french-alphabet-sounds

The Letter-perfect Guide to Every French Alphabet Sound

Got your lab coat?

We’ll be doing a little chemistry experiment with the French alphabet today.

Because when you get down to it, letters are like elements in the periodic table.

Each of them has certain properties. Some of them could be grouped together into categories.

You’ve got your semimetals in chemistry… and semi-vowels in the French alphabet.

Rare earths… and rare letters.

Halogens… and vowels—both very reactive.

Like chemicals, letters interact with each other in different ways when they combine.

They make distinct sounds on their own, but then may sound totally different when joined in a syllable or word.

The good news is that we don’t need any fancy lab equipment to learn the rules of French alphabet sounds.

So leave the beakers and Bunsen burners to Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker and let’s get experimenting with French letters and their pronunciations.
 


 
Learn a foreign language with videos

Is the French Alphabet That Different?

The French alphabet uses the same basic 26 letters as the English one. Both alphabets descended from the Latin alphabet.

However, the French alphabet also gussies itself up with some fancy accoutrements:

  • Diacritical marks (or “accent marks”)
  • Ligatures (two sets of linked-together letters, æ and œ)

We’ll include the effect of these linguistic “power-ups” as we discuss the letters of the French alphabet and their sounds.

Then there are the actual names of the letters.

Even if you’re familiar with all the sounds that each French letter can make, you’ll still need to know the letter names.

Imagine calling ahead to your hotel in a remote French town. The concierge doesn’t speak English, and is having a terrible time grasping your surname. If you can’t spell it out in French over the phone before you arrive, they won’t be able to confirm your reservation—and you might be spending the night at la gare (the train station).

Being able to spell place names and street names will also come in handy while you travel.

Fun Tools to Memorize the French Alphabet

“La Chanson de l’Alphabet,” en Français (“The Alphabet Song,” in French)

“The Alphabet Song” isn’t just for kids. Music is a great way to learn a language, no matter how old you are.

There are several different versions of “The Alphabet Song” in French. Here’s one that uses the melody a lot of us learned in English.

A slightly peppier version, accompanied by folk guitar, can be found below.

If you want to get funkier with the French letters, try Alain Le Lait’s version. After the song is repeated twice through, there’s a “karaoke” section where you can recite it without Le Lait’s vocals.

A Is for “Apple,” “P” Is for Pomme

As we all learned while watching ads for a certain breakfast cereal, it’s easier to remember letters if you can link them to words you might already know.

The YouLearnFrench YouTube channel offers this short video with examples of words for each letter of the French alphabet.

OhlalaLingua performs the same service with this video, providing both an English and a Spanish translation for the French words.

The “Little Concepts: ABC French” board book presents a simple word for every letter of the French alphabet. “K comme Koala” (“K like Koala”) has a similar bilingual format, with an animal theme.

french-alphabet-sounds

If you’re looking for a resource with a wealth of French words pronounced by native speakers, look no further than FluentU. FluentU’s authentic French videos—like movie trailers, music videos, inspiring speeches and more—will help you match written letters with their sounds thanks to built-in learning tools.

For example, you get interactive French subtitles. Hover over a word and the video will automatically pause so you can examine it further. Click or tap for an instant definition, native pronunciation and memorable picture.

Once you’re done watching, there are also flashcards and fun quizzes to make sure you remember what you’ve just learned. These also come with native audio pronunciations.

Best of all, FluentU is designed to adapt to your learning level. The videos are organized by genre and level so it’s easy to choose the ones that work for you, but FluentU will also suggest new videos based on what you’ve already learned. Finding useful videos to learn French alphabet sounds on FluentU is as easy as A, B, C!

The Intensive Guide to French Alphabet Sounds You Didn’t Know You Needed

Let’s get down and party with the sounds of the French alphabet!

For each letter, we’ll give you the isolated French alphabet sound with a comparative English word or syllable.

We’ll also show you many different ways each letter can be pronounced with French words. We’ll use a combination of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and comparisons of the French letter sounds with similar English ones to get you in the right neighborhood to pronounce the French letters correctly.

french-alphabet-sounds

The IPA spellings are based on the information in the “Collins” French-English Dictionary—you can also search specific words on their online dictionary to hear an audio pronunciation.

Got your lab coat on? Is your favorite version of the French “Alphabet Song” playing in the background? Excellent! We’re ready to begin.

A (Sounds Like “Ah”)

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • Grave (à)
  • Circumflex (â)
  • Æ/æ

Pronunciation/Examples

The French A by itself produces two main sounds: “ah” (as in the American English pronunciation of father) and a sound like the “a” in the English word act.

French WordIPAEnglish Translation
abeilleabɛjbee
abriabʀishelter
acteaktact
affaireafɛʀbusiness
àain, to
là-baslabathere
au-delàod(ə)labeyond
âgeɑʒage, period of time (epoch)
hâterɑteto hasten
pâtepɑtpastry

As noted above, the letter A can also be part of the ligature æ in French, although you probably wouldn’t run into it much outside of medical terminology or studies of antiquity.

This ligature is primarily used for Latin or Greek words, like Æthuse (one of Poseidon’s daughters, in Greek mythology).

B (Sounds Like “Bay”)

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • None

Pronunciation/Examples

B in French is fairly straightforward. It sounds much like the letter “b” in English words like bank, boat and beauty.

French WordIPAEnglish Translation
banquebɑ̃kbank, banking
bateaubatoboat
beautébotebeauty
branchebʀɑ̃ʃbranch, stick

C (Sounds Like “Say”)

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • Cedilla (ç)

Pronunciation/Examples

The letter C in French can be pronounced as a hard consonant (like the start of the English words cat and can) but can also produce a soft sound (as in the English words cent and cinema).

To help you memorize these consonant sounds, we’ve grouped them together before giving you example words like we did above.

French Syllable“C” Is Pronounced Like…
-ceS
-ci
-cy
-caK
-co
-cu
-çaS
-ço
-çu

The sound of a “c” next to an “a,” “o” or “u” can be changed by a diacritical mark known as a cedille (cedilla).

It’s the little squiggly goatee-looking accent mark that sits right under the “chin” of the letter. With the cedilla, this consonant is pronounced like an English “s.”

Now for some example words:

French WordIPAEnglish Translation
centsɑ̃hundred
cochonkɔʃɔ̃pig
françaisfʀɑ̃sɛFrench
reçuʀ(ə)syreceived

D (Sounds Like “Day”)

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • None

Pronunciation/Examples

D in French is pronounced basically the same as in English. The pronunciation of this letter doesn’t vary much, except it may be silent at the end of certain words (especially those with an -ard ending).

Liaison rules may cause a final “d” to sound like a “t” in front of a word starting with a vowel, such as in the phrase quand il arrive (when he arrives).

French WordIPAEnglish Translation
daccorddakɔʀokay
dinguedɛ̃ɡcrazy (slang word)
défaitdefɛhaggard, ravaged (describing face)
bâtardbɑtaʀillegitimate child; mongrel

E (Sounds Like “Euh”)

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • Grave (è)
  • Acute (é)
  • Circumflex (ê)
  • Diaeresis (ë)

Pronunciation/Examples

E in French is very versatile. Depending on its diacritical marks or neighboring letters, it can produce a variety of sounds. Here are some of the most simple combinations:

French Letter Combination(s)“E” Is Pronounced Like…
é, -et, -er, er-ay (as in “say”)
-et, –è, ê, -ë, -epteh (as in “set”)
-e (as in le/me/te/se)uh (as in “the,” when said quickly in front of another word

Here’s une double poignée (a double fistful) of French words that demonstrate various basic E sounds:

French WordIPAEnglish Translation
erreureʀœʀerror
leçonl(ə)sɔ̃lesson
septsɛtseven
détacherdetaʃeto remove, to untie
balletbalɛballet
grèveɡʀɛvstrike
branchébʀɑ̃ʃetrendy
cafékafecoffee; coffeehouse
bêtebɛtanimal, beast; stupid, silly
NoëlnɔɛlChristmas

F (Sounds Like “Eff”)

This letter’s name is pronounced very similarly to English, except with a tighter vowel sound. Here are some recordings of native speakers saying the letter.

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • None

Pronunciation/Examples

The letter F is pronounced in French words much like it is in English words. Its pronunciation isn’t affected by neighboring letters.

Except when it’s at the beginning of the word, you’ll often see this letter alongside its identical twin in French.

French WordIPAEnglish Translation
offrirɔfʀiʀto offer
affluenceaflyɑ̃scrowds
efficaceefikaseffective
fairefɛʀto make, to do

G (Sounds Like “Zjay”)

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • None

Pronunciation/Examples

Like C, G can be pronounced “hard” or “soft,” depending on which vowel follows it in a word.

Here are a few examples of this letter with different neighboring vowels:

French WordIPAEnglish Translation
éléganteleɡɑ̃elegant, courteous, civilized
girafeʒiʀafgiraffe
gentilʒɑ̃tinice, kind
golfɡɔlfgolf
guerreɡɛʀwar

H (Sounds Like “Ahsh”)

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • None

Pronunciation/Examples

H in French is, essentially, a silent letter. That is to say, it’s never pronounced.

That said, French makes a distinction between H when it’s treated like a vowel (H muet, or “muted H”) or a consonant (H aspiré, or “aspirated H”).

If a nouns starts with an “h,” you can tell whether it’s muted or aspirated based on whether its definite article forms a contraction with the noun.

There’s no real rhyme or reason to whether an “h” in French is considered muet (mute) or aspiré (aspirated). You basically have to grit your teeth and learn this by rote, on a word-by-word basis.

French Word (with Article)IPAEnglish Translation
lhiverlivɛʁ(the) winter
lheurelœʁ(the) hour
lhistoirelistwaʀ(the) story
le hasardlə azaʀ(the) chance
le haricotlə aʀiko(the) bean
la hontela ɔ̃t(the) shame

I (Sounds Like “Ee”)

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • Dieresis (ï)
  • Circumflex (î)

Pronunciation/Examples

The pronunciation of I in French stays fairly consistent, producing a sound like “ee” in English, even when sporting a circumflex or dieresis. The exceptions are when an “i” is combined with another vowel, or followed by an “m” or “n” at the end of a syllable.

French WordIPAEnglish Translation
pitiépitjepity
cinémasinemamovie theater
pimbêchepɛ̃bɛʃstuck up
finfɛ̃end
îleilisland
abîmerabimeto damage, to ruin, to spoil
LoïclɔikBreton form of the name Louis
naïfnaifnaive

J (Sounds Like Zjee”)

The French name for J sounds more like G’s letter name in English, and vice versa.

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • None

Pronunciation/Examples

J in French consistently has a “zh” sound—regardless of its surrounding letters, or where it appears in the word.

French WordIPAEnglish Translation
jabotʒabopleated lace or cloth attached to the front of a blouse
jeterʒ(ə)teto throw
jiu-jitsuʒjyʒitsya Japanese martial art
journalʒuʀnalnewspaper
jubiléʒybilejubileee

K (Sounds Like “Kah”)

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • None

Pronunciation/Examples

K is pronounced essentially the same in French as it is in English. Its pronunciation in French doesn’t vary.

This letter is actually primarily used in loan words in French. The K section in a French dictionary doesn’t take up a lot of real estate.

French WordIPAEnglish Translation
kakikakikhaki [adjective]
kératinekeʀatinkeratin
kérosènekeʀozɛnjet fuel; rocket fuel
kilokilokilo
koalakɔalakoala bear
kumquatkɔmkwatkumquat

L (Sounds Like “Ell”)

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • None

Pronunciation/Examples

A single letter “l” is pronounced in French just like in English. When doubled, however, “ll” assumes an evil twin-type nature, taking on a different pronunciation in certain cases.

That’s because “ll” in French sometimes has a sound like an English “y,” especially when immediately preceded by an “i.” It’s also part of many semi-vowel combinations, which involve various vowel-consonant formations like the -ouille of grenouille (frog) or the -euille of feuilleter (to leaf through).

But then, sometimes, “ll” is pronounced just as a regular, single “l.” Unfortunately, you’ll need to memorize the list of words where that sound occurs. (If you don’t wish to commit all 25 words to memory, try to pick out the ones you think you’ll encounter the most frequently.)

French WordIPAEnglish Translation
allôalohello
laverlaveto wash
lentementlɑ̃tmɑ̃slowly
librelibʀfree
locallɔkallocal
lucarnelykaʀnskylight
oreilleɔʀɛjeye
feuillefœjleaf, sheet (of paper)
villeviltown, city

M (Sounds Like “Em”)

Again, this letter’s name is pronounced similarly to English, but with a tighter vowel sound. Take a listen here.

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • None

Pronunciation/Examples

The French M can behave differently when preceded by certain vowels in particular situations.

Along with the letter N below, M in French can sometimes nasalize a vowel, meaning air passes through the nose and mouth when pronounced. When the vowel is nasalized, so is the “m” that follows it.

When not in a nasalizing position, this letter behaves much as it does in English.

French WordIPAEnglish Translation
flambeauflɑ̃boflaming torch
tempstɑ̃weather, time
ombreɔ̃bʀshade, shadow
cambistekɑ̃bistforeign exchange dealer
emotionnéemosjɔneworked up, emotional
mécaniquemekanikmechanical
magnifiquemaɲifikmagnificent
musicalitémyzikalitemusicality

N (Sounds Like “En”)

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • None

Pronunciation/Examples

This French letter’s biggest claim to fame is its ability to nasalize vowels, like its next-door voisin (neighbor), M.

French WordIPAEnglish Translation
anɑ̃year
enɑ̃in; to; by; made of
lapinlapɛ̃rabbit
onɔ̃one; you; we; they; he/she [impersonal pronoun]
unœ̃indefinite article; one (of something)
lynxlɛ̃kslynx
nouvelnuvonew
nuagenɥaʒcloud
nagernaʒeto swim
Nilnilthe River Nile
négationneɡasjɔ̃denial, negation

O (Sounds Like “Oh”)

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • Circumflex (ô)
  • Œ/œ

Pronunciation/Examples

The French O is pronounced differently based on the letters surrounding it. Here are several examples.

French WordIPAEnglish Translation
rôtiʀotiroast (as in pot roast)
hôpitalɔpitalhospital
hopɔpexclamation; similar to “bingo!” or “bam!”
ordreɔʀdʀorder
obligerɔbliʒeto oblige; to force someone to do something
octogoneɔktɔɡɔnoctagon; may refer to France’s geographic shape, or France itself
œdipeedipOedipus
sœursœʀsister
vœuwish

P (Sounds Like “Pay”)

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • None

Pronunciation/Examples

P in French functions much like P in English. The only major difference is that the French P is sometimes pronounced, albeit lightly, in cases where it would be silent in English.

French WordIPAEnglish Translation
pneupnøtire (compare pneu in French to “pneumatic” in English)
psychologuepsikɔlɔɡpsychologist
pantalonpɑ̃talɔ̃pair of pants/trousers
peauposkin
placideplasidcalm, placid

Q (Sounds Like “Coo”)

Well… it sort of sounds like “coo,” if you tightly puckered your lips while saying it. Here’s how native speakers do it.

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • None

Pronunciation/Examples

A limited number of words begin with the letter Q in French. Most of them begin with “qu-,” which is normally pronounced like an English “k.”

French WordIPAEnglish Translation
qualitékalitequality
quadkwadAll Terrain Vehicle (ATV), sometimes called a “quad bike”
quandkɑ̃when
quethat, so that
lequelləkɛlwhich, which one, whom
quikiwho, whom, that, which
quotidienkɔtidjɛ̃daily, everyday

R (Sounds Like “Air”)

Again, this is a very approximate phonetic spelling. Try clearing your throat slightly to stimulate the uvular/guttural sound.

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • None

Pronunciation/Examples

french-alphabet-sounds

The University of Texas at Austin presents a helpful page with audio files demonstrating lots of isolated examples of the French R within common words.

This letter can also be silent, usually at the ends of words. You may’ve already encountered many French verbs that end in -er with a silent “r” at the end, such as aller (to go) below.

French WordIPAEnglish Translation
arrêtaʀɛstop, stopping
marronmaʀɔ̃chestnut, brown
rabaisʀabɛdiscount, reduction
réactifʀeaktifreagent (in Chemistry)
richeʀiʃrich, wealthy
robeʀɔbdress, robe, gown
rubanʀybɑ̃ribbon, binding, tape
alleraleto go
noternɔteto note, to write down, to notice
hiverivɛʀwinter
prendrepʀɑ̃dʀto take
notrenɔtʀour (possessive)
kidnappeurkidnapœʀkidnapper
amouramuʀlove
fierfjɛʀproud

S (Sounds Like “Ess”)

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • None

Pronunciation/Examples

At the start of a word, this letter sounds pretty much as it would in English.

In the middle of a word, a single “s” makes a “zzz” sound, and “ss” sounds like “ess” in English.

French WordIPAEnglish Translation
salutsalyhello/goodbye (as an exclamation)
sérénadeseʀenadserenade
soleilsɔlɛjsun
suavesɥavsmooth, suave, mellow
situationsitɥasjɔ̃situation
diversdivɛʀvarious, different, diverse
poisonpwazɔ̃poison
poissonpwasɔ̃fish

T (Sounds Like “Tay”)

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • None

Pronunciation/Examples

T is often silent at the end of words, unless a liaison must be made.

French WordIPAEnglish Translation
tabletabltable
technotɛknotechno (music)
tocadetɔkadfad; passing fancy
typetiptype, kind; guy, bloke
vachementvaʃmɑ̃really (informal)
chaletalɛchalet (Alpine-style house)
inquietɛ̃kjɛanxious, worried (masculine form)

U (Sounds Like “Oo”)

Okay, this letter is actually a lot harder to say than “oo” in English. It’s so difficult for native English speakers we wrote an entire article on it.

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • Grave (ù)
  • Circumflex (û)
  • Dieresis (ü)

Pronunciation/Examples

Without the presence of other vowels, the letter U in French is like the English exclamation “eww,” said with a very tight pucker.

This letter can combine with a “q” (as qu-) to make a “k” sound (and sometimes a “w” sound).

French WordIPAEnglish Translation
ultimeyltimlast, final
ubacybaknorth-facing slope
universitéynivɛʀsiteuniversity
cubekybcube
nousnuwe, us
ouuor
oùuwhere
feufire
aussiosialso
EmmaüsemausEmmaus (place name)
fûtfybarrel, cask

V (Sounds Like “Vay”)

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • None

Pronunciation/Examples

V in French sounds almost the same as in English.

French WordIPAEnglish Translation
vachevaʃcow
vecteurvɛktœʀvector
vievilife
vraivʀɛtrue

W (Sounds Like Double V)

Whereas we call this letter “double U,” the French call it “double V.”

Double in French is pronounced somewhat like a cross between the English words dubious and double.

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • None

Pronunciation/Examples

Used somewhat infrequently, W is primarily found in loanwords.

It’s nearly always pronounced as a “w” (as in English), with the exception of the word wagon (and related words) where it’s pronounced like a “v.”

French WordIPAEnglish Translation
wagon-litvaɡɔ̃lisleeping car; sleeper
water-polowatɛʀpɔlowater polo
waterswatɛʀtoilet (derived from W.C., “water closet”)
week-endwikɛndweekend
westernwɛstɛʀnWestern (film genre)
whiskeywiskiwhiskey

X (Sounds Like “Ex”)

Pronounced like “eeks” in English—or think of the word leeks without the first letter.

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • None

Pronunciation/Examples

If W is sparse in French, X is practically nonexistent.

Words beginning with an “x” in French start with a combined “ks-” or “gz-” sound.

French WordIPAEnglish Translation
xénophobieɡzenɔfɔbixenophobia
xylophoneɡzilɔfɔnxylophone

Y (Sounds Like “Eegrek”)

A mnemonic for this French letter name is that it’s similar to the word egret in English, only its final syllable ends in “grec” (like Greco-Roman).

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • Diaeresis (ÿ)

Pronunciation/Examples

Just like in English, the letter Y is sometimes considered a consonant in French and sometimes a vowel.

Spotting a “y” with a diaeresis is about as rare as a sighting of the Abominable Snowman. One good example is in the place name L’Haÿ-les-Roses, a small town outside of Paris that dates back to the time of Charlemagne.

French WordIPAEnglish Translation
stylismestilismfashion design
sympasɛ̃panice, friendly
symbolesɛ̃bɔlsymbol
yeuxeyes
yogajɔɡayoga
yaourtjauʀtyogurt

Z (Sounds Like “Zed”)

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • None

Pronunciation/Examples

The entry for Z in my French dictionary takes up less than two pages.

The pronunciation doesn’t really waver from the same “zzz” sound found in English, made by the sleepy or the buzz of bees.

French WordIPAEnglish Translation
zèbrezɛbʀzebra
zestezɛstzest, as in lemon
zigzagziɡzaɡzigzag
zonezonzone, area

 

Now that you know your French alphabet sounds from A to Z, you’ve got the tools in your language lab to be a savant fou (mad scientist) of French words.

Don’t hesitate to get out there and start experimenting with your own chemical-linguistic compounds à la française (in the French style).


Michelle Baumgartner is a language nerd who has formally studied seven languages and informally dabbled in at least three others. In addition to geeking out over slender vowels, interrogative particles and phonemes, Michelle is a freelance content writer and education blogger. Find out more at stellawriting.com.

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