[Updated June 20th, 2016]
Phonology and Phonetics are two different fields in the science of linguistics that study how people make sounds and pronounce words. Phonology (and phonetics) should be interesting because knowing how the French make their sounds could help French language learners across the globe acheive a pronunciation “non-marquée“, that perfect pronunciation.
The whole reason people have foreign accents in the first place is because their mouth cannot adjust to the correct ways of creating certain phonemes!
In this extensive article, I will introduce many cool topics, for example: Did you know that in French, syllables have the tendency to end with a vowel? This is called open syllabication. While in English, most of our words like to end with a consonant (closed syllables).
First I will present the French phonetic alphabet and all the sounds that French contains (a few of them do not exist in English), so that you can leave here pronouncing words like a champ. Then, I’ll go into depth with some differences between English and French pronunciation. We’ll touch upon why it sounds like French speakers are “singing” when they speak, and where do English speakers have problems with pronunciation.
It would help to have a good foundation in French to understand some of the examples.
A Phonetic Alphabet helps Pronunciation
What is a phonetic alphabet and why is it important?
Well French and English are two types of “alphabetic” languages, meaning we use combinations of letters to create words and sounds. Now, you may be saying “no duh”, but I specify this because there are other types of languages; take Hebrew, a syllabic language where you pronounce the syllables in the same manner as what is written on the paper.
Linguists use a phonetic alphabet because a word’s spelling is ambiguous.
We as native speakers implicitly know the “rules” associated with pronouncing a word, but foreign learners need to familiarize themselves with the new system. For example, the words: pair, bear and share are all composed of the same vowel sound phonetically, BUT they are spelt completely differently.
What about words like phone, fish, enough? Where all the sounds constitute an /f/ but are spelt completely differently. In English, spelling is not as transparent as language such as Italian. French is the same way.
Here’s another phonetic example of an ambiguous English word pronunciation:
All the following words start with the letter’s “CA“, but when you say them out loud, pay attention to how each one is different.
Each one sounded different (if you’re a native speaker of English at least). Cause starts off with “kuah”, camp sounds like “kaam”, castle has a more distinct “kaah” to it, and cave begins with something equivalent to “kay”.
By using a phonetic alphabet, the differences in sounds are clear even though the word’s spelling is not.
Get the importance? IPA alphabet = reliable, spelling = unreliable. Now look at the words from above transcribed into the English phonetic alphabet:
CAuse = /kôz/
CAmp = /kæ̃mp/
CAstle = /‘kɑːsl/
CAve = /kav/
See how by using the phonetic alphabet, you realize all of the sounds are different despite the same spelling! Now pay attention, here comes the French phonetic alphabet.
The French Phonetic Alphabet
The French Phonetic Alphabet consists of 37 total sounds.
The IPA symbol is what linguists use to mark a certain sound. The common spelling column indicates typically what letters form the sound in a French word. Finally, I provide some examples of French words that use the IPA symbol (if you know how to pronounce the words, then you’ll be able to know the sounds).
With this phonetic alphabet, you can mosey on over to my next article: French Phonetic Alphabet Practice Exercises. This may seem daunting at first, but just try to pronounce the words and you’ll quickly realize the sound each phonème is supposed to represent.
The 12 French Vowels:
Vowels are sounds produced without any obstruction to the air exiting the mouth. These are sometimes hard to distinguish to the untrained ear, especially the phonemes /y/ versus /u/ and /œ/ versus /ø/.
(/IPA SYMBOL/ – Common Spellings in Words – French Examples)
/i/ – vie, dix, stylo
/e/ – fée, été, danser, je partirai (future tense)
/ɛ/ – sel, tête, treize, je partirais (conditional)
/a/ – gars, ami, là
/y/ – vu, jus, une, nu, tu, sucre (this sound does not exist in English)
/ø/ – le, veux, feu, œufs (this sound does not exist in English)
/œ/ – veulent, seul, professeur (this sound does not exist in English)
/u/ – doux, vous, où, nous
/o/ – faux, métro, bientôt, beau
/ɔ/ – homme, porc, sol, pomme
/ɑ/ – bas, las, pâtes
/ə/ – le, samedi (Muted E) this is being replaced by ø
Note: a tilde symbol (~) lies directly above each the letter.(/IPA SYMBOL/ – French Examples)
/ɛ̃/ – gain, vin, pain, impatient
/œ̃/ – l’un, parfum, chacun
/õ/ – long, monde, pont
/ɑ̃/ – enfant, dans, l’an, chambre
La voyelle /œ̃/ est typiquement prononcée avec les lèvres plus arrondies que pour /ẽ/ MAIS chez les Parisiens cette voyelle a été remplacée par son homologue non-arrondie /ẽ/. Par ailleurs, cette voyelle, /œ̃/, a une fréquence d’occurrence très faible en français. On la retrouve dans une vingtaine de mots donc cela est pourquoi cette voyelle a tendance à disparaître au profit de son partenaire.
3 French Semi-Vowels:
A semi-vowel is produced by a rapid, upward movement of the tongue during pronunciation.
(/IPA SYMBOL/ – French Examples)
/ɥ/ – huile, nuit, lui
/w/ – oui, ouest, moi
/j/ – yeux, fillette, dieu
A consonant is a “brutal” sound caused by an obstruction in the mouth during exhalation.
(/IPA SYMBOL/ – French Examples)
/p/ – plage, public
/b/ – bon, bêtise, bateau
/t/ – terre, sottise, thé
/d/ – dîner, dimanche
/k/ – cou, carreau, que
/g/ – gare, gants, gallois
/f/ – flic, pharmacie, fossé
/v/ – vous, avion
/l/ – le, lait, mille
/s/ – sac, soixante, cerise
/z/ – zoo, visage, guise
/ʃ/ – chat, chinois, short
/ʒ/ – japonais, je, génial
/m/ – mêler, magasin
/n/ – nous, nez
/ɲ/ – agneau, poignet (found in French only)
/ŋ/ – camping, smoking (americanized phoneme)
/R/ – rue, rouge (modified in French)
Differences between Pronouncing French and English
A remarking different aspect to French is the utilization of liaisons. Saying deux jours in French does not merit a liaison, but deux ans (/dø‿zɑ̃/) instantly has that /z/ consonant added to connect the words. Another thing is one must remember that French vowels can be classified as either oral or nasal. Most European languages do not need to take into account the fact that air exits both the mouth and the nose.
When the velum is lowered throughout the pronunciation of a vowel, this allows air to escape freely through both the mouth and the nose, thus this vowel is said to be “nasal”. French has four major nasal vowels as already discussed.
French is also known for several other things compared to English. In French, syllables have the tendency to end with a vowel, this is called an open syllable. In English, we like to close our syllables with a consonant. Look at this example:
animation (French) = [a ni ma sjõ]
animation (English) = [æn ɪˈm eɪ ʃən]
(note: both the near-open front unrounded vowels are nasalized)
Just a few notes on French phonetics where English speakers have some trouble: the [R] consonant in French comes more from the bottom of your throat (sounding like “rrrruh”) Anglophones always have difficulty with this – our R’s are a lot more rounded. The [p] consonant is not “explosive” in French as it is in English. The [l] consonant is not elongated in French as it is in English. If you listened to a French person speak English and they said the word “love”, or “atlantic” for example, they won’t elongate the [l].
Why French sounds as if people are “singing” when they speak? It’s because when a sentence is spoken in French, no single word receives a huge amount of stress. The words flow. This is important. In English, we have a tendency to stress many consonants and different vowels.
In speaking standard French, however, you have to realize that French is characterized by greater muscular tension in comparison to English. For example, the lips in pronouncing English are relatively relaxed, but in French they are more tense. Overemphasize the movements of muscles around the mouth and lips can become some pretty spot on pronunciation. For example, the vowel /i/ (in words like dit, vite, and grise), forces the corners of your mouth to stretch apart much more vigorously than in the case of English vowels found in tea, meet, and please. In addition, the lips are increasingly more rounded in the French /u/ vowel… look at the words coup, toute, and rouge in comparison to English words like toot or spoon.
These noticeable differences in spoken French and spoken English demonstrate the individual factors involved in pronouncing French vowels. My French teacher noted that French vowels are “pure”, they aren’t as long as they are in English and they do not change tonality midway during pronunciation (with the exception of semi-vowels). English vowels change how they sound depending on what other vowels are present within the sentence being stress.
More notes on stress in French phonology, courtesy of Wikipedia.
Word stress is not distinctive in French. This means that two words cannot be distinguished on the basis of stress placement alone. In fact, grammatical stress can only fall on the final full syllable of a French word (that is, the final syllable with a vowel other than schwa)…
The difference between stressed and unstressed syllables in French is less marked than in English. Vowels in unstressed syllables keep their full quality, giving rise to a syllable-timed rhythm (see Isochrony). Moreover, words lose their stress to varying degrees when pronounced in phrases and sentences. In general, only the last word in a phonological phrase retains its full grammatical stress (on its last syllable, unless this is a schwa). – Wikipedia.
Well there you go. French phonology and a bit of phonetics in a nutshell. If you read this far, congratulations. I hope this helps a bit.
Of course, there is tons of additional information I have not covered here, if you would to go more in depth, I suggest this book: Bien Entendu par Albert Valdman. Any comments can be left below without any special subscription required.
You can also create a print-ready file and use it for your own personal purposes by hitting the green “print” button to the left or bottom of your screen.
French phonetic information by:
Valdman, A. (1993). Bien Entendu!: Introduction à la prononciation française. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.