french-alphabet-sounds

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

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.

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, these letters can sound a bit different in French, especially when they are pronounced at regular French speaking speed.

For example, in the French TV show called Dix pour cent (Ten Percent) or “Call My Agent!”, as it is known in English, the letters can sound quite foreign, especially because they are all blended together in quick speech.

Further, 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.

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 Word IPA English Translation
abeille abɛj bee
abri abʀi shelter
acte akt act
affaire afɛʀ business
à a in, to
là-bas laba there
au-delà od(ə)la beyond
âge ɑʒ age, period of time (epoch)
hâter ɑte to hasten
pâte pɑt pastry

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 Word IPA English Translation
banque bɑ̃k bank, banking
bateau bato boat
beauté bote beauty
branche bʀɑ̃ʃ branch, 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…
-ce S
-ci
-cy
-ca K
-co
-cu
-ça S
-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 Word IPA English Translation
cent sɑ̃ hundred
cochon kɔʃɔ̃ pig
français fʀɑ̃sɛ French
reçu ʀ(ə)sy received

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 Word IPA English Translation
daccord dakɔʀ okay
dingue dɛ̃ɡ crazy (slang word)
défait defɛ haggard, ravaged (describing face)
bâtard bɑtaʀ illegitimate 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, -ept eh (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 Word IPA English Translation
erreur eʀœʀ error
leçon l(ə)sɔ̃ lesson
sept sɛt seven
détacher detaʃe to remove, to untie
ballet balɛ ballet
grève ɡʀɛv strike
branché bʀɑ̃ʃe trendy
café kafe coffee; coffeehouse
bête bɛt animal, beast; stupid, silly
Noël nɔɛl Christmas

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 Word IPA English Translation
offrir ɔfʀiʀ to offer
affluence aflyɑ̃s crowds
efficace efikas effective
faire fɛʀ to 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 Word IPA English Translation
élégant eleɡɑ̃ elegant, courteous, civilized
girafe ʒiʀaf giraffe
gentil ʒɑ̃ti nice, kind
golf ɡɔlf golf
guerre ɡɛʀ war

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) IPA English Translation
lhiver livɛʁ (the) winter
lheure lœʁ (the) hour
lhistoire listwaʀ (the) story
le hasard lə azaʀ (the) chance
le haricot lə aʀiko (the) bean
la honte la 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 Word IPA English Translation
pitié pitje pity
cinéma sinema movie theater
pimbêche pɛ̃bɛʃ stuck up
fin fɛ̃ end
île il island
abîmer abime to damage, to ruin, to spoil
Loïc lɔik Breton form of the name Louis
naïf naif naive

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 Word IPA English Translation
jabot ʒabo pleated lace or cloth attached to the front of a blouse
jeter ʒ(ə)te to throw
jiu-jitsu ʒjyʒitsy a Japanese martial art
journal ʒuʀnal newspaper
jubilé ʒybile jubilee

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 Word IPA English Translation
kaki kaki khaki [adjective]
kératine keʀatin keratin
kérosène keʀozɛn jet fuel; rocket fuel
kilo kilo kilo
koala kɔala koala bear
kumquat kɔmkwat kumquat

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 Word IPA English Translation
allô alo hello
laver lave to wash
lentement lɑ̃tmɑ̃ slowly
libre libʀ free
local lɔkal local
lucarne lykaʀn skylight
oreille ɔʀɛj eye
feuille fœj leaf, sheet (of paper)
ville vil town, 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 Word IPA English Translation
flambeau flɑ̃bo flaming torch
temps tɑ̃ weather, time
ombre ɔ̃bʀ shade, shadow
cambiste kɑ̃bist foreign exchange dealer
emotionné emosjɔne worked up, emotional
mécanique mekanik mechanical
magnifique maɲifik magnificent
musicalité myzikalite musicality

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 Word IPA English Translation
an ɑ̃ year
en ɑ̃ in; to; by; made of
lapin lapɛ̃ rabbit
on ɔ̃ one; you; we; they; he/she [impersonal pronoun]
un œ̃ indefinite article; one (of something)
lynx lɛ̃ks lynx
nouvel nuvo new
nuage nɥaʒ cloud
nager naʒe to swim
Nil nil the River Nile
négation neɡasjɔ̃ denial, 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 Word IPA English Translation
rôti ʀoti roast (as in pot roast)
hôpital ɔpital hospital
hop ɔp exclamation; similar to “bingo!” or “bam!”
ordre ɔʀdʀ order
obliger ɔbliʒe to oblige; to force someone to do something
octogone ɔktɔɡɔn octagon; may refer to France’s geographic shape, or France itself
œdipe edip Oedipus
sœur sœʀ sister
vœu wish

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 Word IPA English Translation
pneu pnø tire (compare pneu in French to “pneumatic” in English)
psychologue psikɔlɔɡ psychologist
pantalon pɑ̃talɔ̃ pair of pants/trousers
peau po skin
placide plasid calm, 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 Word IPA English Translation
qualité kalite quality
quad kwad All Terrain Vehicle (ATV), sometimes called a “quad bike”
quand kɑ̃ when
que that, so that
lequel ləkɛl which, which one, whom
qui ki who, whom, that, which
quotidien kɔtidjɛ̃ daily, 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 Word IPA English Translation
arrêt aʀɛ stop, stopping
marron maʀɔ̃ chestnut, brown
rabais ʀabɛ discount, reduction
réactif ʀeaktif reagent (in Chemistry)
riche ʀiʃ rich, wealthy
robe ʀɔb dress, robe, gown
ruban ʀybɑ̃ ribbon, binding, tape
aller ale to go
noter nɔte to note, to write down, to notice
hiver ivɛʀ winter
prendre pʀɑ̃dʀ to take
notre nɔtʀ our (possessive)
kidnappeur kidnapœʀ kidnapper
amour amuʀ love
fier fjɛʀ proud

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 Word IPA English Translation
salut saly hello/goodbye (as an exclamation)
sérénade seʀenad serenade
soleil sɔlɛj sun
suave sɥav smooth, suave, mellow
situation sitɥasjɔ̃ situation
divers divɛʀ various, different, diverse
poison pwazɔ̃ poison
poisson pwasɔ̃ fish

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 Word IPA English Translation
table tabl table
techno tɛkno techno (music)
tocade tɔkad fad; passing fancy
type tip type, kind; guy, bloke
vachement vaʃmɑ̃ really (informal)
chalet alɛ chalet (Alpine-style house)
inquiet ɛ̃kjɛ anxious, 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 Word IPA English Translation
ultime yltim last, final
ubac ybak north-facing slope
université ynivɛʀsite university
cube kyb cube
nous nu we, us
ou u or
où u where
feu fire
aussi osi also
Emmaüs emaus Emmaus (place name)
fût fy barrel, cask

V (Sounds Like “Vay”)

Diacritical Marks/Ligatures

  • None

Pronunciation/Examples

V in French sounds almost the same as in English.

French Word IPA English Translation
vache vaʃ cow
vecteur vɛktœʀ vector
vie vi life
vrai vʀɛ true

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 Word IPA English Translation
wagon-lit vaɡɔ̃li sleeping car; sleeper
water-polo watɛʀpɔlo water polo
waters watɛʀ toilet (derived from W.C., “water closet”)
week-end wikɛnd weekend
western wɛstɛʀn Western (film genre)
whiskey wiski whiskey

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 Word IPA English Translation
xénophobie ɡzenɔfɔbi xenophobia
xylophone ɡzilɔfɔn xylophone

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 Word IPA English Translation
stylisme stilism fashion design
sympa sɛ̃pa nice, friendly
symbole sɛ̃bɔl symbol
yeux eyes
yoga jɔɡa yoga
yaourt jauʀt yogurt

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 Word IPA English Translation
zèbre zɛbʀ zebra
zeste zɛst zest, as in lemon
zigzag ziɡzaɡ zigzag
zone zon zone, 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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