Languages › French Understanding the French Language and Using IPA Share Flipboard Email Print BakiBG / Getty Images French Pronunciation & Conversation Vocabulary Grammar Resources For Teachers Table of Contents Expand IPA Knowing IPA IPA Notation French IPA Symbols French IPA Symbols: Consonants French IPA Symbols: Vowels French IPA Symbols: Nasal Vowels French IPA Symbols: Semi-Vowels By ThoughtCo Updated February 12, 2020 When transcribing languages and attempting to explain how to pronounce a word, we use a system called the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). It includes a special set of universal characters and as you learn to use the IPA, you will find that your French pronunciations improve. An understanding of IPA is particularly helpful if you are studying French online using dictionaries and vocabulary lists. IPA The International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA, is a standardized alphabet for phonetic notation. It is a comprehensive set of symbols and diacritical marks used to transcribe the speech sounds of all languages in a uniform fashion. The most common uses of the International Phonetic Alphabet are in linguistics and dictionaries. Knowing IPA Why do we need a universal system of phonetic transcription? There are three related issues: Most languages are not spelled "phonetically." Letters may be pronounced differently (or not at all) in combination with other letters, in different positions in a word, etc.Languages which are spelled more or less phonetically may have completely different alphabets; e.g., Arabic, Spanish, Finnish.Similar letters in different languages don't necessarily indicate similar sounds. The letter J, for example, has four different pronunciations in as many languages:French - J sounds like the G in 'mirage': e.g., jouer - to playSpanish - like the CH in 'loch': jabón - soapGerman - like the Y in 'you': Junge - boyEnglish - joy, jump, jail As the above examples demonstrate, spelling and pronunciation are not self-evident, particularly from one language to the next. Rather than memorizing the alphabet, spelling, and pronunciation of every language, linguists use the IPA as a standardized transcription system of all sounds. The identical sound represented by the Spanish 'J' and the Scottish 'CH' are both transcribed as [x], rather than their very different alphabetic spellings. This system makes it easier and more convenient for linguists to compare languages and dictionary users to learn how to pronounce new words. IPA Notation The International Phonetic Alphabet offers a standardized set of symbols for use in transcribing any of the world's languages. Before getting into the details of individual symbols, here are some guidelines for understanding and using the IPA: Whether listed individually or grouped in the representation of a word, IPA symbols are always surrounded by square brackets [ ] in order to distinguish them from regular letters. Without brackets, [tu] would look like the word tu, when in fact, it is the phonetic representation of the word tout.Each sound has a unique IPA symbol, and each IPA symbol represents a single sound. Therefore, the IPA transcription of a word may have more or fewer letters than the normal spelling of the word - it is not a one-letter-to-one-symbol relationship.The two pronunciations of the English letter 'X' are both made up of two sounds and thus transcribed with two symbols, [ks] or [gz]: fax = [fæks], exist = [Ig zIst]The French letters EAU form a single sound and are represented by a single symbol: [o]Silent letters are not transcribed: lamb = [læm] French IPA Symbols French pronunciation is represented by a relatively small number of IPA characters. In order to transcribe French phonetically, you need to memorize only those that concern the language. French IPA symbols can be divided into four categories, which we will look at individually in the following sections: ConsonantsVowelsNasal VowelsSemi-Vowels There is also a single diacritical mark, which has been included with the consonants. French IPA Symbols: Consonants There are 20 IPA symbols used to transcribe consonant sounds in French. Three of these sounds are only found in words borrowed from other languages and one is very rare, which leaves only 16 true French consonant sounds. There is also a single diacritical mark, included here. IPA Spelling Examples and Notes [ ' ] H, O, Y indicates a forbidden liaison [b] B bonbons - abricot - chambre [k] C (1)CHCKKQU café - sucrepsychologieFranckskiquinze [ʃ] CHSH chaud - anchoisshort [d] D douane - dinde [f] FPH février - neufpharmacie [g] G (1) gants - bague - gris [ʒ] G (2)J il gèle - auberginejaune - déjeuner [h] H very rare [ɲ] GN agneau - baignoire [ l ] L lampe - fleurs - mille [m] M mère - comment [n] N noir - sonner [ŋ] NG smoking (words from English) [p] P père - pneu - soupe [r] R rouge - ronronner [s] C (2)ÇSSC (2)SSTIX ceinturecaleçonsucresciencespoissonattentionsoixante [t] D TTH quand on (only in liaisons)tarte - tomate théâtre [v] FVW only in liaisonsviolet - avionwagon (words from German) [x] JKH words from Spanishwords from Arabic [z] SXZ visage - ils ontdeux enfants (only in liaisons)zizanie Spelling Notes: (1) = in front of A, O, U, or a consonant(2) = in front of E, I, or Y French IPA Symbols: Vowels There are 12 IPA symbols used to transcribe French vowel sounds in French, not including nasal vowels and semi-vowels. IPA Spelling Examples and Notes [a] A ami - quatre [ɑ] ÂAS pâtes bas [e] AIÉESEIEREZ (je) parleraiété c'est peinerfrapper vous avez [ɛ] ÈÊEAIEI exprèstête barrette(je) parleraistreize [ə] E le - samedi (E muet) [œ] EUŒU professeurœuf - sœur [ø] EUŒU bleuœufs [i] IY dixstylo [o] OÔAUEAU dos - roseà bientôtchaudbeau [ɔ] O bottes - bol [u] OU douze - nous [y] UÛ sucre - tubûcher French IPA Symbols: Nasal Vowels French has four different nasal vowels. The IPA symbol for a nasal vowel is a tilde ~ over the corresponding oral vowel. IPA Spelling Examples and Notes [ɑ̃] ANAMENEM banquechambreenchantéembouteillage [ɛ̃] INIMYM cinqimpatientsympa [ɔ̃] ONOM bonbonscomble [œ̃] UNUM un - lundiparfum *The sound [œ̃] is disappearing in some French dialects; it tends to be replaced by [ɛ̃]. French IPA Symbols: Semi-Vowels French has three semi-vowels (sometimes called semi-consonnes in French): sounds created by the partial obstruction of air through the throat and mouth. IPA Spelling Examples and Notes [j] ILLLY adieuœilfilleyaourt [ɥ] U nuit - fruit [w] OIOUW boireouestWallon (mainly foreign words) How to Pronounce More Than 2,500 Words in French Using Enchainement in French Pronunciation Why Spanish Isn't Easier to Learn Than French How to Pronounce 'CH' in French Through the Nose: French Nasal Vowels French Silent Letters and Pronunciation Top French Pronunciation Mistakes and Difficulties Introduction to Pronouncing the French Alphabet How to Pronounce the Letter "Y" in French How to Pronounce the Letter 'I' in French How Is the Letter 'A' Pronounced in French? How to Conjugate the Irregular French Verb "Haïr" How Is 'C' Pronounced in French? French Vowels (Voyelles Françaises) Beginning French Pronunciation How Is 'O' Pronounced in French?