A complete guide to French Vowels

French Aug 24, 2020

French Pronunciation can be quite tricky for beginners, but it doesn’t have to be burdensome. Understanding the most basic pronunciation rules is a passport to a smoother learning journey for new French learners.

This article is a quick but thorough guide to French Vowels that will be useful if you struggle with pronunciation. Keep reading.

Basic oral vowels

The vowel “A”

IPA Description Example
/a/ “ah" like the American English “father” but with your tongue just a bit higher and further forward. la

The vowel “E”

The vowel “E” IPA Description Example
before a double consonant /e/ It's pronounced “eh" like “bed” in American English une pelle
before final pronounced consonants la mer
at the end of monosyllables, when e comes after a consonant /ə/ It's similar to the sound “uh" in American English “her" le
at the end of a syllable, inside a word petit
before a single consonant and a vowel le cheval
final silent It's not pronounced. une cave
at the end of monosyllables when e follows another vowel une roue

The vowel "I"

IPA Description Example
/i/ It’s like the “ee” (pronounced /i:/) in the English word “knee.” un livre

The vowel “O"

The vowel “O” IPA Description Example
is the final sound in a word [o] It’s similar to English’s long “o” (pronounced /əʊ/) sound as in "go”, but without the diphthong to a "ʊ" sound at the end. trop
is followed by a z sound rose
has a circumflex (ô) allô
When O is followed by any consonant sound other than [z] [ɔ] It’s similar to the short u sound (or /ʌ/) as in the English word "son." sonner

The vowel “U"

The vowel “U” IPA Description Example
after g- and q- silent It's not pronounced. la guitare
in most case /y/ The vowel u is pronounced as a mix of the two sounds above: try to make the sound ee with rounded lips. une rue

The French nasal vowels

Normally when a vowel or vowel combination is followed by the letters m or n, that vowel is nasalized. When this is the case the letters m or n are not pronounced; they serve only to mark the nasalization. And these nasal vowels are pronounced by passing air through the mouth and nose.

Example: un bon vin blanc (a good white wine)

The letters 'on' are pronounced with the nasalized vowel [ɔ̃]

non

le son

citron

The letter combinations 'ain', 'aim', 'eim', 'ein', 'in', 'im', 'ym', 'yn' and 'ien' all have the nasalized vowel sound [ɛ̃]

la fin

le pain

le sein

The letter combination 'un' is pronounced with the nasalized vowel [œ̃] .

un

lundi

The letters 'an', 'en', and 'em' are pronounced with the nasalized vowel [ɑ̃]

une dent

il chante

Broken nasal vowels

If the m or n is followed by a mute e, the vowel is not nasalized.

une

If a vowel immediately follows the m or n and that vowel is not a mute e, the m or n is part of the syllable of this vowel and is therefore not nasal.

ami

nasal voiced
un une
pain peine
ampleur ami

Semi-vowels

We are closed to the end of this article, be patient. The next thing you need to understand is how semi-vowels work.

The rule is, when followed by another vowel, vowel sounds like /i/, /y/, and /u/ are transformed into the semi-vowels /j/, /ɥ/, and /w/. These semi-vowels, also called glides or semi-consonants, are vowel-like segments that behave like consonants.

Semi-vowel Corresponding vowel Examples
[j] [i] bien, un accueil
[w] [u] oui, ouest
[ɥ] [y] huit, la pluie

The sound [j] also appears as a single consonant, with very different spellings:

e.g.: aïe, œil, payer, maquiller, oublier

Diphthongs (vowel combinations)

Diphthongs IPA Description Example
ai / ei /e/ pronounced like /e/ in the English word “bed”. Note that adding an n at the end of the combinations ai or ei will form a completely different sound. ain and ein are nasal vowels. faire, seize
au / eau /o/ pronounced like /o/ in the English word “boat" faux, un gâteau
eu / œu /œ/, /ø/ like ay but with lips rounded to produce an oh-like sound une heure, la sœur
ou /u/ pronounced like "oo" in the English word “root" une roue, fou
oi /wa/ pronounced like the combination "oa" un roi, le poisson

So that's pretty everything you need to know about French Vowels. To understand the way they work, it is especially important that you pay attention to native speakers when they talk and try to imitate them as much as you can.

Of course, you don’t need to be in France to do that. There are plenty of French-speaking movies and videos on the Internet that will aid you in learning French pronunciation without stripping away the fun because learning without fun is not worth it!

If you're interested in learning other pronunciation aspects, check out our blog posts. I hope this guide will be helpful to you. Share with us all the vowels that you find the most challenging in the comment below. Happy learning!😎

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