Cat Got Your Tongue? How to Master 5 Common French Silent Letters
What do x, h, s, n and t have in common?
Well, besides being letters, of course!
Give up? In French—la langue française—you often don’t hear them at all!
That’s right: When placed in certain positions in a word, these letters (and many others) become silent letters, or lettres muettes.
Silent letters can be a huge challenge, especially for native Anglophones, who aren’t used to so many silent letters showing up so often. In some words, only a few of the letters are actually pronounced! For some rather extreme examples, just check out this Quora thread.
Confused yet? N’ayez pas peur! (fear not!) Those silent letters are actually quite manageable. In fact, many show up in basic French words you’ve probably already spoken or heard.
Let’s take a look at five of the most common French silent letters and how you can master their pronunciation… or lack thereof.
How to Study French Silent Letters
The first step to studying these letters is, of course, to use our guide below! We’ll take a closer look at our muettes friends by examining some of the most common, most complicated and often downright weirdest silent letters (and letter groupings).
Why these particular letters? Granted, there are plenty of others. But the following five are some of the most common, and in this writer’s experience, the ones that trip new learners up the most.
But don’t worry—we’ll also take a look at some examples and tips on how to master them. You’ll be speaking French like a native in no time!
Rest assured, we have your dos (French for “back”; and yep, the s is silent).
This YouTube video is a very helpful resource both for reading and listening (and, therefore, pronouncing!). It pairs words and examples with audio so you know exactly how to pronounce each sound.
Hearing and seeing real examples of silent letters, and many other aspects of pronunciation and even French culture, is a fantastic way to reinforce your learning!
5 Common French Silent Letters and Some “Trucs et Astuces” to Master Them
The Silent x: At the End of a Word
Common French words where it appears: généreux, prix, heureux, deux, croix (respectively generous, price, happy, two, cross)
Phonetic pronunciations: généreu, pree, eu-reu, deu, croa
Where you’ll find it: Commonly after an -eu, sometimes after an -i.
What makes it unusual: We have an impulse to give it a sound and pronounce it like a sounded -x (as in “max,” “box”) or even a z sound. Instead, it’s completely silent.
Tricks for mastery: Pretend the silent -x at the end of the word isn’t there at all! Imagine –eux words as if they ended in simply –eu. Phonetic pronunciation and thinking are key here. If an -x is the last letter in a word that’s not a proper name, chances are it’s just there for decoration.
The Silent h: There Are 2 Types
Common French words where it appears: homme, hôpital, heureux (man, hospital, and happy — again! This one is lousy with silent letters!)
Phonetic pronunciations: omme (umm), opital, eu-reu
Where you’ll find it: Generally at the beginning of a word.
What makes it unusual: There are two types of silent h‘s in French! The first is h muet, which is the one in the words listed above. The second is our other friend h aspiré, which applies to a great number of words that do not actually originate in French (hamburger, Halloween, hamster, etc.—all of which are used in French but obviously don’t have French roots). The h aspiré words take le instead of l’ for an article, as in le hamster (not l’hamster), whereas the h muet words take the apostrophe article as if they were vowels, as in l’homme. But get this—they’re all still silent h‘s.
Tricks for mastery: Think of the h muet as a vowel and the h aspiré as a consonant which just happens to sound like a vowel. We know—tricky business, this one. When in doubt as to which h you’re dealing with, just remember that l’ words originate from French and the le words don’t. (Of course, there are exceptions such as Le Havre, but you can learn those as you come across them!)
The Silent n: After a Vowel
Common French words where it appears: un, lapin, bon, américain, canadien (a/an, rabbit, good, American, Canadian)
Phonetic pronunciation: –hn (pronounced through your nose, without the -n actually sounding; you never use your tongue tip)
Where you’ll find it: After a vowel, but not followed by another vowel. For example: un has a silent n, whereas une has a sounded one.
What makes it unusual: Anglophones don’t have a “nasal n” (n nasalisé) in English, so our natural tendency is to pronounce it as a hard n as in “no.”
Tricks for mastery: Think of the n in bonjour—it’s a French word we all know and it has un n nasalisé, rather than a fully sounded n! Also, remember that the feminine equivalent “-nne” (i.e. bonne, canadienne) is the n sound that gets fully pronounced. Lastly, always keep it in the nose!
The Silent t: At the End of a Word
Common French words where it appears: chat, minuit, consonant, et (cat, midnight, consonant, and)
Phonetic pronunciations: sha, minuee, consonahn (there’s that nasal n again!), é
Where you’ll find it: At the end of a word. As you’ll see above, it can follow a consonant as well as a vowel.
What makes it unusual: Again, it looks on paper as though it ought to be a hard t. It can be really difficult for native English speakers to think of that t as not being present in the word.
Tricks for mastery: Think of all of these words as not having a t at all, and pronounce them accordingly. Pretend that the -et words (such as et itself!) use “é“—e accent aigu— which is pronounced the very same way. Also see: the silent -r that comes after an e, as in so many verb infinitives: parler, manger, danser, etc. It uses the exact same pronunciation as -et, so thinking of -er verbs can be another good memory device.
The Silent s: Just Like a Plural
Common French words where it appears: temps, trois, êtes, faites (time, three, [you (plural)] are, [you (plural)] do), all kinds of plurals
Phonetic pronunciations: ta(hm) (like that n nasalisé again), troa, ett, fett
Where you’ll find it: At the end of a word. Much like our friend the silent t, it might follow a consonant or a vowel.
What makes it unusual: Besides the obvious fact that it looks like it ought to be sounded, it can seem very daunting when preceded by more than one consonant! If you’d never heard or spoken any French at all, it would be very hard to know what to do with a word like temps.
Tricks for mastery: When you see a singular word with an s at the end, think of a plural word—because nearly all plural words in French have a silent s at the end. You wouldn’t pronounce an s for a plural, so go by the same rule for a singular. Besides that, these words simply have to be drilled and remembered!
You know what? As with everything in French, there are tons and tons of exceptions! For example, the word strict is pronounced almost the same as in English, with the ct using a sounded pronunciation. Sometimes, words simply have to learned and drilled on a case-by-case basis.
But by and large, the tips above will help you master those silent letters that come along so frequently en français. Good luck—bonne chance—both of which words, incidentally, have all their letters pronounced!