French Corrective Phonetics Guide

Overview of Key Concepts

Speech Organs

Speech sounds are produced by modifying the airstream that begins in the lungs. These modifications take place in the mouth and involve parts of the body that are used for other functions as well. The main speech organs you should be familiar with are presented in the following diagram:

 The vocal tract

 

Consonants and Vowels

Speech sounds fall into two general categories: a) consonants and b) vowels. The main difference is that when consonants are produced, the airflow from the lungs is blocked (partially or completely), while the air flows freely during the articulation of a vowel.

Consonants

Let's begin with a general classification of French consonants. We classify consonants according to three main categories: a) manner of articulation (how we restrict the airflow); b) place of articulation (where we restrict the airflow); and c) voicing (whether or not the vocal folds vibrate).

Manner of Articulation

French consonants are articulated in three main ways: a) by stopping the airflow completely, then releasing it. Consonants produced in this manner are referred to as stops (e.g.: /t/, /g/); b) by partially restricting the airflow, e.g.: with the tongue. Consonants produced in this manner are referred to as fricatives (e.g.: /s/, /f/); and c) by allowing the air to pass by the sides of the tongue, while the tip makes contact behind the upper teeth. Consonants produced in this manner are referred to a laterals (e.g.: /l/).

Nasals Consonant

When a nasal consonant is produced, air flows through both the mouth and the nasal cavity. There are three nasal consonants in French: /n/, /m/ and /ɲ/. French nasal consonants are also classified as stops since the airflow is interrupted in the mouth, though flows freely through the nasal passage (this happens when the velum is lowered).

Voicing

One important distinction made between consonants is in terms of voicing, which refers to whether or not the vocal folds vibrate during articulation. When producing a voiced consonant, the vocal folds are drawn together and vibrate. When they are slightly separated, a voiceless consonant is produced (when we breathe they are fully separated):

Image result for cordes vocales

Consider the sounds /b/ and /p/. If you put your finger on your Adam's apple during articulation of these, you will notice that it only vibrates for /b/. The consonant /b/ is voiced, while /p/ is voiceless.

Place of Articulation

The second way we classify consonants is according to the place in the mouth where the air is blocked or restricted. The relevant places of articulation for French consonants are: the lips, the teeth, the palate, the velum (i.e.: the back part of the palate) and the tongue. Let's examine how we use these when making consonants.

lips: these can be drawn together, e.g.: /b/, /m/ or the bottom lips and touch the top teeth, e.g.: /f/, /v/. Consonants produced with the lips are referred to as labial consonants.

teeth: as mentioned, the top teeth can touch the bottom lips, e.g.: /f/, or the tip of the tongue can touch behind the top teeth, e.g.: /t/, /s/. Consonants produced with the teeth are referred to as dental consonants. In some instances, the contact is a little behind the top teeth (on the alveolar ridge).

palate: the blade of the tongue can touch the centre of the palate, e.g.: /ʃ/ as in "cher". Consonants produced with the palate are referred to as palatal (or pre-palatal) consonants.

velum: the back of the tongue can touch the velum, e.g.: /k/, /g/. Consonants produced with the velum are referred to as velar (or post-palatal) consonants.

Let's now use the classification according to voicing, place and manner of articulation to classify the consonants of French:

 

 Manner Place of Articulation
    Bilabial Labio-dental Apico-dental Palatal Velar Uvular
Stops voiced /b/   /d/   /g/  
voiceless /p/   /t/   /k/  
Fricatives voiced   /v/ /z/ /ʒ/   /ʁ/
  voiceless   /f/ /s/ /ʃ/    
Nasales voiced /m/   /n/  /ɲ/    
Lateral voiced     /l/      

 

As we see in the above chart, all French consonants can be described using this classification system, e.g.:

/p/ is a voiceless, bilabial, stop consonant.

/z/ is a voiced, (apico-)dental, fricative consonant.

French Vowels

The adjectives used to classify French vowels are different from the ones used for consonants (don't confuse them!). The main criteria for describing vowels are: a) vertical tongue position (i.e.: how high/low is it?); b) horizontal tongue position (front versus back); c) lip rounding; d) whether or not air also passes through the nasal cavity. Let's consider each of these in turn.

Vertical Position of the Tongue

The tongue can move higher or lower in the mouth. Doing so changes the shape of the opening through which air flows and, in turn, changes the type of vowel produced. Our description of French vowels will use four levels of tongue height: high, mid-high, mid-low and low. Consider for example the vowel /i/ in the word "si". When you pronounce this vowel, you will notice that the tongue is relatively high in the mouth. Since the tongue is high, the passage between the tongue and the palate is relatively closed (or narrow). High vowels are often referred to as "closed" vowels because of this. French has three high vowels: /i/, e.g.: "si", /y/, e.g.: "su" and /u/, e.g.: "sous".

Horizontal Position of the Tongue

Just as the tongue can move up and down, so too can it move from the front to the back of the mouth. As such, three horizontal positions can be identified: front, central and back.

Lip Rounding

When producing French vowels, the lips are either rounded or unrounded. It is important to note that when a French rounded vowel is articulated, the lips are advanced (or protruding) as well as rounded. The position is more or less that same as when someone whistles.

Image result for whistling lips

Always keep this in mind when articulating a rounded vowel in French.

Nasal versus Oral Vowels

Unlike English, French has a series of nasal vowels: /ã/, /õ/, /ɛ̃/, /œ̃/. When a nasal vowel is pronounced, the velum is slightly lowered so that air passes through both the oral cavity AND the nasal cavity.

The following charts show how these features can be used to describe any French vowel:

Oral Vowels
  Front Central Back
  unrounded rounded unrounded rounded
high (closed) /i/, e.g.: si /y/, e.g.: su   /u/, e.g.: sous
mid-high /e/, e.g.: les /ø/, e.g.: feu   /o/, e.g.: beau
mid-low /ɛ/, e.g.: lait /œ/, e.g.: seul   /ɔ/, e.g.: bol
low (open)     /a/, e.g.: ma  

 

Nasal Vowels
  Front Back
  unrounded rounded  unrounded rounded
high (closed)        
mid /ɛ̃/, e.g.: vin
/œ̃/, e.g.: un
  /õ/, e.g.: bon
low (open)      /ã/, e.g.: blanc  

For example:

/i/ is a high, front, unrounded, oral vowel.

/ɛ̃/ is a mid, front, unrounded, nasal vowel.

Semi-consonants

There is a third class of speech sounds that are in between consonants and vowels. These are referred to as either semi-consonants, semi-voyelles or glides. Their intermediate status is reflected in their behavior and in their place of articulation. Each semi-consonant is closely related to a high vowel, except that the tongue is even higher during the articulation of the semi-consonants (though not quite so high as to cause friction between the tongue and the palate). The correspondences for French are as follow:

/i/ > /j/, e.g.: "hier" [jɛʁ]

/y/ > /ɥ/, e.g.: "lui" [lɥi]

/u/ > /w/, e.g.: "oui" [wi]

One key difference is that while vowels can constitute the centre of a syllable, semi-consonants cannot. The latter must always appear beside a full vowel.

Diphthongs

In some languages, like English, the tongue moves during the articulation of a vowel (within ONE syllable). For example, the vowel of the English word "boy" starts out as /o/, but ends as /i/. As such, diphthongs are defined as the presence of two (or more) vowels within one syllable. Note that diphthongs are not used in standard French. It is therefore important to not use English diphthongs when speaking French. This is particularly true at the end of words, e.g.: aller is pronounced [ale] and NOT [alei].

Phonemes and Allophones

When we study the sounds of a language, we pay attention to the specific characteristics involved in their articulation. As we've seen, /p/ is described as a voiceless, bilabial, stop. All three features are essential for its description as a key sound in French. When we speak, however, some features that are present are not essential to the sound's definition. Consider for example the pronunciation of the English word "dam":

"dam" [dæm] or [dæ̃m]

In English, the vowel may or may not have a nasal quality. However, it is still the same linguistic sound since presence/absence of nasality doesn't change the meaning of the word in English. They are simply two versions (we call them allophones) of the same core vowel (we call this a phoneme). Phonemes allow us to create different words, allophones do not. For example, we know that /p/ and /b/ are phonemes in English since their contrast creates two different words: bat and pat. Pairs of words that are identical except for one sound are know as minimal pairs (other examples would be bon/mon, rire/lire, bon/banc, sous/su). Minimal pairs allow us to determine whether or not two different sounds are phonemes (as opposed to allophones).

In this guide, we will use the word phoneme to mean core, individual speech sound used to build words.

 
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