Understanding the French Language and Using IPA

What is the International Phonetic Alphabet?

Boy writing on the blackboard
BSIP/UIG/Getty Images

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.

What Is 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.

Why Do We Need to Know IPA?

Why do we need a universal system of phonetic transcription? There are three related issues:

  1. 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.
  2. Languages which are spelled more or less phonetically may have completely different alphabets; e.g., Arabic, Spanish, Finnish.
  3. 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 play
    • Spanish - like the CH in 'loch': jabón - soap
    • German - like the Y in 'you': Junge - boy
    • English - 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 to 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:

      1. Consonants
      2. Vowels
      3. Nasal Vowels
      4. Semi-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.

      IPASpellingExamples and Notes
      [ ' ]H, O, Yindicates a forbidden liaison
      [b]Bbonbons - abricot - chambre
      [k]C (1)
      CH
      CK
      K
      QU
      café - sucre
      psychologie
      Franck
      ski
      quinze
      [ʃ]CH
      SH
      chaud - anchois
      short
      [d]Ddouane - dinde
      [f]F
      PH
      février - neuf
      pharmacie
      [g]G (1)gants - bague - gris
      [ʒ]G (2)
      J
      il gèle - aubergine
      jaune - déjeuner
      [h]Hvery rare
      [ɲ]GNagneau - baignoire
      [ l ]Llampe - fleurs - mille
      [m]Mmère - comment
      [n]Nnoir - sonner
      [ŋ]NGsmoking (words from English)
      [p]Ppère - pneu - soupe
      [r]Rrouge - ronronner
      [s]C (2)
      Ç
      S
      SC (2)
      SS
      TI
      X
      ceinture
      caleçon
      sucre
      sciences
      poisson
      attention
      soixante
      [t]
      T
      TH
      quand on (only in liaisons)
      tarte - tomate 
      théâtre
      [v]F
      V
      W
      only in liaisons
      violet - avion
      wagon (words from German)
      [x]J
      KH
      words from Spanish
      words from Arabic
      [z]S
      X
      Z
      visage - ils ont
      deux 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.

      IPASpellingExamples and Notes
      [a]Aami - quatre
      [ɑ]Â
      AS
      pâtes 
      bas
      [e]AI
      É
      ES
      EI
      ER
      EZ
      (je) parlerai
      été 
      c'est 
      peiner
      frapper 
      vous avez
      [ɛ]È
      Ê
      E
      AI
      EI
      exprès
      tête 
      barrette
      (je) parlerais
      treize
      [ə]Ele - samedi (E muet)
      [œ]EU
      ŒU
      professeur
      œuf - sœur
      [ø]EU
      ŒU
      bleu
      œufs
      [i]I
      Y
      dix
      stylo
      [o]O
      Ô
      AU
      EAU
      dos - rose
      à bientôt
      chaud
      beau
      [ɔ]Obottes - bol
      [u]OUdouze - nous
      [y]U
      Û
      sucre - tu
      bûcher

      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.

      IPASpellingExamples and Notes
      [ɑ̃]AN
      AM
      EN
      EM
      banque
      chambre
      enchanté
      embouteillage
      [ɛ̃]IN
      IM
      YM
      cinq
      impatient
      sympa
      [ɔ̃]ON
      OM
      bonbons
      comble
      [œ̃]UN
      UM
      un - lundi
      parfum

      *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.

      IPASpellingExamples and Notes
      [j]I
      L
      LL
      Y
      adieu
      œil
      fille
      yaourt
      [ɥ]Unuit - fruit
      [w]OI
      OU
      W
      boire
      ouest
      Wallon (mainly foreign words)