French Corrective Phonetics Guide

The Semi-consonant /ɥ/

The Semi-consonant /ɥ/

The features of /ɥ/ are: very high, front, rounded and non-syllabic. It must precede a vowel and is never found at the end of a word. Examples of words containing /ɥ/ are lui [lɥi] , suis [sɥi] , nuage [nɥaʒ] .

Distribution of /ɥ/

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 nuage. The letters "ua" suggest that the transcription would be [nuaʒ]. However, the correct pronunciation is actually [nɥaʒ]. This, of course, has implications for the number of syllables. There is only one in the word nuage.

Articulation of /ɥ/

Like other semi-consonants /ɥ/ is short and tense. To articulate correctly, we suggest you start with /y/ and raise the tongue higher, almost to the point of causing friction. If you try to squeeze /y/ into the same syllable as the following vowel, it should help. For example, to correctly pronounce lui [lɥi], start with [ly-i], in two syllables, then reduce it to only one beat. Another possibility would be to start with /j/ and avance/round the lips.

English interference

Image result for british flag

The semi-consonant /ɥ/ is not found in English, so there's a temptation to replace it with the English glide /w/. Don't succumb to this temptation! There's a very clear difference between the following:

Word pair English French
sweet/suite [swit] [sɥit]
wheel/huile [wil] [ɥil]
wheat/huit [wit] [ɥit]


Spelling of /ɥ/

The main spelling representation of /ɥ/ is the letter "u", followed by a vowel, e.g.: tuer = [tɥe] .

There is one notable exception, however. It involves cases where the "u" + vowel" sequence is preceded by a consonant followed by /l/ or /ʁ/. In the latter case, the pronunciation is /y/ + vowel, e.g.: cruel [kʁyɛl] .

Note, however, that this is not the case when the next vowel is "i". Here, the semi-consonant is used, regardless of what precedes, e.g.: fruit [fʁɥi] , pluie [plɥi] .

Words with "QUI" and "GUI"

The idea that the spelling "UI" = [ɥi] doesn't always hold. In some cases, the role of the "U" is simply to indicate that the consonant is a stop rather than a fricative (i.e.: it doesn't represent a vowel or semi-consonant), e.g.:


tranquille [tʁãkil], quille [kij]

guimauve [gimov] , Guillaume [gijom], guillotine [gijɔtin]


That said, there are some "GUI" sequences where the pronunciation is indeed [gɥi], e.g.: linguiste /lɛ̃gɥist/ (and derived forms), aiguille [egɥij] . The word anguille is transcribed [ãgij].

We don't make the rules; we just try to explain them!😉


Minimal Pairs

There are a number of French words distinguished only by the alteration between /ɥ/ and /w/ (i.e.: minimal pairs):


Louis [lwi] versus lui [lɥi]

mouette [mwɛt] versus muette [mɥɛt]

joint [ʒwɛ̃] versus juin [ʒɥɛ̃]


Make sure you are able to distinguish these pairs.


Image result for heads up

 • "U" + vowel usually indicates /ɥ/ + vowel

 • don't replace /ɥ/ with /w/

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