French Corrective Phonetics Guide

Initial and Final Consonants

As mentioned in the overview section, consonants are articulated with the complete (stops) or partial (fricatives) restriction of airflow as it passes through the mouth. Two main kinds are distinguished: a) voiceless consonants, e.g.: /p/, /f/, etc. (produced without the vocal chords vibrating) and b) voiced consonants, e.g.: /b/, /v/ (produced with vibration of the vocal folds).

While French and English consonants have many similarities, there are some key differences which should be respected when speaking French. These differences concern both voiced and voiceless consonants at the beginning and end of words.

Initial Voiceless Consonants

The main difference between initial consonants in English and French concerns the aspiration of voiceless stops (i.e.: /p/, /t/ and /k/). Consider the following English words: pat [pʰat] , tap [tʰap] , cap [kʰap] .

When articulating these in English, there is a very brief lag (in milliseconds) between the end of the voiceless consonant and the beginning of the vowel (which is, of course, voiced). In other words, there is a little bit of audible voiceless air that is produced at the end of the consonant. This voiceless air is known as aspiration and initial voiceless stops in English are described as aspirated (indicated by the ʰ in the transcriptions). If you put you hand (or a kleenex) in front of your mouth and pronounce the English words pat, tap and cap, you'll feel the aspirated air that follows the initial consonant (you won't feel it though with a voiced consonant, e.g.: bat or gap).

However, this is not the case in French. For example, no such aspiration should be audible at the beginning of the French words patte , tappe  and cap . As the voiceless consonant ends, voicing for the following vowel begins, with no lag in between.

If you want to see what an unaspirated voiceless stop sounds like, compare the /p/ of the English words pill and spill. The first is aspirated, the second is not (since it is not at the very beginning of a syllable).

In order to avoid aspiration of initial /p/, /t/and /k/ in French, we suggest you anticipate the following vowel, i.e.: start it as soon as possible after the consonant.

Initial Voiced Consonants

English and French differ in the way they voice initial stops. They both involve vibration of the vocal chords, but the vibration begins earlier in French. Consider the three stages of any stop consonant:

1) contact of articulators (e.g.: the lips for /b/)

2) duration of the contact

3) release of the contact

At the beginning of the first stage, English voiced consonants (like /b/, /d/ and /g/) actually start out as voiceless (i.e.: like /p/, /t/ and /k/). The voicing "kicks in" during the second stage. In French, however, voiced consonants are voiced from the very beginning, i.e.: in stage 1). In other words, English has a longer "voice onset time".

In order to verify that you are voicing correctly, pronounce the consonant /b/ and make sure there is voicing at the beginning. Next, say the word bon with the same kind of initial /b/. This should lead you to the correct articulation.

Final Consonants

If we consider the three stages of stop articulation listed above, we can identify another important difference between English in French. Namely, French has fully released stops, while English has unreleased ones. Let's consider the implications of this for voiceless and voiced stops in French.

Final voiceless consonants

The main difference between final voiceless consonants in English in French is that only in French are final voiceless consonants aspirated. This makes sense. Since all final French consonants are fully released, it's not surprising that final voiced consonants are followed by aspirated air (i.e.: unvoiced air flowing from the lungs). This is an audible difference. For example, an accurate transcription of a word like crêpe would be [kʁɛpʰ] . Take care to fully release final voiceless consonants when speaking French.

We see therefore that both English and French have aspirated stops, but they occur in different word positions. This is summarized in the following table:

 

Aspiration of Unvoiced Consonants
  initial Medial Final
anglais aspirated (e.g.: toss [tʰɑs]) unaspirated (e.g.: stable [stabl]) unaspiré (e.g.: lake [lek])  
français unaspirated (e.g.: lake [lek]) unaspirated (e.g: stable [stabl] aspirated (e.g.: lac [lakʰ])

 

Final voiced stops

The fact that final voiced consonants are fully released in French creates a similar result to that described above, except that the air that follows the release is voiced air. For example, the French pronunciation of the word robe [ʁɔbᵊ] ends with small vowel, indicated by [bᵊ], though not enough to create a second syllable.

 

Spelling of Final Consonants

Generally speaking, a letter representing a consonant at the end of a word is not pronounced in French, e.g.:

 

forêt [fɔʁɛ]

brebis [bʁəbi]

pot [po]

clos [clo]

fusil [fyzi]

chat [ʃa]

estomac [ɛstɔma]

 

That said, the consonant is pronounced in one-syllable words where "C", "R", "F" and "L" follow a vowel directly, e.g.:

 

C: mec [mɛk], sac [sak], bec [bɛk], lac [lak]

R: mer [mɛʁ], sur [syʁ], par [paʁ], pour [puʁ]

F: oeuf [œf], boeuf [bœf], bref [bʁɛf], chef [ʃɛf]

L: bal [bal], mal [mal], sel [sɛl], fil [fil]

 

Here are a few more points to consider:

• "CT" tends to be pronounced at the end of a word (e.g.: intact, direct [diʁɛkt]), but not in respect , aspect and instinct.

• "S", though usually silent, is pronounced at the end of bus, autobus and as.

 
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