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French phonology is the sound system of French. This article discusses mainly the phonology of Standard French of the Parisian dialect. Notable phonological features include its uvular r, nasal vowels, and three processes affecting word-final sounds: liaison, a specific instance of sandhi in which word-final consonants are not pronounced unless they are followed by a word beginning with a vowel; elision in which certain instances of /ə/ (schwa) are elided (such as when final before an initial vowel) and enchaînement (resyllabification) in which word-final and word-initial consonants may be moved across a syllable boundary, with syllables crossing word boundaries:

An example of the various processes is this:

  • Written: On a laissé la fenêtre ouverte.
  • Meaning: "The window has been left open."
  • In isolation: /ɔ̃ a lɛse la fənɛːtʁ uvɛʁt/
  • Together: [ɔ̃.na.lɛ.se.laf.nɛː.tʁu.vɛʁt]

Contents

ConsonantsEdit

Consonant phonemes of French
Labial Dental/
Alveolar
Palatal Velar Uvular
Nasal m n ɲ (ŋ)
Plosive voiceless p t k
voiced b d ɡ
Fricative voiceless f s ʃ (x)
voiced v z ʒ ʁ
Approximant plain l j
rounded ɥ w
 
Distribution of guttural r (such as [ʁ ʀ χ]) in Europe in the mid-20th century.[1]
  not usual
  only in some educated speech
  usual in educated speech
  general

Phonetic notes:

  • /n, t, d/ are laminal denti-alveolar [, , ],[2][3] while /s, z/ are dentalized laminal alveolar [, ] (commonly called 'dental'), pronounced with the blade of the tongue very close to the back of the upper front teeth, with the tip resting behind lower front teeth.[2][4]
  • /l/ is usually apical alveolar [] but sometimes laminal denti-alveolar [].[3] Before /f, ʒ/, it can be realised as retroflex [ɭ].[3]
  • In current pronunciation, /ɲ/ is merging with /nj/.[5]
  • The velar nasal /ŋ/ is not a native phoneme of French, but it occurs in loan words such as camping, bingo or kung-fu.[6] Some speakers who have difficulty with this consonant realise it as a sequence [ŋɡ] or replace it with /ɲ/.[7]
  • The approximants /j, ɥ, w/ correspond to the close vowels /i, y, u/. While there are a few minimal pairs (such as loua /lu.a/ 's/he rented' and loi /lwa/ 'law'), there are many cases where there is free variation.[8]
  • Some dialects of French have a palatal lateral /ʎ/ (French: l mouillé, 'moistened l'), but in the modern standard variety, it has merged with /j/.[9] See also Glides and diphthongs, below.
  • The French rhotic has a wide range of realizations: the voiceless or voiced uvular fricatives [χ] and [ʁ] (the latter also realized as an approximant), the uvular trill [ʀ], the alveolar trill [r], and the alveolar tap [ɾ]. These are all recognized as the phoneme /r/,[8] but all except [ʁ] and [χ] are considered dialectal. [ʁ] is the standard consonant. Although the voiceless [χ] is pronounced before or after a voiceless obstruant or at the end of a sentence, the voiced symbol [ʁ] is often used in phonemic transcriptions. See French guttural r and map at right.
  • The phoneme /x/ is not a native phoneme of French but occurs in loan words such as khamsin, manhua or jota. People who have difficulty with this sound usually replace it with either /ʁ/, or use a spelling pronunciation (i.e. /kam.sin/, /man.wa/…).
  • Some speakers pronounce /k/ and /ɡ/ as [c] and [ɟ] before /i, e, ɛ, a, ɛ̃/ [what about /y, ø, œ, (œ̃), (ɛː)/?] and at the end of a word.[10]
Example words[11]
Voiceless Voiced
IPA Example Gloss IPA Example Gloss
/p/ /pu/ pou 'louse' /b/ /bu/ boue 'mud'
/t/ /tu/ tout 'all' /d/ /du/ doux 'sweet'
/k/ /ku/ cou 'neck' /ɡ/ /ɡu/ goût 'taste'
/f/ /fu/ fou 'crazy' /v/ /vu/ vous 'you'
/s/ /su/ sous 'under' /z/ /zo/ zoo 'zoo'
/ʃ/ /ʃu/ chou 'cabbage' /ʒ/ /ʒu/ joue 'cheek'
/m/ /mu/ mou 'soft'
/n/ /nu/ nous 'we, us'
/ɲ/ /ɲuf/ gnouf 'prison' (slang)
/ŋ/ /paʁkiŋ/ parking 'parking lot'
/l/ /lu/ loup 'wolf'
/ʁ/ /ʁu/ roue 'wheel'

GeminatesEdit

Although double consonant letters appear in the orthographic form of many French words, geminate consonants are relatively rare in the pronunciation of such words. The following cases can be identified.[12]

The pronunciation [ʁː] is found in the future and conditional forms of the verbs courir ('to run') and mourir ('to die'). The conditional form il mourrait [ilmuʁːɛ] ('he would die'), for example, contrasts with the imperfect form il mourait [ilmuʁɛ] ('he was dying'). Other verbs that have a double ⟨rr⟩ orthographically in the future and conditional are pronounced with a simple [ʁ]: il pourra ('he will be able to'), il verra ('he will see').

When the prefix in- combines with a base that begins with n, the resulting word is sometimes pronounced with a geminate [nː] and similarly for the variants of the same prefix im-, il-, ir-:

Other cases of optional gemination can be found in words like syllabe ('syllable'), grammaire ('grammar'), and illusion ('illusion'). The pronunciation of such words, in many cases, a spelling pronunciation varies by speaker and gives rise to widely varying stylistic effects.[13] In particular, the gemination of consonants other than the liquids and nasals /m n l ʁ/ is "generally considered affected or pedantic".[14] Examples of stylistically marked pronunciations include addition [adːisjɔ̃] ('addition') and intelligence [ɛ̃telːiʒɑ̃s] ('intelligence').

Gemination of doubled 'm' and 'n' is typical of the Languedoc region, as opposed to other southern accents.

A few cases of gemination do not correspond to double consonant letters in the orthography.[15] The deletion of word-internal schwas (see below), for example, can give rise to sequences of identical consonants: là-dedans [laddɑ̃] ('inside'), l'honnêteté [lɔnɛtte] ('honesty'). Gemination is obligatory in such contexts. The elided form of the object pronoun l'  ('him/her/it') can optionally (in nonstandard, popular speech) be realized as a geminate [lː] when it appears after a vowel:

  • Je l'ai vu [ʒǝl(ː)evy] ('I saw it')
  • Il faut l'attraper [ilfol(ː)atʁape] ('it must be caught')

Finally, a word pronounced with emphatic stress can exhibit gemination of its first syllable-initial consonant:

  • formidable [fːɔʁmidabl] ('terrific')
  • épouvantable [epːuvɑ̃tabl] ('horrible')

LiaisonEdit

Many words in French can be analyzed as having a "latent" final consonant that is pronounced only in certain syntactic contexts when the next word begins with a vowel. For example, the word deux /dø/ ('two') is pronounced [dø] in isolation or before a consonant-initial word (deux jours /dø ʒuʁ/[døʒuʁ] 'two days'), but in deux ans /døz‿ɑ̃/ ('two years'), the linking or liaison consonant /z/ is pronounced.

VowelsEdit

Standard French contrasts up to 13 oral vowels and up to 4 nasal vowels. The schwa (in the center of the diagram next to this paragraph) is not necessarily a distinctive sound. Even though it often merges with one of the mid front rounded vowels, its patterning suggests that it is a separate phoneme (see the sub-section Schwa below).