French Alphabet and Pronunciation

One of the most vexing topics for English speakers trying to learn French is correct pronunciation. For every seemingly familiar word that looks like something easily pronounced, dangers abound.

Here’s a quick and dirty guide to pronouncing French sounds the correct way. It covers the vast majority of cases but there are exceptions. Please refer to this page as we move on to further lessons.

Even simple letters are anything but simple…but never fear, with a little practice it will come naturally. Pay special attention to the r and u since they are the letters most likely to cause difficulties.

Simple Letters in French

French Sounds

Sounds Like the:

In:

French Examples
(Translation)

a

a

r[a]t

bras (arm), chat (cat)
b

b

[b]utter

bateau (boat), bête (beast)
c before o,a,u

k

[c]andy

caste (cast), col (collar)
c before e,i,y

s

[s]tanza

semence (seed), ciment (cement)
ç

s

[s]ilence

Français (French), garçon (boy)
d

d

[d]og

dinosaure (dinosaur), dans (in)
e

e

blubb[e]r

dedans (inside), semer (to seed)
f

f

[f]lood

faire (to make), fromage (cheese)
g before o,a,u

g

[g]row

gateau (cake), gauffre (waffle)
g before e,i,y

j

angelina [j]olie

orage (storm), gitan (gypsy)
h always silent

hibou (owl), hache (ax)
i

ee

f[ee]t

nid (nest), cité (city)
j

j

angelina [j]olie

japon (japan), janvier (january)
k

k

[k]ate

koala (koala), képi (peaked cap)
l

l

[l]ove

lapin (rabbit), lumière (light)
m

m

[m]at

malade (sick), mouton (sheep)
n

n

[n]eutral

nul (null), niveau (level)
o

o

z[o]rro

métro (subway), vélo (bike)
p

p

[p]asta

patrie (homeland), plus (more)
q

q

bouti[q]ue

quatre (four), attaque (attack)
*r

r

*[r]at

rond (round), recherche (search)
s

s

[s]nail

serpent (snake), savoir (know)
t

t

[t]ackle

tomber (to fall), temps (time)
*u

*oo

*m[oo]d

rue (street), tu (you)
v

v

[v]alet

vol (flight), vanité (vanity)
w German origin

v

[v]ogue

wagon, Wagner
w English origin

w

[w]ater

whisky, wombat
x inside a word, or when ex- is followed by a consonnant, or at the end of words

x

e[x]cess

expert, luxe (luxury)
x at the begining of a word, or when ex- is followed by a wovel or h

x

e[x]am

exemple (example), exiger (to demand)
x at the end of words (sometimes)

s

[s]olution

dix (ten), six (six)
x (rare cases)

z

[z]ero

deuxième (second), sixième (sixth)
x at the end of words to indicate gender or plural

silent

choux (cabbages), hiboux (owls), chevaux (horses)
y

y

[y]am

yoyo (yoyo), yack (yak)
z

z

[z]ip

zéro (zero), zèbre (zebra)

* The most difficult sounds are the r and u sounds since they have no real equivalents in English, and the tongue positions required to produce the sounds are quite unfamiliar.

The French r is located somewhere between the soft English r and the hard Spanish jota. It is produced by making a scraping movement of the tongue toward the palate.

The tongue movement required to produce the French u is very similar to that required to produce “oo”. The two sounds are very distinct however. The “u” in “z[u]t alors” (well known expression in English) is the closest approximation.

French is full of combination sounds which have no English counterparts. The good news is that if you master the simple letters above, combination sounds flow naturally.

Combination Sounds in French

French Sounds

Sounds Like the:

In:

French Examples (Translation)

ai

ai

l[ai]ssez-faire

jamais (never), parfait (perfect)

-ain, -aim

un

Verd[un]

pain (bread), faim (hunger)

au

o

r[o]pe

paume (palm), baume (balm)

ch

sh

[sh]ampoo

chameau (camel), chapeau (hat)

ei

e

m[e]n

près (close), peine (pain)

eu

e

th[e]

peu (little), deux (two)

-er, -ez

a

d[a]y

manger (to eat), assez (enough)

eau, -aud, -ot

o

[o]zone

rateau (rake), chaud (hot)

em, en before consonant

en

[en]core

encre (ink), emploi (job)

ha-

a

r[a]t

bras (arm), chat (cat)

ill

y

[y]ogurt

merveille (marvel), fille (girl)

oi

wa

[wa]ter

joie (joy), loi (law)

oin

oo + un

t[oo]+Verd[un]

loin (far), point (point)

on, om

awn

l[awn]

bon (good), pont (bridge)

ou

oo

t[wo]

genou (knee), tout (all)

ph

ph

[ph]il

phoque (seal), phare (lighthouse)

sc before o,a,u

sc

[sc]oundrel

sculpter (to sculpt), scorpion

sc before e,i,y

sc

[sc]enario

scellé (sealed), scie (saw)

th

t

[th]yme

théologie (theology), thèse (thesis)

ti

s

[s]tone

objection, ration

um, un word ending or before a consonant

un

Verd[un]

lundi (Monday), parfum (perfume)

ui

wi

ki[wi]

pluie (rain), buisson (bush)

Accents inspire much fear and trepidation, but as you’ll see below they’re actually quite simple to master, and are not difficult to pronounce.

Accents in French

French Sounds

Sounds Like the:

In:

French Examples
(Translation)

à

a

r[a]t

bras (arm), chat (cat)

é

a

d[a]y

endetté (indebted), échec (failure)

è, ê

e

m[e]n

près (close), chêne (oak)

â,î,ô,û pronounced as a,i,o,u

château (castle), hôpital (hospital)

ä, ë, ï, ö, ü the tréma indicates that the two adjacent vowels must both be pronounced

a i

n[a i]ve

No ël (Christmas), haïr (to hate)
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