French Vowels


A vowel is the phonetic element resulted from the emission of a non-constricted sound, or, in other words, an open larynx and non-obstructed lips. Vowels constitute the most important part of syllables in the great majority of languages. French vowels have the peculiar feature of being “placed” forward inside the mouth, in comparison to the common English pronunciation, for instance. This means the tongue is somewhat more rigid all the while. It is also worth noting that French vowels are constant, which means they do not “morph” into anything other sounds, as in the case of some other languages (English included).


The French “A”, first letter of the alphabet and also the first of the five vowels, is pronounced similarly to the “a” in “star”, however trying to open the lips a bit further, even. The grave accent occasionally applied to this letter (“à”) does not change the former pronunciation. A circumflex accent, on the other hand (“â”), results in a somewhat deeper pronunciation, similar to the one a British person (with Received Pronunciation) would give to the initial “a” in the word “arm”.


E” can be pronounced in several different ways in French, from the schwa-like “e” found in most single-syllable words, such as “le” or “me” (analog to the English pronunciation of the “u” found in “but”); to the “medium” opened “e”, featured in final open syllables (e.g. “ballet”) and/or accompanied by an acute accent (e.g. “été”/“summer”); to the open “e” (reminiscent of the one found in the English word “bed”), which corresponds to those carrying a grave accent (e.g. “père”/“father”) or a circumflex accent (e.g. “fête”/”party”), as well as those preceding a double consonant (“nouvelle”/“news”). When an “e” is finishing a word, and it does not have an accent, it is most often not pronounced.


The French “I” is pronounced similarly to its English counterpart in “hit”, whether it is on its own (e.g. “ami”/“friend”), carrying a circumflex accent (e.g. “île”/“island”), or even a dieresis (“maïs”/“corn”); the same holds true for the letter “y” when used as a vowel (e.g. “Syrienne”/“Syrian”). A stronger pronunciation (similar to that of the double “e” found in the English word “heat”) is required whenever “i” is preceding another vowel (e.g. “adieu”/“bye”), or it’s the penultimate letter of a word (e.g. “œil”/“eye”).


The letter “O” has two different pronunciations in French. The first one is closed, similar to the one “o” receives in the English word “go”; it is applied whenever there is a circumflex accent accompanying the vowel in question (e.g. “bientôt”/“soon”), when the latter is the final sound of a syllable (e.g. “mot”/“word”), or when it is preceding a “s” or “z” sound (“chose”/“thing”). Additionally, the vowel combinations “au” and “eau” also call for a closed “o” sound. The second way to pronounce “o” is open; whenever an “o” is preceding a consonant sound (as in “propager”/“to spread”), the latter’s pronunciation should be similar to that of the English word “hot”.


Finally, the letter “U”, whether alone (e.g. “musique”/“music”) or carrying a circumflex accent (e.g. “goût”/“taste”) is pronounced as a sort of combination between the strong vowel sounds featured in English words like “bee” and “food”. Help from a native speaker can be necessary to English speakers at the moment of learning this vowel’s pronunciation, since it has no equivalent in such language.

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