French Grammar: Vowels and Vowel Sounds


French Grammar: Vowels and Vowel Sounds
Creative Commons Image via The LEAF Project


French Grammar: Vowels and Vowel Sounds
la grammaire française: les voyelles et les sons des voyelles

Understanding vowels (les voyelles) and vowel sounds is an important part of the French language.  You need them to read, write, and speak French well!  Many parts of French depend greatly on getting vowel sounds right, so listen carefully!


French Vowels (les voyelles) play an important role in correctly reading, writing, speaking, and understanding French!  Learning to enunciate vowels well can help you speak more like a native French speaker.

The French alphabet contains the same vowels as the English alphabet (A, E, I, O, U, Y), but the sounds of each of these vowels is different than their English counterparts.

As in English, French vowels are spoken without any kind of block or stop in the airway.  All vowels are formed with the mouth OPEN and air moving freely!

Sometimes a misspoken vowel can completely change the meaning of a word! (Like in nouns or verbs)

Listen carefully to the audio examples in the “Explore” section of this lesson, and repeat the way that the vowels are pronounced.  Your pronunciation will improve over time, as long as you practice!

Vowel Sounds:

A, À :  Letters ‘A’ and ‘À’ are both pronounced with the mouth open wide, as in the English word ahhh.

Ça va, Nathalie?
How’s it going, Nathalie?

Papa va là-bas.
Dad is going over there.

Madame Balade và Madagascar avec Anne.
Mrs. Balade is going to Madagascar with Anne.

Nana va au Canada.
Nana is going to Canada.

E / É / È, Ê, Ë : The French letter ‘E’ has many different sounds, depending on the word it’s in and whether it is accented or not.

When the letter ‘E’ comes at the end of a one-syllable word (je, le, de, ne, etc.), OR in the middle of a word and followed by a single consonant, it is pronounced like the u sound of the English word put.  The combination ‘EU’, either at the end of a word or followed by a silent consonant, has this same sound.

Denise et son neveu regardent le menu.
Denise and her nephew are looking at the menu.

Le professeur ne me demande pas les devoirs.
The professor is not asking me for the homework.

Je veux me brosser un peu les cheveux.
I want to brush my hair a little.

‘É’ has the sound ay like in the English word day.  Final –ER and final –EZ, as well as most instances of –ES in one-syllable words also have the ay sound.  In some words, the combinations –AI and –ET have this same sound, as well.

Olivier et Renée ont porté des bérets élégants.
Oliver and Renee wore elegant berets.

J’ai entendu que ces bébés sont nés en été.
I heard that those babies were born in the summer.

Quand allez-vous arriver chez Gérard?
When are you all going to arrive at Gerard’s house?

‘È’, ‘Ê’, and ‘Ë’ – as well as ‘E’ + two consonants and ‘E’ + a final pronounced consonant – have the sound e like in the English word get‘ET’, ‘EI’, and ‘AI’ followed by a consonant are also pronounced with this same e sound.

Colette achète les mêmes vêtements que sa mère.
Colette is buying the same clothes as her mother.

Daniel a treize ans mais Suzette a seize ans.
Daniel is 13 years old but Suzette is 16 years old.

Quel chef aide la belle ville de Génève?
Which leader helps the beautiful city of Geneva?

Cet air près de la Seine va être très frais.
That air near the Seine is going to be very chilly.

I, Î, Y : To pronounce ‘I’, ‘Î’, or ‘Y’, show your teeth and say eee, like in the English word meet.

Brigitte critique Sylvie à midi.
Brigitte criticizes Sylvie at noon.

Il est timide mais il visite l’Italie avec Gigi.
He is shy but he is visiting Italy with Gigi.

Didier dîne ici à six heures et demie.
Didier eats dinner here at 6:30.

O :  The letter ‘O’ has two different sounds in French.

One of these is pronounced oh like in the English word no.  That sound can be written in several ways: as ‘O’ (either before letter s’ + a vowel OR when it’s the last pronounced sound of the word), and also as Ô, as AU, or as EAU.

Maurice pose la radio à côté de l’autre chose.
Maurice places the radio next to the other thing.

Noëlle boit beaucoup d’eau.
Noëlle drinks a lot of water.

Paul arrose trop les roses.
Paul is watering the roses too much.

‘O’  sounds like the o in the English word love when followed by a pronounced consonant other than ‘s’.

Le professeur donne une bonne note à Nicole.
The professor is giving a good grade to Nicole.

Roger téléphone les hommes en octobre.
Roger phones the men in October.

J’adore les pommes et les olives.
I love apples and olives.

NOTE 1:  The combinations ‘OI’ and ‘OY’ are pronounced wah, like in the English word waddle.

Toi et moi, nous avons les doigts poilus.
You and I have hairy fingers.

François a soixante-trois oiseaux.
Francis has sixty-three birds.

C’est quoi, le loyer du foyer royal?
What’s the rent for the royal household?

NOTE 2: The combination ‘OU’ is pronounced ooo, like in the English word pool.

Coucou!  Pourquoi jouez-vous dans la boue?
Hey there!  Why are you all playing in the mud?

Nous touchons beaucoup tous les choux.  C’est fou!
We’re touching all the cabbages a lot.  It’s crazy! 

U, Û : English has no equivalent sound for the French ‘u’ or ‘û’.  To correctly pronounce this letter, first say the sound eee.  Then, round your lips as if you’re going to whistle and say eee again with rounded lips.  The resulting sound is close to the French ‘u’ / ‘û’.  (It’s a good idea to practice all this in front of a mirror, so that you can actually see how the shape of your lips changes.)

Une minute! Tu as vu le bus dans la rue?
Wait a minute!  Did you see the bus in the street?

La mule du juge est super-têtue.
The judge’s mule is really stubborn.

Salut! Tu es sûr que Luc a vu Lulu à Honolulu?
Hi! Are you sure that Luc saw Lulu in Honolulu?


Salut!  Comment vas-tu?
Hi!  How are you (informal)?

Je vais très bien, merci.
I am very well, thank you.

Tu aimes les maths?
Do you (informal) like math?

Oui, j’aime les maths et l’histoire.
Yes, I like math and histoire.

Il habite à Montréal?
Does he live in Montreal?

Non, il habite à Toronto.
No, he lives in Toronto.

Elles dînent chez Michel?
Are they (feminine) having dinner at Michael’s house?

Non, elles ne dînent pas avec lui.
No, they (feminine) are not having dinner with him.

As-tu été à Tahiti?
Have you been to Tahiti?

Mais oui!  J’ai été à Tahiti!
Yes!  I have been to Tahiti.


Creative Commons LicenseThe LEAF Project
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike