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French Vowel Sounds

Camille Chevalier-Karfis By Camille Chevalier-Karfis - updated on Nov 9, 2020

There are 6 vowels in French : A, E, I, O, U, Y (i grec). Yet, letters ≠ sounds. Free audio guide to the French vowel pronunciation, French U vs OU etc…

This free French lesson comes with audio. Please press on the blue link close to the headphone to hear my recording of the French vowel pronunciation and other French sounds.

1 – What Are the French Vowels?

There are 6 vowels in French : A, E, I, O, U and Y (i grec).

2 – How To Pronounce The French Vowels?

French Words Often End On A Vowel Sound

French vowels are strong. So strong that they really stand out in French. French words often end on a vowel sound, even verbs.

Natasha et Henri étudient – Natasha and Henri are studying
Tu as eu la vie que tu voulais – you had the life you wanted
Julie a dit : “au dodo !” – Julia said: “go to bed”!

Consonants Jump Start The Vowels

I like to say that consonants often “jump start” the vowels. In other words, your lips form the consonant shape, but the air that comes out of your mouth is the vowel sound.
Example: Papa.

French Vowels Tend To Be Stronger Than English Vowels

Take the word Papa. The P doesn’t stand out like in the English word Papa.
On the contrary, it’s the A sound that stands out.
Contrast the French & English pronunciations : Papa (FR), Papa (English).

French Vowels Usually Don’t Modulate

Most French vowels are fixed. They don’t drag nor modulate: your mouth is in one position when the vowel comes out, you don’t change the position of your lips or anything as the French vowel comes out.

Example: the French “o” as in “coco” never does the fluctuation of “toe” or even “cow” where your mouth opens and clothes on the o sound.

Breathing is Important

Sounds cary on air. French vowels need a lot of air. The shape of your lips and the amount of air you let out is the key element to pronouncing your French vowels.

So you need to think about your breathing when you speak French.

3 – Written Form vs. Pronunciation

Names of Letters

In French like in English, letter have a pronunciation of their own.
For example, the letter B in French is pronounced []. In English, it’s [bee].

Sound of Letters

Yet, the sound a B makes is neither [] nor [bee]. It’s but [b]

The French vowels are named after their most “plain” sound. But sometimes, a vowel will combine with another vowel or another letter to make a different sound.

Letters Combine to Make Sounds

Combination of vowels

In French like in English, some vowels will combine in writing to make a sound, like in A and Y in “May” / the A and I in “mai”.

Accents

Sometimes in French, you’ll have an accent to change the pronunciation of that letter. I’ll write a special lesson about French accents & Pronunciation.

Nasal Sounds

Sometimes in French, a vowel will combine with an N or an M to make a nasal sound. I’ll write a specific lesson about Nasal French sounds like AN, IN, ON...

Phonetic Alphabet

There’s a way to represent sounds: it’s called the phonetic alphabet. For B it’s easy, it’s [b]… But some sounds have a weird phonetic representation for them, that you cannot guess if you don’t know it.

Many students don’t want to spend the time learning the phoneticalphabet. And although it can be very useful to know it, since audio recordings are so easy to find now, I agree it’s not absolutely necessary to know the phonetic alphabet nowadays.

In this lesson, we’re going to concentrate on the simple French vowels, see the sound they make and how this sound can be spelled.

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4 – The French Vowel A & The Sound A

A, a

A = Papa, sa, pâte…

The Sound A In English

Please remember that when I compare the French sound to an English one, it’s never exactly the same. It’s just a pointer.

A is a bit like the a of father.
Never like fate or hate.

Mouth Position

The mouth and lips are open VERY wide. The chin drops. It’s a pretty long sound compared to the English A.

The French sound A is a very strong vowel sound.

Spelling

The sound A is mostly spelled with an A… How practical.
It can also sometimes be spelled with an E, in adverbs in particular or in the French word “femme“.

Phonetic Alphabet

The phonetic symbol for this sound is [a].

Note that pronunciation lessons sometimes talk about a second French A pronunciation [ɑ]. To me, the difference is so subtle that I can’t even hear it, so I can’t record it either… It’s a bit of a longer A sound but there’s no major sound difference.

It may be stronger in other French speaking countries, but the way I speak French, I will pronounce “pâtes” (pasta, supposedly featuring this sound [ɑ] ), “sa” and “papa” the same way.

Accent

You’ll find 2 accents for A: à and â.
Nowadays in France, as explained above, there’s not major difference in pronunciation between them.

Combinations

  1. The French vowel A combines with I to make the sound È – featured in many French conjugations as in the imparfait endings : ais, ai, ait, aient all sound like È
  2. It’s also used for the open E sound “œu“.
  3. Spelled eau, eaux it makes the sound O
  4. Combine it with N or M and it may become a Nasal AN sound…

Now let’s look at the next French vowel: E.

5 – The French Vowel E & The Sound E

E, e

E = le, je, feu, jeux

Major exception: the verb avoir (to have) in the passé-composé form is written “eu” and it’s pronounced like an U.

In modern spoken French, we often glide over an E sound, especially in short words like “je”, “te”, “se”… The “ne” part of the negative is often omitted when we speak… More about modern spoken French pronunciation.

The Sound E in English

The French E sound sounds a bit like the i of ‘sir’ but much longer.

Mouth Position

The mouth closes up.
The lips are pushed in front “like a fish” or making an 8 shape.

Spelling

It can be spelled e, eu, eux.

Phonetic Alphabet

The phonetic symbol for this sound is [ə] .

Variation

There’s a close variation for this sound. It’s basically the same sound, but the mouth is more open… So it’s a mix between the A and the E sound. The phonetic symbol for this sound is [œ].

It’s spelled oe, or more preciselly œ (œu) but this character is difficult to type on in English keyboard. Many French people don’t use it either when they type…

Cœur (heart), œuf (egg) , heure (hour in French), jeune (young)…

Compare the 2 pronunciation : le cœur le is the closed [ə] sound and coeur the open [œ]

Combinations

The French vowel E is very popular in combinations!

  1. As we saw the E sound is commonly spelled “eu“.
  2. It’s also used for the open E sound “œu“.
  3. Spelled “eau” it, becomes a O sound.
  4. Combine it with N or M and it may become a Nasal AN sound…

And then there are French accents marks.

What’s An E With An Accent?

The use of accents will tremendously change the pronunciation of the French vowel E.

  1. È and Ê – are close to an English “ay” sound.
  2. É – sorry, this sound doesn’t exist in English. It’s close to the sound above, but with a closed mouth.
  3. Ë is kind of a case by case scenario… It will be pronounced È or É depending on the word…

I’ll explain the pronunciation of French accents in depth soon in another lesson.

6 – The French Vowels I and Y & French Sound I

I, i

I = si, lit, y

The Sound I in English

The French I is Like the ee in ‘fee’.
Watch out! I in French is never pronounced like “eye” in English.

Mouth Position

The lips are spread to the side, like a smile. The mouth is almost closed.
The tongue is flat and touches the palate .
Your voice goes up.

Spelling

The sound I can be spelled I or Y.

Phonetic Alphabet

The phonetic symbol for this sound is  [i].

Accents

In French, Î is quite rare. It doesn’t change the pronunciation of I.

Ï will break up any combination: the I will be pronounced by itself.
Contrast : mais (the A and I combine into a È sound, final S silent – “but” in French) , but maïs (Because of the accent, the A and I are pronounced separately. For that word, the final S is pronounced – “corn” in French).

Combinations

The vowel I combines with many letters to make other sounds:

  1. I and A combien to make a plain sound like È,
  2. diphtongues like OI or IO, or UI.
  3. nasal sounds like IN, IM, IEN,
  4. complex sounds like ILLE, as featured in my name: Camille.

So it’s quite a useful little letter!

More About Y

The French vowel Y is not super common in French.
Except that Y a pronoun – see my lesson on the pronoun Y – and it’s part of a very common French expression: “il y a“, pronounced “ya” in modern spoken French!

There are a few exceptions where the Y combines with an A for a È sound, and then still keep another I sound. As if the Y was 2 i’s: it’s the case for “pays” (country)… and the words based on it) and “Abbaye“.

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7 – The French Vowel O & The Sound O

O, o

Au, aux, eau, eaux…. bateau, chevaux

The Sound O in English

The French O is a bit like the o in “go” or “toe” but shorter and clipped, without moving your lips after.

Mouth Position

Lips are pushed up and rounded and closed just like a kiss.
The throat rounds up.
The voice goes deep down.
Beware: the lips never move like an English “cow”. The lips are fixed for the French O.

Spelling

The various spellings for the sound O are often overwhelming to French students… But don’t worry, you’ll soon get over it.
O, au, aux, eau, eaux all sound like O

Phonetic Alphabet

The phonetic symbol for this sound is  [o].

Accents

Ô as in “hôpital”… No difference in pronunciation.

Variation

Just like with the E sound, there’s an open O sound.
The phonetic symbol: [ɔ].
It’s similar to the “on” in the English word “son.”
And it’s quite common in French.
Bonne (good in the feminine), homme (man), fort (strong).

Combinations

The letter O combines with so many other letters to make other French sounds :

  1. we’ve already seen the open OE sound Œ.
  2. O combines with I to make IO and OI
  3. O combines with U to make OU.
  4. O combines with N or M to make ON.

Last but not least, especially for English speakers learning French, here comes the dreaded vowel U.

8 – The French Vowel U & The Sound U

U, u
Une, lu, bu, tu

As we saw before, there’s one major exception: the verb avoir (to have) in the passé-composé form is written “eu” and it’s pronounced like an “u”…

The Sound U in English

Bad news… There’s no U sound in English. Nothing come even close to it.

So, the next point is going to be quite important.

Mouth Position

Start by making a French I sound, so like “tea” in English.
Then don’t move anything inside your mouth. But push your lips way out as a kiss, and then curl them up a bit as if you wanted to touch your nose.

Here is what you should be hearing. Ti—-iiiii-uuuuuuu

I find that it’s a huge help to start with the I sound and try to find the U as you’re saying the I.

Then you can add consonants : bu, mu, su, tu, lu

Tuning Fork

Another way to find the U sound is to find a word you can pronounce. Many English speakers know how to say “tu” (you in French). So use this “tu” as a tuning fork.

Whenever you need to come up with your U sound, say “tu” out loud a couple of times, then isolate the U sound and repeat it a couple of times…

The French U Compared to the English OO

Many methods say the French U is comparable to the English OO. I STRONGLY disagree.
Too many things are different, in particular the fact that the English OO is not a clipped sound: your lips modulate…

The French OU sound exists. It’s yet different from the English OO sound. Listen to the 2 audio recordings : OUOO
But I guess one could say the French OU sound is to the O what the French U sound it to the I…

It’s a question of pushing your curling your lips far and up.

If you want to try that approach, I would suggest you say “do” in English, then remove the “d” to isolate the OO part. Then keep everything inside your mouth the same and push your lips far in front and up.

Here is what you should be hearing = doooo-ooooo-uuuuu

Spelling

At least on that point, U is easy. It’s spelled U. Except from the exceptions of the verb avoir (mostly “eu” in passé-composé” but the exception carries on over other conjugations of avoir…)

Accents

Accents make no difference in the pronunciation of U. Only Û and Ü are possible, and they are really not common.

Phonetic Alphabet

The phonetic symbol for this sound is  [y].

Variation

Some methods list another sound for U [ɥ]… as seen in the French number huit. To me this sound naturally occurs when you combine U and I… So again, I don’t hear nor pronounce a different sound there myslef!

In my opinion, it’s better to simplify… If you are a pronunciation expert, then you may need to understand all the possible nuances… but I think for most French students, we can try to make things easier and simplify these real subtle nuances, don’t you agree?

Combinations

The letter U combines with many other vowels, some we’ve already seen:

  1. Au, aux, eau, eaux make a O sound
  2. Eu make a E sound (except with the conjugations of “avoir”)
  3. Oeu makes an open E sound
  4. O combines with U to make OU. And then OU combines with I to make “oui” – yes in French!
  5. U combines with I to make UI.
  6. U is also used to make this weird Euil sound
  7. U combines with N to make the nasal sound UN, which being from Paris, I pronounce just like IN.

Voilà ! That’s everything about the French vowels!

9 – What Now?

So, now you know the theory. You understand that some French vowels are pronounced pretty much the same way as their English counterparts. And some are really different.

Knowing how to place your mouth, tongue and lips may help.

But nothing will replace practice. You need to practice with audio so you first learn the mimic the French sounds, and then – and only then – learn to read in French… At first, all these letters may fool you into a wrong pronunciation.

The key if you want to speak French is to start with audio. Learn the sounds first. Then drill on them. I wrote my audiobook Secrets of French Pronunciation especially to explain the various French sounds to English speakers. It includes many drills.

Then you can practice what you’ve learned within the bilingual stories of my French audiobooks.

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