Spelling


French spelling reflects, on the one hand, the pronunciation of the Middle Ages and, on the other hand, strives to imitate the Latin orthography. It is, in other words, not phonetic, but etymological (as is the spelling of English) and seems rather complicated.
 

Vowels (Voyelles)

A has two phonetic meanings:

E has two phonetic values: Note that there are a lot of exceptions from the above rules, cf.:
étrenner [etene] to be the first to use, to use for the first time;
événement [evnm] event.
It may be stated that in orthographically open syllables is written closed e (i.e. é) and in orthographically closed syllables is written open e (i.e. è). On the other hand, in phonetically open syllables is pronounced closed e (i.e. [e]) and in phonetically closed syllables is pronounced open e (i.e. []). It occurs in the speech, under the influence of stressed [y], [i] or [e], that the open e [] becomes closed [e]; this phenomenon is referred to as vowels' harmonization, cf.:
bêtise [betiz] and more rarely [btiz] nonsense,
aimer [eme] and more rarely [me] to love (see Vowel Combinations).
In agreement with the vowels' harmonization, when the mute e in the middle of the word is not pronounced and a preceding syllable with closed e become closed, the closed e tends to become open, cf.:
élevage [lva] instead of [elva] breeding,
médesin [mds] instead of [meds] physician.
See also the mute e.

I may be a vowel or semivowel:

See also the Reading of the letter "y".

O has two phonetic values:

U is pronounced in four manners: See also the letter "q".
 

The mute "e" (L' "e" muet ou caduc)

The so called mute "e" (written always without accent mark) may occur in the middle of the word in front of a single pronounceable consonant, or at the end of the word, cf.:

élever [elve] to lift up, elevate;
petit [pti] little, small, petty;
s'asseoir [saswa] to sit down;
mode [md] mode.
The mute "e" occurs at the end of the words after a double consonant or a consonantic cluster; in the latter case a feable schwa sound [] may be heard, cf.:
elle [l] she,
monde [md()] world,
prendre [pd()] to take.
The schwa sound may appear in the middle of the words also, especially to separate two consonants, as in the case of:
petit [p()ti] little, small, petty;
survenir [syvni] to come surprisingly.
The schwa sound may be heard in versification.

The mute "e" has a special function in the French writing system. It may open the syllables and change the articulation of the preceding vowel (see especially the Nasalized vowels) or make pronounceable the final consonants (see the Mute consonants), cf.:

moins [mw] (one closed syllable) less  <versus> moi|ne [mwan] (two syllables in the writing) monk,
dos [do] back <versus> dose [doz] dose.
The mute "e" is of grammatical value; it usually denotes feminine nouns and adjectives and is used as a verbal termination for some persons and tenses.

See also Stress and Articulation.
 

Vowel Combinations

French uses a lot of vowel combinations; with one exception (oi) all of them represent a single sound, cf:
 
Combination
Sound
Examples:
ai
[
chaise [z] chair
au
[o] 
chaud [o] hot
eau
[o] 
beauté [bote] beauty
ei
[
peine [pn] pain
eu
[] 
[ø] 
heure [] hour
peu [pø] few, little
u
[] 
cur [k] heart
oi
[wa] 
poire [pwa] pear
ou
[u] 
loup [lu] wolf

The sounds [] and [ø] are intermediary between [e] and [o]: it is pronounced by preparing the mouth for [e] and then [o] sound is articulated (it is much like the German ö).

The sound [u] is the same as u in the English put.
 

Reading of the letter "y"

French follows the Latin tradition of transliterating the Greek ypsillon by "y" in the Greek loan-words (for this reason the name of the letter in French is i Grec Greek i); in this usage the situation in English is quite the same, cf.:

See the Greek alphabet.

The letter "y" is pronounced

This innitial "y" is considered a consonant for the liaison and elision except for three words:
yèble [jbl()] danewort  =>  l'yèble [ljbl()] the danewort,
yeuse [jøz] green oak  =>  l'yeuse [ljøz] the green oak,
yeux [jø] eyes  => les yeux [lezjø] the eyes.
In modern French orthography the "y" between vowels functions as i+i, cf.:
essuyer = essui-ier [sije] to wipe (off),
payer = pai-ier [pje] to pay,
foyer = foi-ier [fwaje] lounge.


Nasalized Vowels

In syllables closed by m or n the preceding vowels are nasalized. Note that m and n are not articulated and all the vowels with the exception of o change their timbre, cf.:
 
Letter
Pronunciation before m / n
in closed syllables
  Examples
a
[
  champ [] field
change [] change
e
[
  temps [t] time
centre [st()] center
i
[
  simple [spl()] simple
fin [f] end
o
[
  ombre [br()] shadow
contrée [kte] country
u
[
  humble [bl()] humble
commun [km] common

There is a tendency the nasalized [] to be equalized with [].

In contemporary French the vowels are not nasalized in front of double -mm- / -nn-, cf.:

femme [fam] formerly [fm] woman,
pomme [pm] formerly [pm] apple,
solennité [slanite] formerly [slnite] solemnity.
Some vowel combinations are also nasalized:
 
Vowel Combination
Pronunciation before m / n 
in closed syllables
  Examples
ai
[
  pain [p] bread
faim [f] hunger
ei
[
  plein [pl] full
ie
[j
  bien [bj] well
oi
[w
  point [pw] point

The simple vowels and vowel combinations are denasalized in open syllables, cf.:

commun [km]  => commune [kmyn] common,
moins [mw] less <vs>  moine [mwan] monk.
The prefix en- in- is considered a separate entity and always forms a closed syllable, cf.:
s'enamourer [snamue] to fall in love,
enivrer [nive] to intoxicate.


Vowels' Lengthening

Vowels' lengthening has no distinctive function in contemporary French and at present it is considered optinal. Only the stressed vowels may be lenghtened:

See Stress and Articulation.
 

Consonants (Consonnes)

The following letters have only one phonetic value:

The following letters have two phonetic values:


The letter "q"

The letter q is followed always by u with two exceptions only:

cinq [sk] five,
coq [kk] cock.
Otherwise, the letter u is usually mute, cf.:
qualité [kalite] quality,
époque [epk] epoch.
In few cases, in front of the vowel a, the u is pronounced [w], cf.:
équateur [ekwat] equator,
équation [ekwasj] equation.
In very few cases the u is pronounced [], cf.:
quinquennal [kknnal] quinquennial.


Consonant Combinations

French uses two consonant combinations for specific sounds:

In the foreign words and names are used some other consonant combinations for specific sounds:
 
Consonant
Combination
Pronun-
ciation
Occurrence Examples
ch
[t
in English and Spanish words challenge
kh
[x] 
in Oriental words mainly khan
ng
[
in English words camping
sh
[
in English words smash
tch
[t] 
in transcription of foreign names Tchad
zh
[
in transcription of foreign names Brezhnev
...
 
Reading of the letter "x"

The letter "x" is read in four manners:


The Greek Consonants

French has inherited from Latin the specific transliteration of some Greek letters (this is exactly the case in English),, cf.:
 
Greek Letter
Transliteration
Pronunciation
Examples
thêta
th
[t]
mathématique [matematik] mathematical
rhô (initial)
rh (r)
[]
rhumatisme [ymatism] rheumatism
rythme [itm()] rhythm
phi
ph
[f]
philosophie [filzfi] philosophy
chi
ch (c)
[k], []
christianisme [kristjanism] christianity
chirurgie [iyi] surgery
caractère [kaakt] character

The letter z, except in the ending -ez, occurs almost in Greek words only.

See also the letter "y".

See the Greek alphabet.
 

Mute consonants

The final -b (preceded by -m-), d, p, s, t, x, z are mute, cf.:

plomb [pl] lead (metal),
chaud [o] warm, hot,
trop [to] very much,
très [t] very much,
part [pa] part,
prix [pi] price,
assez [ase] enough.
Note that e before final -s is pronounced only if accentuated; otherwise it is mute, cf.:
composés [kpze] compound (pl.),
congrès [kg] congress,
but
grandes [gd] big, large (fpl.).
The final -r after e is always mute, othervise it is pronounced, cf.:
aimer [me] to love,
arriver [aive] to arrive,
but
partir [pati] to depart,
punir [pyni] to punish.
The letter p is mute before t, cf.:
compter [kte] to count,
sculpture [skylty] sculpture.
The final -ps is always mute, cf.:
temps [t] time, tense,
corps [k] body, corpse.
The m and n that close a syllable are not pronounced, but nasalize the preceding vowel (see Nasalized Vowels).

See also the "l" mouillé.
 

The letter "h"

The letter h is never pronounced except in the interjection hop [hop] (where it sounds exactly as the English h in home). It is used mainly etymologically or, in the middle of the words, as a divider to avoid hyatus, as in:

envahir [vai] to invade,
trahir [tai] to betray.
When occurring in the beginning of the words, the h is considered either vowel or consonant (h aspiré). In the latter case, concerning mainly words of Germanic origin, it hinders the liaison and elision; the dictionaries mark the consonantic h by asterisk (*), cf.:
*haïr [ai] to hate,
*haller [ale] to haul,
*halter [alte] to halt,
*hâter [ate] to hasten,
*haut [o] high,
*hibou [ibu] owl etc.
The letter h is used in a lot of consonant combinations (see Consonant Combinations and Greek Consonants).
 

The "L" mouillé

The older French pronunciation had a soft l-sound [], similar to the English li in the word Italian, and exactly as the sound transcribed in modern Italian by -gl-, in modern Portuguese and Occitan by -lh- and in some Latin American Spanish dialects represented by -ll-. Yet in the 19th century this so called l mouillé became a purely glide sound [j] (as y in the English yet) in the common people's speech and by the beginning of the 20th century this pronunciation was recognized as official. By the way, this is the same process that is under way in the contemporary Spanish language, where in the main Castilian dialect the -ll- has already became [j], while some other dialects, as those in the Spanish-speaking America, still retain the older pronunciation [].

The l mouillé, now pronounced [j] is presented in modern French spelling in two manners:

Note that if -il is followed by a vowel, the [l] is retained in pronunciation, cf.:
voile [vwal] veil
voilier [vwalje] sail (ship).
There are some exceptions, where the [l] is preserved in pronunciation, cf.:
mille [mil] thousand,
ville [vil] town.


Stress and Articulation

The French words are stressed always on the ultimate syllable; the stressed vowel may be lenghtened (see Vowels' Lenghtening).

The words are pronounced not separately (i.e. inisolation), but in phrasal blocs (spoken chains) and only the ultimate syllable of the bloc is stressed. This manner of articulation has its impact on the vowels' lenghtening, cf. the pronunciation of fort strong / very in the examples below:

Il est grand et fort [ilg ef:] He is tall and strong.
Il est fort beau [il fbo] He is very beautiful.
The mute e has a particular conduct in the phrasal blocs, cf.:
à table [atabl] on the table,
table à repasser [tablapase] ironing table,
table ronde [tabld] round table,
la fenêtre [lafnt] the window,
une fenêtre [ynfnt] a (one) window.


Liaison

The words of the phrasal blocs interact between themselves. If the the latter word of the phrasal bloc begins with a vowel or non-consonantic h the final mute consonant of the preceding word may be pronounced. This phenomenon is referred to as liaison. Note that the final s and x are pronounced [z] and the final d sounds as [t], cf.:

les hommes [lezm] the men,
prix unique [pizynik] exclusive price,
le grand empire [lgtpi] the great empire.
Note that the final t of the conjunction et and is always mute.
 

Elision (Élision)

The mute final e of the pronouns je I, me me, te you, se himself / herself / themselves, que what, which, that (the latter may be also a conjunction) is dropped and replaced by an apostrophe in front of a word beginning with a vowel, cf.:

j'aime [m] I love,
je t'aime [tm] I love you,
ils s'appellent [ilsapl] they call themselves,
je veux qu'il vienne [vø kilvjn] I want that he come.
The conjunction si if drops the i before the personal pronouns il he and ils they, cf.:
s'il veux [silvø] if he wants,
s'ils veulent [silvøl] if they want.
The demonstrative ce this drops the e in front of the verbal form est is, cf.:
c'est [s] this is...



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