French Corrective Phonetics Guide

The Semi-consonant /j/

The Semi-consonant /j/

The features of /j/ are: very high, front, unrounded and non-syllabic. By "non-syllabic", we mean that it must appear beside a vowel and cannot form the centre of a syllable (that's the vowel's job!). Examples of words containing /j/ are: pion [pjõ] , taille [taj] , yeux [jø] , dieu [djø] .

Distribution of /j/

French avoids the sequence of "high vowel + vowel". That's where semi-consonants come in. Rather than "high vowel + vowel", French prefers the sequence "semi-consonant + vowel. Consider the word piano. The letters "ia" suggest that the transcription would be [piano]. That would work for English, but not French. In French the correct transcription is [pjano] where the semi-consonant /j/ is used rather than the high vowel /i/. This, of course has implications for the number of syllables. In English there are three syllables ([pi-a-no]) while in French there are only two ([pja-no] ).

Articulation of /j/

While /j/ is similar in English and French, keep in mind that French /j/ is shorter and tenser. It's particularly important to make sure it doesn't resemble the vowel /i/ found in English diphtongs (e.g.: boy [bɔi]). When articulating, the tongue is higher than for /i/, almost to the point of causing friction (and it is shorter than /i/). Take special care when /j/ appears at the end of a word, like in abeille [abɛj] . It should not sound like the end of obey.

Spelling of /j/

The main spelling representation of /j/ is the letter "i", followed by a vowel, e.g.: piano = [pjano]. There is one notable exception, however. It involves cases where the "i + vowel" sequence is preceded by a consonant followed by /l/ or /ʁ/. Here, the transcription involves both the high vowel /i/ AND the semi-consonant /j/, e.g.: brioche = [bʁijɔʃ] or plier = [plije]. The root of this pronunciation seems to be ease of articulation since three consonantal elements in a row is quite a mouthful!

A second way of representing /j/ involves the letters "ILL". In most cases, this actually represents [ij], e.g.: fille [fij], bille [bij], etc. That said, it can get a little tricky since sometimes "ILL" is pronounced [ij] while in other cases it simply represents /j/. In order to know which is correct, consider the preceding sound:

● if it is a vowel, then "ILL" simply represents /j/, e.g.: travailler = [tʁavaje], maille [maj]; this also accounts for words written with "ouille", e.g.: citrouille [sitʁuj] , nouille [nuj] , rouille [ʁuj] , etc. (be carefull not to substitute [ui] for [uj] in these words)

● if it is a consonant, then you need to transcribe (and pronounce) [ij], e.g.: scintiller [sɛ̃tije], briller [bʁije], billet [bijɛ].

Note that there are a (very) small number of cases where "ILL" represents [il], e.g.: mille [mil], village [vilaʒ] , tranquille [tʁãkil].


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● avoid the sequence "/i/ + vowel" (use "/j/ + vowel" instead)

● if "i" + vowel is preceded by a consonant +L/R, use [ij]

● "ILL" represents /j/ if preceded by a vowel and [ij] if preceded by a consonant.


French Corrective Phonetics Guide » Semi-consonants
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Nadaclair Language Technologies Inc.
Terry Nadasdi & Stéfan Sinclair