French phonology

French phonology is the sound system of French. This article discusses mainly the phonology of Standard French of the Parisian dialect. Notable phonological features include its uvular r, nasal vowels, and three processes affecting word-final sounds: liaison, a specific instance of sandhi in which word-final consonants are not pronounced unless they are followed by a word beginning with a vowel; elision in which certain instances of /ə/ (schwa) are elided (such as when final before an initial vowel) and enchaînement (resyllabification) in which word-final and word-initial consonants may be moved across a syllable boundary, with syllables crossing word boundaries:

An example of the various processes is this:


Consonant phonemes of French
Labial Dental/
Palatal Velar Uvular
Nasal m n ɲ (ŋ)
Plosive voiceless p t k
voiced b d ɡ
Fricative voiceless f s ʃ (x)
voiced v z ʒ ʁ
Approximant plain l j
rounded ɥ w
Distribution of guttural r (such as [ʁ ʀ χ]) in Europe in the mid-20th century.[1]
  not usual
  only in some educated speech
  usual in educated speech

Phonetic notes:

Example words[11]
Voiceless Voiced
IPA Example Gloss IPA Example Gloss
/p/ /pu/ pou 'louse' /b/ /bu/ boue 'mud'
/t/ /tu/ tout 'all' /d/ /du/ doux 'sweet'
/k/ /ku/ cou 'neck' /ɡ/ /ɡu/ goût 'taste'
/f/ /fu/ fou 'crazy' /v/ /vu/ vous 'you'
/s/ /su/ sous 'under' /z/ /zo/ zoo 'zoo'
/ʃ/ /ʃu/ chou 'cabbage' /ʒ/ /ʒu/ joue 'cheek'
/m/ /mu/ mou 'soft'
/n/ /nu/ nous 'we, us'
/ɲ/ /ɲuf/ gnouf 'prison' (slang)
/ŋ/ /paʁkiŋ/ parking 'parking lot'
/l/ /lu/ loup 'wolf'
/ʁ/ /ʁu/ roue 'wheel'


Although double consonant letters appear in the orthographic form of many French words, geminate consonants are relatively rare in the pronunciation of such words. The following cases can be identified.[12]

The pronunciation [ʁː] is found in the future and conditional forms of the verbs courir ('to run') and mourir ('to die'). The conditional form il mourrait [ilmuʁːɛ] ('he would die'), for example, contrasts with the imperfect form il mourait [ilmuʁɛ] ('he was dying'). Other verbs that have a double rr orthographically in the future and conditional are pronounced with a simple [ʁ]: il pourra ('he will be able to'), il verra ('he will see').

When the prefix in- combines with a base that begins with n, the resulting word is sometimes pronounced with a geminate [nː] and similarly for the variants of the same prefix im-, il-, ir-:

Other cases of optional gemination can be found in words like syllabe ('syllable'), grammaire ('grammar'), and illusion ('illusion'). The pronunciation of such words, in many cases, a spelling pronunciation varies by speaker and gives rise to widely varying stylistic effects.[13] In particular, the gemination of consonants other than the liquids and nasals /m n l ʁ/ is "generally considered affected or pedantic".[14] Examples of stylistically marked pronunciations include addition [adːisjɔ̃] ('addition') and intelligence [ɛ̃telːiʒɑ̃s] ('intelligence').

Gemination of doubled 'm' and 'n' is typical of the Languedoc region, as opposed to other southern accents.

A few cases of gemination do not correspond to double consonant letters in the orthography.[15] The deletion of word-internal schwas (see below), for example, can give rise to sequences of identical consonants: là-dedans [laddɑ̃] ('inside'), l'honnêteté [lɔnɛtte] ('honesty'). Gemination is obligatory in such contexts. The elided form of the object pronoun l' ('him/her/it') can optionally (in nonstandard, popular speech) be realized as a geminate [lː] when it appears after a vowel:

Finally, a word pronounced with emphatic stress can exhibit gemination of its first syllable-initial consonant:


Main article: Liaison (French)

Many words in French can be analyzed as having a "latent" final consonant that is pronounced only in certain syntactic contexts when the next word begins with a vowel. For example, the word deux /dø/ ('two') is pronounced [dø] in isolation or before a consonant-initial word (deux jours /dø ʒuʁ/[døʒuːʁ] 'two days'), but in deux ans /døz‿ɑ̃/ ('two years'), the linking or liaison consonant /z/ is pronounced.


Oral vowels of French. from Fougeron & Smith (1993:73).
Unrounded vowels are shown to the left of the dots and rounded vowels to the right.
The speaker in question does not exhibit a contrast between /ɡ/ and /ɑ/.
Chart with audio

Standard French contrasts up to 13 oral vowels and up to 4 nasal vowels. The schwa (in the center of the diagram next to this paragraph) is not necessarily a distinctive sound. Even though it is often realised as other vowels, its patterning suggests that it is a separate phoneme (see the sub-section Schwa below).

  Front Central Back
unrounded rounded
Close oral i y   u
Close-mid ɥ ø ə o
Open-mid ɛ (ɛː) œ ɔ
nasal ɛ̃ (œ̃)   ɔ̃
Open   ɑ̃
oral a (ɑ)

Open vowels

The phonemic contrast between front /ɡ/ and back /ɑ/ is sometimes not maintained in Standard French, which leads some researchers to reject the idea of two distinct phonemes.[16] However, the distinction is still clearly maintained in other dialects such as Quebec French.[17]

While there is much variation among speakers in France, a number of general tendencies can be observed. First of all, the distinction is most often preserved in word-final stressed syllables such as in these minimal pairs:

tache /taʃ/[taʃ] ('stain'), vs. tâche /tɑʃ/[tɑːʃ] ('task')
rat /ʁa/[ʁa] ('rat'), vs. ras /ʁɑ/[ʁɑ] ('short').

There are certain environments that prefer one open vowel over the other. For example, /ɑ/ is preferred after /ʁw/ and before /z/:

trois [tχwɑ] ('three'),
gaz [ɡɑːz] ('gas').[18]

The difference in quality is often reinforced by a difference in length (but the difference is contrastive in final closed syllables). The exact distribution of the two vowels varies greatly from speaker to speaker.[19]

Back /ɑ/ is much rarer in unstressed syllables, but it can be encountered in some common words:

château [ʃɑto] ('castle'),
passé [pɑse] ('past').

Morphologically complex words derived from words containing stressed /ɑ/ do not retain it:

âgé /ɑʒe/[ɑˑʒe] ('aged', from âge /ɑʒ/[ɑːʒ])
rarissime /ʁaʁisim(ə)/[ʁaʁisim] ('very rare', from rare /ʁɑʁ/[ʁɑːʁ]).

Even in the final syllable of a word, back /ɑ/ may become [a] if the word in question loses its stress within the extended phonological context:[18]

J'ai été au bois /ʒe ete o bwɑ/[ʒe.ete.obwa] ('I was in the woods'),
J'ai été au bois de Vincennes /ʒe ete o bwɑ dǝvɛ̃sɛn/[ʒe.ete.obwadvɛ̃sɛn] ('I was in the Vincennes woods').

Mid vowels

Example words
Vowel Example
IPA Orthography Gloss
Oral vowels
/i/ /si/ si 'if'
/e/ /fe/ fée 'fairy'
/ɛ/ /fɛ/ fait 'does'
/ɛː/ /fɛːt/ fête 'party'
/ə/ /sə/ ce 'this'/'that'
/œ/ /sœːʁ/ sœur 'sister'
/ø/ /sø/ ceux 'those'
/y/ /sy/ su 'known'
/u/ /su/ sous 'under'
/o/ /so/ sot 'silly'
/ɔ/ /sɔːʁ/ sort 'fate'
/ɡ/ /sa/ sa 'his'/'her',
/ɑ/ /pɑːt/ pâte 'dough'
Nasal vowels
/ɑ̃/ /sɑ̃/ sans 'without'
/ɔ̃/ /sɔ̃/ son 'his'
/œ̃/ /bʁœ̃/ brun 'brown'
/ɛ̃/[20] /bʁɛ̃/ brin 'sprig'
/j/ /jɛʁ/ hier 'yesterday'
/e/ /plɥi/ pluie 'rain'
/w/ /wi/ oui 'yes'

Although the mid vowels contrast in certain environments, there is limited distributional overlap so they often appear in complementary distribution. Generally, close-mid vowels are found in open syllables, and open-mid vowels are found in closed syllables. However, there are minimal pairs:[21]

Beyond the general rule, known as the loi de position among French phonologists,[22] there are some exceptions. For instance, /o/ and /ø/ are found in closed syllables ending in [z], and only [ɔ] is found in closed monosyllables before [ʁ], [r], and [a].[23]

The phonemic opposition of /ɛ/ and /e/ has been lost in the southern half of France, where these two sounds are found only in complementary distribution. The phonemic oppositions of /ɔ/ and /o/ and of /œ/ and /ø/ in terminal open syllables have been lost in all of France, but not in Belgium, where pot and peau are still opposed as /pɔ/ and /po/.[24]

Nasal vowels

The phonetic qualities of the back nasal vowels are not very similar to those of the corresponding oral vowels, and the contrasting factor that distinguishes /ɑ̃/ and /ɔ̃/ is the extra lip rounding of the latter according to some linguists,[25] but other linguists have come to the conclusion that the main difference is in tongue height.[26] Speakers who produce both /œ̃/ and /ɛ̃/ distinguish them mainly through increased lip rounding of the former, but many speakers use only the latter phoneme, especially most speakers in northern France such as Paris (but not farther north, in Belgium).[25][26]

In some dialects, particularly that of Europe, there is an attested tendency for nasal vowels to shift in a counterclockwise direction: /ɛ̃/ tends to be more open and shifts toward the vowel space of /ɑ̃/ (realised also as [æ̃]), /ɑ̃/ rises and rounds to [ɔ̃] (realised also as [ɒ̃]) and /ɔ̃/ shifts to [õ] or [ũ]. Also, there also is an opposite movement for /ɔ̃/ for which it becomes more open and unrounds to [ɑ̃], resulting in a merger of Standard French /ɔ̃/ and /ɛ̃/ in this case.[26][27] In Quebec French, this shift has the clockwise direction: /ɛ̃/[ẽ], /ɑ̃/[ã], /ɔ̃/[õ].[28]


When phonetically realised, schwa (/ə/), also called e caduc ('dropped e') and e muet ('mute e'), is a mid-central vowel with some rounding.[21] Many authors consider it to be phonetically identical to [œ].[29][30] Geoff Lindsey suggests the symbol ⟨ɵ⟩.[31][32] Fagyal, Kibbee & Jenkins (2006) state, more specifically, that it merges with /ø/ before high vowels and glides:

netteté /nɛtəte/[nɛtøte] ('clarity'),

in phrase-final stressed position:

dis-le ! /di lə/[di.lø] ('say it'),

and that it merges with [œ] elsewhere.[33] However, some speakers make a clear distinction, and it exhibits special phonological behavior that warrants considering it a distinct phoneme. Furthermore, the merger occurs mainly in the French of France; in Quebec, /ø/ and /ə/ are still distinguished.[34]

The main characteristic of French schwa is its "instability": the fact that under certain conditions it has no phonetic realisation.

Pronouncing [ə] as [œ] is a way to emphasise the syllable. For instance, pronouncing biberon ('baby bottle') [bibœʁɔ̃] instead of [bibəʁɔ̃] is a way to draw attention to the e (to clarify the spelling, for example).

In French versification, word-final schwa is always elided before another vowel and at the ends of verses. It is pronounced before a following consonant-initial word.[36] For example, une grande femme fut ici [yn(ə) ɡʁɑ̃d(ə) fam(ə) fyt‿isi], would be pronounced [ynəɡʁɑ̃dəfaməfytisi], with the /ə/ at the end of each word being pronounced.

Schwa cannot normally be realised as a front vowel ([œ]) in closed syllables. In such contexts in inflectional and derivational morphology, schwa usually alternates with the front vowel /ɛ/:

harceler /aʁsəle/[aχsœle] ('to harass'), with
[il] harcèle /aʁsɛl/[aχsɛl] ('[he] harasses').[37]

A three-way alternation can be observed, in a few cases, for a number of speakers:

appeler /apəle/[ap(œ)le] ('to call'),
j'appelle /ʒ‿apɛl/[ʒapɛl] ('I call'),
appellation /apelasjɔ̃/[apelasjɔ̃] ('brand'), which can also be pronounced [apɛ(l)lasjɔ̃].[38]

Instances of orthographic e that do not exhibit the behaviour described above may be better analysed as corresponding to the stable, full vowel /œ/. The enclitic pronoun le, for example, always keeps its vowel in contexts like donnez-le-moi /dɔne lə mwa/[dɔnelœmwa] ('give it to me') for which schwa deletion would normally apply, and it counts as a full syllable for the determination of stress.

Cases of word-internal stable e are more subject to variation among speakers, but, for example, un rebelle /ɛ̃ ʁəbɛl/[ɛ̃ʁœbɛl] ('a rebel') must be pronounced with a full vowel in contrast to un rebond /ɛ̃ ʁəbɔ̃/[ɛ̃ːʁœbɔ̃] or [ɛ̃ʁbɔ̃] ('a bounce').[39]


Except for the distinction still made by some speakers between /ɛ/ and /ɛː/ in rare minimal pairs like mettre [mɛtχ] ('to put') vs. maître [mɛːtχ] ('teacher'), variation in vowel length is entirely allophonic. Vowels can be lengthened in closed, stressed syllables, under the following two conditions:

When such syllables lose their stress, the lengthening effect may be absent. The vowel [o] of saute is long in Regarde comme elle saute! In which it is final but not in Qu'est-ce qu'elle saute bien!.[41] In the latter case, the vowel is unstressed because it is not phrase-final. An exception occurs, however, with the phoneme /ɛː/ because of its distinctive nature, provided it is word-final, as in C'est une fête importante which fête is pronounced with long /ɛː/ despite being unstressed in that position.[41]

The following table presents the pronunciation of a representative sample of words in phrase-final (stressed) position:

phoneme vowel value in closed syllable vowel value in
open syllable
non-lengthening consonant lengthening consonant
/i/ habite [a.bit] livre [liːvʁ] habit []
/e/ été [e.te]
/ɛ/ faites [fɛt] faire [fɛːʁ] fait [fɛ]
/ɛː/ fête [fɛːt] rêve [ʁɛːv]
/œ/ jeune [ʒœn] œuvre [œːvʁ]
/ə/ le [lə]
/ø/ jeûne [ʒøːn] joyeuse [ʒwa.jøːz] joyeux [ʒwa.jø]
/y/ débute [de.byt] juge [ʒyːʒ] début []
/u/ bourse [buχs] bouse [buːz] bout [bu]
/o/ saute [soːt] rose [ʁoːz] saut [so]
/ɔ/ sotte [sɔt] mort [mɔːʁ]
/ɡ/ rate [ʁat] rage [ʁaːʒ] rat [ʁa]
/ɑ/ appâte [a.pɑːt] rase [ʁɑːz] appât [a.pɑ]
/ɑ̃/ pende [pɑ̃ːd] genre [ʒɑ̃ːʁ] pends [pɑ̃]
/ɔ̃/ réponse [ʁe.pɔ̃ːs] éponge [e.pɔ̃ːʒ] réponds [ʁe.pɔ̃]
/œ̃/ emprunte [ɑ̃.pχœ̃ːt] grunge [ɡʁœ̃ːʒ] emprunt [ɑ̃.pχœ̃]
/ɛ̃/ teinte [tɛ̃ːt] quinze [kɛ̃ːz] teint [tɛ̃]

In the examples above, the final [ə] (shown in parentheses) is elided when preceding a vowel-initial word; similarly, it is deleted when preceding a word beginning with a consonant cluster. Also, if the following word begins in a consonant cluster and the first consonant is distinct from the final consonant of the previous word, the second last syllable of the previous word is long. Otherwise, the syllables are separated by a schwa and the vowel of the second last syllable is short.


Main article: Elision (French)

The final vowel (usually /ə/) of a number of monosyllabic function words is elided in syntactic combinations with a following word that begins with a vowel. For example, compare the pronunciation of the unstressed subject pronoun, in je dors /ʒə dɔʁ/ [ʒə.dɔʁ] ('I am sleeping'), and in j'arrive /ʒ‿aʁiv/ [ʒa.ʁiv] ('I am arriving').

Glides and diphthongs

The glides [j], [w], and [e] appear in syllable onsets immediately followed by a full vowel. In many cases, they alternate systematically with their vowel counterparts [ũ], [u], and [y] such as in the following pairs of verb forms:

nie [ni]; nier [nje] ('deny')
loue [lu]; louer [lwe] ('rent')
tue [ty]; tuer [tɥe] ('kill')

The glides in the examples can be analysed as the result of a glide formation process that turns an underlying high vowel into a glide when followed by another vowel: /nie/[nje].

This process is usually blocked after a complex onset of the form obstruent + liquid (a stop or a fricative followed by /l/ or /ʁ/). For example, while the pair loue/louer shows an alternation between [u] and [w], the same suffix added to cloue [klu], a word with a complex onset, does not trigger the glide formation: clouer [klue] ('to nail') Some sequences of glide + vowel can be found after obstruent-liquid onsets, however. The main examples are [ɥi], as in pluie [plɥi] ('rain'), [wa], and [wɛ̃].[42] They can be dealt with in different ways, aa by adding appropriate contextual conditions to the glide formation rule or by assuming that the phonemic inventory of French includes underlying glides or rising diphthongs like /ɥi/ and /wa/.[43][44]

Glide formation normally does not occur across morpheme boundaries in compounds like semi-aride ('semi-arid').[45] However, in colloquial registers, si elle [siɛl] ('if she') can be pronounced just like ciel [sjɛl] ('sky'), or tu as [tyɑ] ('you have') like tua [tɥa] ('[he] killed').[46]

The glide [j] can also occur in syllable coda position, after a vowel, as in soleil [sɔlɛj] ('sun'). There again, one can formulate a derivation from an underlying full vowel /i/, but the analysis is not always adequate because of the existence of possible minimal pairs like pays [pɛi] ('country') / paye [pɛj] ('paycheck') and abbaye [abɛi] ('abbey') / abeille [abɛj] ('bee').[47] Schane (1968) proposes an abstract analysis deriving postvocalic [j] from an underlying lateral by palatalization and glide conversion (/li//ʎ//j/).[48]


Word stress is not distinctive in French so two words cannot be distinguished on the basis of stress placement alone. In fact, grammatical stress is always on the final full syllable of a French word (the final syllable with a vowel other than schwa). Monosyllables with schwa as their only vowel (ce, de, que, etc.) are generally unstressed clitics but rarely may receive stress.[29]

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).[49]

Emphatic stress

Emphatic stress is used to call attention to a specific element in a given context such as to express a contrast or to reinforce the emotive content of a word. In French, this stress falls on the first consonant-initial syllable of the word in question. The characteristics associated with emphatic stress include increased amplitude and pitch of the vowel and gemination of the onset consonant, as mentioned above.[50]

For words that begin with a vowel, emphatic stress falls on the first syllable that begins with a consonant or on the initial syllable with the insertion of a glottal stop or a liaison consonant.


French intonation differs substantially from that of English.[51] There are four primary patterns:

See also


  1. Map based on Trudgill (1974:221)
  2. 1 2 Fougeron & Smith (1993:79)
  3. 1 2 3 Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996:192)
  4. Adams (1975:288)
  5. Phonological Variation in French: Illustrations from Three Continents, edited by Randall Scott Gess, Chantal Lyche, Trudel Meisenburg.
  6. Wells (1989:44)
  7. Grevisse & Goosse (2011, §32, b)
  8. 1 2 Fougeron & Smith (1993:75)
  9. Grevisse & Goosse (2011, §33, b), Fagyal, Kibbee & Jenkins (2006:47)
  10. Recasens (2013:11–13)
  11. Fougeron & Smith (1993:74–75)
  12. Tranel (1987:149–150)
  13. Yaguello (1991), cited in Fagyal, Kibbee & Jenkins (2006:51)
  14. Tranel (1987:150)
  15. Tranel (1987:151–153)
  16. "Some phoneticians claim that there are two distinct as in French, but evidence from speaker to speaker and sometimes within the speech of a single speaker is too contradictory to give empirical support to this claim".Casagrande (1984:20)
  17. Postériorisation du / a /
  18. 1 2 Tranel (1987:64)
  19. "For example, some have the front [a] in casse 'breaks', and the back [ɑ] in tasse 'cup', but for others the reverse is true. There are also, of course, those who use the same vowel, either [a] or [ɑ], in both words".Tranel (1987:48)
  20. //John C. Wells// prefers the symbol /æ̃/, as the vowel has become more open in recent times:
  21. 1 2 Fougeron & Smith (1993:73)
  22. Morin (1986)
  23. Léon (1992:?)
  24. Kalmbach, Jean-Michel (2011). "Phonétique et prononciation du français pour apprenants finnophones". Retrieved 2 October 2016.
  25. 1 2 Fougeron & Smith (1993:74)
  26. 1 2 3 Fagyal, Kibbee & Jenkins 2006, p. 33-34.
  27. Hansen, Anita Berit (1998). Les voyelles nasales du français parisien moderne. Aspects linguistiques, sociolinguistiques et perceptuels des changements en cours (in French). Museum Tusculanum Press. ISBN 87-7289-495-4.
  28. Oral articulation of nasal vowel in French
  29. 1 2 Anderson (1982:537)
  30. Tranel (1987:88)
  31. Lindsey, Geoff. "Le FOOT vowel". English Speech Services. Retrieved 14 May 2016.
  32. Lindsey, Geoff. "Rebooting Buttocks". English Speech Services. Retrieved 14 May 2016.
  33. Fagyal, Kibbee & Jenkins (2006:59)
  34. Timbre du schwa en français et variation régionale : un étude comparative retrieved 14 July 2013
  35. Tranel (1987:88–105)
  36. Casagrande (1984:228–29)
  37. Anderson (1982:544–46)
  38. Fagyal, Kibbee & Jenkins (2006:63) for [e], TLFi, s.v. appellation for [ɛ].
  39. Tranel (1987:98–99)
  40. Walker (1984:25–27), Tranel (1987:49–51)
  41. 1 2 Walker (2001:46)
  42. The latter two correspond to orthographic oi, as in trois [tχwa] ('three'), which contrasts with disyllabic troua [tχua] ('[he] punctured').
  43. Fagyal, Kibbee & Jenkins (2006:37–39)
  44. Chitoran (2002:206)
  45. Chitoran & Hualde (2007:45)
  46. Fagyal, Kibbee & Jenkins (2006:39)
  47. Fagyal, Kibbee & Jenkins (2006:39). The words pays and abbaye are more frequently pronounced [pei] and [abei].
  48. Schane (1968:57–60)
  49. Tranel (1987:194–200)
  50. Tranel (1987:200–201)
  51. Lian (1980)


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