
. It's pronounced like "uh" in English. The mute E is often dropped completely. When it is the last letter of a word like belle
, for example, it isn't pronounced, at least not in northern France. Even in words like graineterie
, the E's on either side of the T can be dropped, so the word is pronounced [grèn-tri]. (With two French R's, of course.) The mute E is the E of je
, and de
So there you have one or even two A vowel pronunciations, and three E vowel pronunciations. We are up to five oral vowels if you count them all.
The simplest vowel is I. It only has one pronunciation as an oral vowel, and that's what we would represent as "ee" in English (though more tense). Unlike English, French in France has no distinction between a long I and a short I, as in English pairs like heat
. In French, an English expression like "hit parade" is pronounced as if it were ['eat pah-rahd]. That's it (or eet
) for the oral I vowel. It has just one pronunciation. Of course there is also the a nasal I vowel as in fin
or the I's combined with other written vowels as in faire
that change their pronunciation — but that's another story.
There are two pronunciations for O in French. It's a lot like E in that way, except there is no mute O. There's the closed O in words like mot
. You have to pucker your lips. And there is the open O in words like bonne
, sans pucker. The combination AU is usually pronounced with a closed O, so that paume
(pucker) is different from pomme
The U vowel also has two pronunciations. One is obvious to English speakers. It's the round sound of bout
that we would write as "oo" in English (only more tense and with that pucker). The other is the nearly unpronounceable U sound that we don't have in English. It's the sound of bu
. I won't go into the mechanics of how you make it. The main point here is that -ou- is pronounced one way, and -u- is pronounced a different way. It's important, because, for example, your cou
is your neck but your cul
(the L is silent) is your derriere. Good luck pronouncing or even understanding dessous
So add two O's and two U's to the single I, plus the two A's and three E's, and we are up to 10 oral vowels.
The last two oral vowels in French are also sounds that we don't really have in English. They are spelled EU. Or sometimes ŒU, as in œuf
. Like E and O, they have closed and open forms. The closed form is the vowel of jeu, peu
, feu, or œufs
— again, it's pronounced with the lips puckered. The open form is usually in words that end in a consonant sound like jeune
, or œuf
. It's pronounced with the mouth open wider, with no pucker.
For the difference between closed and open vowels, think about word pairs like mes
for E. Peau
for O. The same principle applies to jeu
rhymes with jeu
There, that's 12 oral vowels, or 11 if you discount the "old" A of pas
. Add the three or four nasal vowels, and you've got at least 14, if not 16, distinct French vowel sounds.
Languages like Italian and Spanish have just five spoken vowels. French has many more. I couldn't even tell you how many English has. I never had to learn them, except from my mother. But I do have trouble distinguishing the English words pin
when I speak.