The Pure French Vowel

What They Are, How to Pronounce Them, and Their Rules

Learning to produce the pure sound of the French vowel
Learning to produce the pure sound of the French vowel. AMELIE-BENOIST /BSIP Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

Voyelles françaises ('French vowels") are pronounced through the mouth (or, in the case of nasal vowels, through the nose) with no obstruction of the lips, tongue, or throat. The sound this produces remains constant, without ending in the lilt of a y or w as in English. So French vowels have a pure if characteristically French sound compared to English vowels.

FRENCH VOWELS IN GENERAL

Just as in English, vowels in French comprise a,  e,  i,  o, and u.

Click on each of these letters for more details on how exactly to pronounce them. Overall, French vowels share a few characteristics:

  • Most French vowels are pronounced farther forward in the mouth than their English counterparts.
  • The tongue must remain tensed throughout the pronunciation of the vowel.
  • French vowels do not form diphthongs, which is a sound produced by the combination of two vowels in a single syllable, in which the sound begins as one vowel and moves toward another, as in "coin," "loud," and "side." In English, vowels tend to be followed by a y sound after a, e, i or a w sound after o and u. In French, this is not the case: The vowel sound remains constant; it does not end in a y or w sound. Thus, the French vowel has a purer sound than the English vowel.

Generally speaking, French features hard and soft vowels, nasal vowels, and vowels with accents.

HARD AND SOFT VOWELS

In French, a, o, and u are known as "hard vowels" while e and i are considered soft vowels because the pronunciation of cg, and s becomes hard or soft in agreement with the vowel that follows them.

If they're followed by a soft vowel, these consonants become soft as well, as in manger and léger. If they're followed by a hard vowel, they, too, become hard, as in the name Guy.

Through convention, an e is often added after hard consonants to make or keep their pronunciation soft. The same happens in English: Imagine how strange "knowledgeable" would sound if there were no e after the g and the g sounded like the g in "giddy."

NASAL VOWELS

When we speak of "nasal" vowels in French, we are referring to certain characteristically French vowel sounds that are produced by expelling air through the nose. All other French vowel sounds are pronounced mainly through the mouth, with no obstruction of the lips, tongue or throat.

Nasal vowels combine with nasal consonants. In other words, French vowels followed by m or n, as in the words unon, and an, are nasal. Try to say them and you'll see that air is expelled primarily through the nose, not the mouth.

This doesn't hold true, however, when the nasal consonants m or n are followed by another vowel. In this case, the vowel and consonant are both voiced. For example:

un: nasal
une: voiced

There are also nasal vowels in English, but they are a bit different than French nasal vowels. In English, the nasal consonant (m or n) is pronounced and thus nasalizes the vowel that precedes it. In French, the vowel is nasal and the consonant is not pronounced. Compare the following:

French: on, an
English: own, on

VOWELS WITH ACCENT MARKS

Physical accent marks on letters, a required feature of French orthography, can and often do change the pronunciation of vowels, as in the scores of French e's with either accent grave (pronounced eh) or the acute accent aigue (pronounced ay).

There are four French accents for vowels, and there's one accent for a consonant.

The accent aigu ´ ("acute accent") can only be on an e. At the beginning of a word, it often indicates that an S used to follow that vowel, e.g., étudiant ("student").

The accent grave ` ("grave accent") can be found on the ae, or u. On the a and u, it usually distinguishes between words that would otherwise be homographs, for instance, ou ("or") versus  ("where").

The accent circonflexe ("circumflex") can be on an aeio, or u. The circumflex usually indicates that an s used to follow that vowel, for instance in forêt (forest). It also serves to distinguish between homographs; e.g., du (contraction of de + le) versus  (past participle of devoir).

The accent tréma ¨ ("dieresis" or "umlaut") can appear over ane, i, or u.

The tréma is used when two vowels are next to each other and both must be pronounced, as with naïve and Saül.

Even though the cédille ¸ ("cedilla") is for a consonant, this list would not be complete without it. The cédille is found only on the letter c. It changes a hard c sound (like k) to a soft c sound (like s), as it does for the c in garçon ("boy"). The cedilla is never placed in front of e or i, because c always sounds like an s in front of these vowels.