French Corrective Phonetics Guide

The Central Vowel /a/

The Central Vowel /a/

The vowel /a/ is low, central, unrounded and oral. It is articulated with the tongue tip a little behind the lower teeth, with lips spread about. Examples of words containing this vowel are: Canada [kanada] , aller [ale], mal [mal] and toi [twa] . It should be distinguished from the English vowel /æ/ found, for example, in the word apple. This latter vowel is a front vowel and articulated with the tongue on top of the lower teeth, not behind it.

As we saw in the section on syllables, it is important that the vowel of an unstressed syllable maintain its integrity in French. In other words, its features should be the same as when the vowel is pronounced by itself. For example, when you pronounce the word ananas [a-na-na] , all three instances of /a/ should be pronounced in the same manner (which is certainly not the case for the English word banana where the vowel of the second syllable, the stressed one, is different than the other two, i.e.: [bənænə] ).

Spelling of /a/

The vowel /a/ is represented by the letter "a" (or "à") in certain contexts. Namely:

a) at the end of a word, e.g.: ma = [ma]

b) before a non-nasal consonant, e.g.: tapper = [tape]

c) before a nasal consonant followed by a vowel (silent or pronounced), e.g.: dame = [dam]

It is also found in words containing the sequence "oi" or "oy" which is pronounced [wa], e.g.: oiseau = [wazo]

Note that traditionally, "â" represents the back vowel /ɑ/, e.g.: pâte (though many speakers use the central vowel here as well).

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  • Even though the word femme is written with an "e", the vowel is actually /a/, i.e.: [fam] .
  • Be careful not to "reduce" /a/ in unaccented syllables, e.g.: pédagogie.
French Corrective Phonetics Guide » French Rhythm and Stress
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Terry Nadasdi & Stéfan Sinclair