French Vowels

Most of the sounds in the French alphabet can be formed using sounds you already know from the English alphabet. Although English has a great deal of French influence, for the most part, vowels in French function differently than what is typical in the English language. However, even though French has different pronunciation of vowels, its pronunciation is far more consistent across the majority of words, unlike English. This is true not only of vowels, but of all French pronunciation.

Below is an audio guide to the pronunciation of French vowels. (Note: When describing pronunciations, letters will sometimes be in brackets--for example, (b-eh-ll-[euh]). These brackets indicate that the sound therein is subtle and often quiet, as is quite common in French, particularly with many word endings.)

a

The French "a", when unmodified by different letter combinations, sounds just like its title in French: "ah." Accents do not change the way it sounds.

bee
abeille
(ah-bay-euh)
January
janvier
(zh-ahn-vee-ay)
aunt
tante
(tah-nt)
haste; eagerness
hâte
(ah-t)

au

The French letter combination "au" is pronounced the same as the English word "oh." (Note: The letter combination of "eau" in French also makes this sound.)

bus
autobus
(oh-toe-booce)
rate
taux
(toe)
to the; at the
(masculine)
au
(oh)
handsome
beau
(boh)

ai

The French letter combination "ai" is typically pronounced as "eh" (such the "e" in "bed").

to like
aimer
(eh-may)
never
jamais
I will finish
je finirai
I gave
je donnai

However, if "ai" is the last sound of a word pronounced, it is pronounced as "ay." (See Consonant Pronunciation to see which consonants are silent at the end of words.)

milk
lait
(lay)
I have
j'ai
(zhay)
shut up
tais-toi
from now on
désormais

e

The French e, when unmodified by different letter combinations or accents, sounds just like its French title: "euh." (As does the letter combination "eu.") However, it is, for the most part, silent at the end of words when no accent is applied. Exceptions to this can be in music, where the ending can be emphasized. Another exception is when the suffix -ille occurs.

I
je
(xh-euh)
woman
femme
(f-euh-m)
fire
feu
(f-euh)
girl; daughter
fille
(fee-y-euh)

é, -er, -ez, -et, -ed

The French é ("e" modified with the accent aigue), as well as the suffixes -er, -ez, and -et, produces the sound "ay."

summer
été
(ay-tay)
to listen
écouter
(ay-coo-tay)
toy
jouet
(zh-oo-ay)
Go!
Allez!
(ah-lay)
foot
pied
(p-ee-ay)

è, ê

When e is modified by the accent grave (è) or the accent circonflexe (ê), it produces the sound "eh" (as in "bed").

father
père
(p-eh-r)
mother
mère
(m-eh-r)
head
tête
(t-eh-t)
to be
être
(eh-tr-[euh])

This change also occurs when the letter e is followed by a double consonant, or by a closed syllable (being a syllable that ends in a consonant sound).

beautiful
belle
(b-eh-ll-[euh])
seven
sept
(s-eh-[p]-t)

eau

See "au."


en/em

The letter combination "en" in French is pronounced the same as the English word "on." The letter combination "em" is thus pronounced as "om."

together
ensemble
(ahn-sahm-bl-[euh])
to embark
embarquer
(ahm-bark-ay)

euil/euille

The letter combindation "euil/euille" is pronounced as "euh-ee-[yuh]".

leaf
feuille
(f-euh-ee-[yuh])
squirrel
écureuil
(ay-coo-r-euh-ee-[yuh])

i

The French "i," when unmodified by specific letter combinations, is pronounced the same as its name in French: "ee." It's sound does not change with the use of accents.

ten
dix
(deece)
girl
fille
(fee-y-euh)
island
île
(eel)

ille

The letter combination "ille" sounds like "ee-yeuh."

girl; daughter
fille
(fee-yeuh)
July
juillet
(zh-wee-yay)

There are a handful of exceptions where "ille" sounds like the English word "eel."

town
ville
(v-eel-[euh])
thousand
mille
(m-eel-[euh])

in/im

When the letter I is followed by the letter "n" or "m," the sound changes to "an" or "am." However, it is important to remember than the "n" sound in French is soft and formed in the throat.

end
fin
(fa[n])
impossible
impossible
(am-poh-see-bleuh)

io

The letter combination "io" is pronounced as "yo" in French.

mission
mission
(m-ee-ss-yon)
million
million
(m-ee-ll-yon)

ti

The letter combination "ti" is pronounced as "see" in French.

prophecy
prophétie
(pro-feh-see)
addition
addition
(ah-dee-si-ohn)

o

The French o is pronounced in two ways. First, the closed o, which sounds like "oh." This occurs when an o has the accent circonflexe (ô), or when it is the last syllable of a word.

good
(masculine)
bon
(b-oh-[n])
back
(part of body)
dos
(d-oh)
host
hôte
(oh-t)

Second is the open o, which sounds similar to the "o" in the English word "ton." This occurs when o is followed by a consonant sound. (With the exception of the "z" consonant sound.)

good
(feminine)
bonne
(b-uh-n-[euh])
boots
bottes
(b-uh-tt)
pink
rose
(r-oh-z)

oi

The letter combination "oi" produces the sound "wah."

joy
joie
three
trois
(t-[r]-wah)

oe/œ

The letter combination "oe" (typically combined by the digraph œ) sounds the same as the letter e (or combindation "eu")--that is, the sound "euh."

egg
œuf
(euh-f)
sister
sœur
(s-euh-r)

ou

The letter combination "ou" is pronounced the same as the "ou" in the word "soup"--that is, the "oo" sound. Although similar to the French "u" sound, it is different in that this "oo" is not pronounced.

mouth
bouche
(b-oo-sh)
wolf
loup
(l-oo)

u

The French u is pronounced the same as its French name: "oo" (but in the back of the throat). This sound can be emulated by saying the word "you," but keeping the tongue in the "y" position while pronouncing the "ou."

sugar
sucre
(s-oo-kr-[euh])
you
tu
(t-oo)

ui

The letter combindation "ui" is pronounced as "wee." (Or so it sounds--it is technically the French u "oo" sound followed by the French i "ee" sound. Shifting between those sounds produces a sound similar to the English w.)

yes
oui
([oo]-wee]
oil
huile
("wheel"/[oo]-wee-ll)

un

The letter combination "un" is pronounced as "uh[n]," with the n being pronounced at the back of the throat.

one
un
(uh[n])
Monday
lundi
(l-uhn-dee)

y

The French y is pronounced as "ee," just as the letter i in French.

there
y
(ee)
bicycling
cyclisme
(see-kleez-meuh)

Like the letter i in French, when y is followed by the letter m, it produces the "am" sound.

nice
sympa
(sam-pah)

Another exception is that when y begins a words, it produces the "yuh" sound.

yogurt
yaourt
(yah-oo-r)
eyes
yeux
(y-euh)