20 November 2008

Learning to vocalize

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 or dent, which are pronounced identically. The nasal I is the sound in fin, pain, or faim, 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. Un 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 or en, it is pronounced as as nasal A. The words en and an are pronounced identically. In words like moyen or bien, 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, foie, 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 or gâteau. 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 or voilà 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 or fait. The E in words or syllables that end with a consonant sound is an open E: père, belle, faire, or peine. An E with a circumflex accent (ê) is generally pronounced the same way — fête or rêve, 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 or faire, 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, me, te, se, le, 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 and hit. 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 or Loire 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 or beau. You have to pucker your lips. And there is the open O in words like bonne or pomme, sans pucker. The combination AU is usually pronounced with a closed O, so that paume (pucker) is different from pomme (no pucker).

The U vowel also has two pronunciations. One is obvious to English speakers. It's the round sound of bout or tout or sous 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 or tu or su. 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 and dessus.

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 or cœur. 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, peur, fleuve, 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 and même for E. Peau and pomme for O. The same principle applies to jeu and jeune. (Queue rhymes with jeu and peu.)

There, that's 12 oral vowels, or 11 if you discount the "old" A of pas or pâte. 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 and pen when I speak.


  1. Hello MJ, yes, that's the word I was thinking of. Thanks for the comment.

  2. So that's 16 vowel sounds to go with the 16 tenses one has to learn. What a language ! :-) Are you available for telephone tutorials? (joke).

    Simon and I are big fans of Officer Crabtree in Allo Allo, who mispronounces all the vowels (in English, but they are supposed to be speaking French – if you've seen the show you will understand how it works). We are sure we sound just like him to a French person.

  3. Whew! Good stuff!
    Ken, may I ask what your degree(s) is/are in? I know you to be quite talented and knowledgeable in so many areas, and your career history has also been rather varied. I'm just curious. It might also help me in showing my students that we can sometimes get degrees in one thing, and yet have a career that only off-shoots from that. Was your undergrad degree in French? Linguistics?


  4. Hi Judy, my BA and MA are both in French literature. I studied applied linguistics in Paris and at Illinois after I got my MA, but I never finished my PhD (the job market for French professors was very bad back then, so there was no point). I became a translator in Washington DC and then moved on to the software business in California.

  5. Ken,
    I'll add in my thanks for this great article. I've only been here 20 years and I've never seen the French vowel system so well explained!
    Would you agree to let me use this article (with credit) in my English class? I volunteer teaching adults in a little town near Sully. I think it would help my students understand a bit more the differences in the English and French vowels.


  6. When I visited the Musée des Arts Forains, the guide pronounced "prêt" with a rather elongated ê, sounding almost like the vowel in "air". My guess is that he'd been taught about the circumflex indicating a missing "s" (which is why "guêpe" is effectively the same word as "wasp"), which lengthens the vowel slightly: but to sound it that way does sound rather precious and Comédie Française, as I guess would saying GAH-teau.

  7. I am very confused..why did you not have to learn the vowels ... were you brought up with another language then!!

    The English language has 5 vowels...A E I O U...

  8. Dedene, be my guest.

    Anne, yes, those are the written vowels. But remember, each written vowel can have one of several sounds.

    Autolycus, often the sound of ê or even è becomes the closed é when the syllable the vowel is in does not end in a consonant. But the correct pronuciation of prêt or lait would be è, most would say. I think a lot of people do still say gah-to or pah-té, but some "experts" say the sound is dying out.

  9. Oh, and Anne, yes, I grew up speaking English -- the American Southern variety.

  10. Thanks for this very helpful lesson, Ken.

    ....... and in eastern North Carolina, pin and pen are pronounced exactly the same. ;-)


  11. I was taught in school that "in" as in "j'ai faim" and "un" as in lundi are not pronounced the same
    But first of all, even some 18 years ago, when my daughter was in school, this distinction was not taught any more, and yet she had quite an old-fashioned teacher, and nowadays, I must be the only person who still does it! ;)

  12. No Claude, I think I do it too. I can't bring myself to say "lindi". Do you say "gââ-teau" too?

  13. I say "gâââ-teau" and "gâââ-re," but that's the Parisian accent!

    I think the "in/un" sound is slightly longer in "lundi" than it is in "faim" that sounds exactly like "fin."
    Everybody knows this axiom: "La fin justifie les moyens" that people change into "La faim justifie les moyens."

  14. I remember Simonne, a woman who was born in 1903 in Auxerre, correcting me when I said "gaaaateau" on a day in about 1981. "Je dis gâââ-teau," a-t-elle dit, but it wasn't a reproach, just a comment.

  15. Yes, I say gââteau, but this one somehow is not as important as lundi, and fin, maybe because I was born in Issoudun and not Issoudin!


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