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The International Phonetic Alphabet

 
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Have you ever heard about the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)? The IPA is an alphabet designed to list all the sounds (vowels and consonants) existing in all languages. Reading a word written in IPA is the only reliable way to know how to pronounce it correctly. Why? Because our languages' orthography is not based on the actual pronunciation of words. Most European languages borrowed their alphabet from the Greeks and the Latins and tried to match the sounds of their own languages with letters formerly designed to suit Greek and Latin languages only. Moreover, spoken languages have developed quickly in history, whereas their written form has not necessarily changed that much because reforming words’ spelling is not easy and full of inconveniences: the changes are not immediately adopted by the population and future generations may not be able to understand the written word of the past. This is the reason why reading a word in English or French, for instance, can be misleading if one is not sure of its pronunciation and tries to figure it out from its spelling.

e.g.: Take the "a" in English in words such as "dad", "Asia", "anniversary" - these are three different pronunciations of the same letter. How can a foreigner guess its right pronunciation by looking at the words only?

e.g.: Take the word "castle" - the "t" is not pronounced any longer in modern English. The "t" is an old vestige coming from the old English "castel", itself coming from the latin "castellum". How can a foreigner guess that the "t" is not to be pronounced by looking at the word only?

Looking at the spelling of a word is not reliable on its own to figure out how to pronounce a word correctly. Similar problems exist in French. Furthermore, some sounds exist in French that don't exist in English and vice versa. Lastly, some letters are not pronounced the same way in French and in English. Not being aware of this may lead you to pronounce French like English. To improve your oral skills, you need to learn the IPA letters symbolising the sounds used in the French language. This will help you develop your oral communication skills in French by pronouncing words correctly and understanding clearly what you are told. Knowing the letters of the IPA will also allow you to check on your own the pronunciation of any word in good dictionaries, where IPA transcription is normally given next to each entry.

NOTE: when you write a letter from the IPA, the rule is to write it in brackets [], whereas words and sentences are written between slashes //.

Vowels & consonants

French only uses 18 consonant sounds16 vowel sounds, and 3 semi-vowels.

► A vowel sound is a sound produced by the vibration of the vocal cords without any obstacle in the way. That sound can then be modulated by three parameters:

• the aperture of the mouth (open / mid / close), 

• the position of the tongue (front / central / back), and

• the shape of the lips (relaxed / rounded).

You can recognise a vowel sound easily as they are the only sounds that you can keep when you pronounce them. For instance, if you pronounce the following vowel letters out loud, you will see that you can keep them as long as you have air in your lungs: “a”, “e”, “i”, “o”, “u”.

► A consonant sound is a noise resulting from an obstacle in the mouth in the way of the air flow. For instance, when you pronounce the letters “b”, “p” and “m”, the obstacle is that your lips are sealed so the air can't go through. When you pronounce the letter “l”, “k” and “g” the obstacle is your tongue.

In the following sections, you will learn the sounds of the French language by pairs to help you distinguish sounds that are similar but different. Certain sounds don’t exist in English, which is why you need to pay particular attention to them and try to hear the difference when listening to them and to produce them correctly when speaking.

Aperture-open

Aperture-open

Tongue-front

Tongue-front

Lips-relaxed

Lips-relaxed

Aperture-mid

Aperture-mid

Tongue-central

Tongue-central

Lips-rounded

Lips-rounded

Note: there is no sound in French with the tongue in central position

Aperture-close

Aperture-close

Tongue-back

Tongue-back

Vowel chart

Chart vowels

Note: in green are the vowels existing in the French language

Vowels

  • [i] ni nor
  • [y] nu naked
  • [u] mou soft
  • [e] mais but
  • [ɛ] mère mother
  • [œ] mœurs customs
  • [ø] mener to lead
  • [ə] (same sound as [ø] but can be dropped when speaking)

 

  • [ɔ] note note
  • [o] mauve purple
  • [a] ma my (f.)
  • [ɑ] mâle male
  • [ɛ̃] main hand
  • [œ̃] munster Munster
  • [ã] mentir to lie
  • [õ] mon my (m.)

Semi vowels

  • [j] (from [i]) mien mine
  • [w] (from [y]) loin far
  • [ɥ] (from [u]) nuit night

Semi vowels are vowel sounds followed by another vowel sound. They are then pronounced quicker (half the normal length), which is why they are called semi vowels.

Consonants

  • [p] papa dad
  • [b] bateau ship
  • [t] tata anty
  • [d] danse dance
  • [k] cadeau gift
  • [g] gâteau cake
  • [f] faute mistake
  • [v] votre your
  • [s] saute jump

 

  • [z] zinc zinc
  • [ʃ] chemin path
  • [ʒ] jardin garden
  • [m] matin morning
  • [n] nage swim
  • [ɲ] montagne mountain
  • [ŋ] camping camping
  • [l] laver to wash
  • [ʁ] ramer to row

Pure vowel [i]

 

nid

midi

Paris

joli

ici

The sound [i] exists in English, for instance in “sheep” or "bee"or "me".

[i]

  • Mouth: close
  • Tongue: front
  • Lips: relaxed

il /il/ he

habiter /abite/ to live

paradis /paʁadiparadise

amitié /amitje/ friendship

Pure vowels [ø] and [œ]

 

le - leur

peu - peur

me - meule

boeufs - beurre

veux - veulent

The sound [ø] doesn't exist in English but it is very common in French. You need to pay particular attention to that sound and avoid confusing it with another similar sound which is [œ].

Let’s start with [œ]. [œ] doesn’t exist in English either, but it is very similar to what you say in “bug” or “mud” or “cousin”. The only difference is that your tongue must be at the front, against your teeth, and not at the back. If you are okay with [œ], sounding [ø] won’t be too hard: you only need to round up your lips.

Indeed, the main difference between [ø] and [œ] is that for the [ø] sound your lips must be rounded, whereas for the [œ] sound they are totally relaxed. Use a mirror to look at your lips and your mouth, and compare with the photos opposite. 

[ø]

  • Mouth: close-mid
  • Tongue: front
  • Lips: rounded 

heureux /øʁøhappy

feu /føfire

bleu /bløblue

peu /pølittle, few

[œ]

  • Mouth: open-mid
  • Tongue: front
  • Lips: relaxed

beurre /bœʁ/ butter

peur /pœʁ/ fright

soeur /sœʁ/ sister

seul /sœl/ alone

Pure vowels [ɑ] and [a]

 

âme / amer

câlin / calme

pâte / patte

lâche / lac

dégât / yoga

Both [a] and [ɑ] exist in English, but note that both tend to be mixed together in modern French. Today, most people only use the sound [a].

The sound [ɑ] is the one in “father”, “bath”, “calm” or “card”.

The sound [a] is the one in “accident”, “access”, “bad” or “dad”.

The only difference between [ɑ] and [a] is that for the [ɑ] sound your tongue is at the back, whereas for the [a] sound it is at the front, against your teeth. For both sounds, the mouth is wide open. Use a mirror to look at your tongue and compare with the photos opposite. 

[ɑ]

  • Mouth: open
  • Tongue: back
  • Lips: relaxed

 

château /ʃato/ castle

grâce /ɡʁɑs/ grace

pâte /pɑt/ blue

âme /ɑm/ soul

[a]

  • Mouth: open
  • Tongue: front
  • Lips: relaxed

Patte /pat/ leg (for an animal)

chat /ʃacat

ami /ami/ friend

maladie /maladi/ disease

Pure vowels [o] and [ɔ]

 

mot / mort

tôt / tord

omettre / ​omelette

pot / port

veau/ vol

The sound [ɔ] exists in English, for instance in words such as “awkward”, “water”, or “cord”. The sound [o] doesn’t exist in English.

The only difference between [ɔ] and [o] is that for the [ɔ] sound your mouth is more open than for the [o] sound. For the [ɔ] sound, your mouth is open-mid, whereas for the [o] sound it is close-mid.

[o]

  • Mouth: close-mid
  • Tongue: back
  • Lips: rounded

château /ʃato/ castle

beau /bohandsome

eau /owater

hôtel /otɛl/ hotel

[ɔ] 

  • Mouth: open-mid
  • Tongue: back
  • Lips: rounded

pomme /pɔm/ apple

sol /sɔl/ ground

alors /alɔʁ/ then

horloge /ɔʁlɔʒ/ clock

Pure vowels [e] and [ɛ]

 

mais / même

état / être

fée / fête

blé / blême

laid / lait

Both sounds exist in English.

The sound [e] can be found in words such as “bet”, “said”, or “bread”.

The sound [ɛ]  can be found in words such “dare”, “bear” or “hair”. 

The only difference between [ɛ] and [e] is that for the [ɛ] sound your mouth is more open than for the [e] sound. For the [ɛ] sound, your mouth is open-mid, whereas for the [e] sound it is close-mid.

[e]

  • Mouth: close-mid
  • Tongue: front
  • Lips: relaxed

fée /fefairy

manger /mɑ̃ʒeto eat

état /eta/ state

aimer /emeto like, to love

[ɛ] 

  • Mouth: open-mid
  • Tongue: front
  • Lips: relaxed

être /ɛtʁ/ to be

lait /lɛmilk

mer /mɛʁ/ sea

reine /ʁɛn/ queen

Pure vowels [y] and [u]

 

tu / tout

vu / vous

hutte / housse

allure / amour

lutte / loutre

 

The sound [y] doesn’t exist in English, and the English speaker often struggles to produce it at the beginning – usually because they can’t distinguish it from [u] when they hear it, and because they don’t know how to produce it when speaking. The secret is the position of the tongue. The sound [u] can be found in English in words such as “soon”, “prove” or “two”. 

The only difference between [y] and [u] is that for the [y] sound the tongue is at the front, against the teeth, whereas for the [u] sound it is at the back.

Even if the sound [u] exists in both languages, it is slightly different. The secret to pronounce a perfect [u] in French is to keep the tongue at the back as much as possible. The mouth is also slightly more closed and the lips even more rounded than in English.

[y]

  • Mouth: close
  • Tongue: front (see below)
  • Lips: rounded 

[y] - Tongue at the front

nu /nynaked

tissu /tisyfabric

rue /ʁystreet

hurler /yʁle/ to shout

[u] 

  • Mouth: close
  • Tongue: back (see below)
  • Lips: rounded

[u] - Tongue at the back

fou /fucrazy

oublier /ublije/ to forget

outil /uti/ tool

bisou /bizukiss

Nasal vowels [ã], [ɛ̃], [œ̃] and [ɔ̃]

 

[ã] - [ɔ̃]

lent / long

angle / ongle

rampe /rompre

 

[ɛ̃] - [œ̃]

lin / l'un

geindre / jungle

brin / brun

Nasal sounds don’t exist in English. What is a nasal sound? It is a sound produced by a flow of air going through the nose. For instance, “m” is a nasal consonant.

  • Just try this: keep you mouth closed and produce a “m” sound, keeping it for several seconds; something like “mmmmmmmmm”. Then, while you do this, pinch your nose: that will stop your “m” as it is only through the nose that that sound was produced.
  • Now, try this: while you are doing “mmmmmmmmm”, just open the mouth. The air will go through both the nose and the mouth. Now, you are doing a nasal vowel! Congratulations!

Those four nasal vowels are in fact the nasalized version of four pure vowels studied above. To produce them, you only need to pronounce the pure vowels, letting the air also go through your nose. This will come quickly with a bit of practice.

Note that the sounds [ɛ̃] and [œ̃] are very similar and that today most people use the [ɛ̃] sound for both.

[ã]

  • Mouth: open
  • Tongue: front
  • Lips: relaxed

ancien /ɑ̃sjɛ̃/ old

menthe /mɑ̃t/ mint

tante /tɑ̃t/ ant

dent /dɑ̃street

[ɛ̃]

  • Mouth: open-mid
  • Tongue: front
  • Lips: relaxed

matin /matɛ̃morning

peinte /pɛ̃t/ painted

main /mɛ̃hand

ancien /ɑ̃sjɛ̃old

[œ̃] 

  • Mouth: open-mid
  • Tongue: front
  • Lips: rounded

un /œ̃one

brun /bʁœ̃brown

parfum /paʁfœ̃perfume

lundi /lœ̃di/ Monday

[õ] 

  • Mouth: close-mid
  • Tongue: back
  • Lips: rounded

pont /pɔ̃bridge

montagne /mɔ̃taɲ/ mountain

front /fʁɔ̃forehead

bonbon /bɔ̃bɔ̃sweet, candy

Consonants

 

Consonant sounds in French are almost all the same as in English. Only "H", "GN" and "R" are a bit tricky.

H is not pronounced in French: at the beginning of a word, it is just a vestige of old latin or germanic words. However, depending precisely of the word's origin, the H may influence the liaison: don't sound a liaison for words starting with H that have a germanic origin (e.g. héro, hall, halte...).

GN is usually pronouced [ɲ], which is basically very similar to [n].

R in French is pronounced [ʁ]. To realize that sound, it is better to exagerate it at the beginning. Imagine that you are snoring, or that you are being strangled! (listen to the track).

French :

  • [p] papdad
  • [b] bateau ship
  • [t] tatanty
  • [d] danse dance
  • [k] cadeau gift
  • [g] gâteau cake
  • [f] faute mistake
  • [v] votre your
  • [s] saute jump

English:

  • supper, stop
  • rabbit, robe
  • button, bit
  • body, do
  • pocket, back
  • again, get
  • fast, prefer
  • vast, avenue
  • science, bus

French:

  • [z] zinc zinc
  • [ʃ] chemin path
  • [ʒ] jardin garden
  • [m] matin morning
  • [n] nage swim
  • [ɲ] montagnmt.
  • [ŋ] camping camping
  • [l] laver to wash
  • [ʁ] ramer to row

English:

  • poison, news
  • ship, finish
  • pleasure, regime
  • morning, hammer
  • now, analyse
  • (doesn't exist)
  • camping, tongue
  • leader, aliby
  • (doesn't exist)