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This article mainly discusses the phonological system of standard French based on the Parisian dialect. French is notable for its uvular r, nasal vowels, and three processes affecting word-final sounds: liaison, a certain type of sandhi, wherein word-final consonants are not pronounced unless followed by a word beginning with a vowel; elision, wherein certain instances of /ǝ/ (schwa) are elided (e.g. when final before an initial vowel); and enchaînement (resyllabification), in which word-final and word-initial consonants may be moved across a syllable boundary, so that syllables may cross word boundaries.
An example of these various processes is as follows:
|Plosive||p b||t d||k ɡ|
|Fricative||f v||s z||ʃ ʒ||ʁ5|
Although double consonant letters appear in the orthographic form of many French words, geminate consonants are relatively rare in the pronunciation of such words. The following cases can be identified.
The pronunciation [ʁː] is found in the future and conditional forms of the verbs courir ('to run') and mourir ('to die'). The conditional form il mourrait [ilmuʁːɛ] ('he would die'), for example, contrasts with the imperfect form il mourait [ilmuʁɛ] ('he was dying'). Other verbs that have a double ⟨rr⟩ orthographically in the future and conditional are pronounced with a simple [ʁ]: il pourra ('he will be able to'), il verra ('he will see').
When the prefix in- combines with a base that begins with n, the resulting word can optionally be pronounced with a geminate [nː], and similarly for the variants of the same prefix im-, il-, ir-:
Other cases of optional gemination can be found in words like syllabe ('syllable'), grammaire ('grammar'), and illusion ('illusion'). The pronunciation of such words, in many cases due to orthographic influence (see Spelling pronunciation), is subject to speaker variation, and gives rise to widely varying stylistic effects. In particular, the gemination of consonants other than the liquids and nasals /m n l ʁ/ is "generally considered affected or pedantic". Examples of stylistically marked pronunciations include addition [adːisjɔ̃] ('addition') and intelligence [ɛ̃telːiʒɑ̃s] ('intelligence').
Gemination of doubled 'm' and 'n' is typical of the Languedoc region, as opposed to other Southern accents.
A few cases of gemination do not correspond to double consonant letters in the orthography. The deletion of word-internal schwas (see below), for example, can give rise to sequences of identical consonants, e.g. là-dedans [laddɑ̃] ('inside'), l'honnêteté [lɔnɛtte] ('honesty'). Gemination is obligatory in such contexts. The elided form of the object pronoun l' ('him/her/it') can optionally (in non-standard, popular speech) be realized as a geminate [lː] when it appears after a vowel:
Finally, a word pronounced with emphatic stress can exhibit gemination of its first syllable-initial consonant:
Many words in French can be analyzed as having a "latent" final consonant that is only pronounced in certain syntactic contexts when the next word begins with a vowel. For example, the word deux /dø/ ('two') is pronounced [dø] in isolation or before a consonant-initial word (deux jours /dø ʒuʁ/ → [døʒuːʁ] 'two days'), but in deux ans /døz‿ɑ̃/ ('two years'), the linking or liaison consonant /z/ is pronounced.
Standard French contrasts up to thirteen oral vowels and up to four nasal vowels. Note that the schwa (in the center of the diagram beside this paragraph) is not necessarily a distinctive sound; even though it is often realized as other vowels, its patterning suggests that it is a separate phoneme (see the sub-section Schwa below).
The phonemic contrast between front /a/ and back /ɑ/ is only partially maintained in Standard French, leading some researchers to reject the idea of two distinct phonemes. However, the distinction is still clearly maintained in other dialects, such as that of Quebec.
While speakers in France show significant variation in this area, a number of general tendencies can be observed. First, the distinction is best preserved in word-final stressed syllables such as in the minimal pairs:
There are certain environments that favor one low vowel over the other. For example, /ɑ/ is favored after /ʁw/ and before /z/:
The difference in quality is often reinforced by a difference in length (however this difference is contrastive in final closed syllables). The exact distribution of the two vowels varies greatly from speaker to speaker.
Back /ɑ/ is much rarer in unstressed syllables. It can still be encountered in some common words:
Morphologically complex words derived from words containing stressed /ɑ/ may or may not retain this vowel:
Even in a final syllable, back /ɑ/ may become [a] if the word in question loses its stress within the extended phonological context:
While the mid vowels contrast in certain environments, there is limited distributional overlap so that they often appear in complementary distribution. Generally speaking, close-mid vowels are found in open syllables, while open-mid vowels are found in closed syllables. Minimal pairs can, however, still be found:
Beyond this general rule, there are some complications. For instance, /o/ and /ø/ are found in closed syllables ending in [z], while only [ɔ] is found in closed monosyllables before [ʁ], [ɲ], and [ɡ].
The phonetic qualities of the back nasal vowels are not very similar to those of the corresponding oral vowels, and the contrasting factor that distinguishes /ɑ̃/ and /ɔ̃/ is the extra lip rounding of the latter. Many speakers have merged /œ̃/ with /ɛ̃/.
In some dialects, particularly that of Paris, there is an attested tendency for nasal vowels to shift in a counter-clockwise direction. That is /ɛ̃/ tends to be more open and shifts toward the vowel space of /ɑ̃/ (realized also as [æ̃]), /ɑ̃/ rises and labializes to [ɔ̃] (realized also as [ɒ̃]), and /ɔ̃/ shifts to [õ] or [ũ]. Apart from this, there also exists an opposite movement for /ɔ̃/ where it becomes more open and delabializes to [ɑ̃], resulting in a merger of Standard French /ɔ̃/ and /ɛ̃/ in this case. In Quebec French, this shift has the clockwise direction: /ɛ̃/ → [ẽ], [ɑ̃] → [æ̃], [ɔ̃] → [õ].
When phonetically realized, schwa (/ə/), also called "e caduc" ('dropped e') and "e muet" ('mute e'), is a mid-central vowel with some rounding. Many authors consider it to be phonetically identical to [œ]. Fagyal, Kibbee & Jenkins (2006) state more specifically that it merges with /ø/ before high vowels and glides:
in phrase-final stressed position:
and that it merges with [œ] elsewhere.
But some speakers make a clear distinction, and it exhibits special phonological behavior that warrants considering it a distinct phoneme.
The main characteristic of French schwa is its "instability" — i.e., the fact that under certain conditions it has no phonetic realization.
Pronouncing [ə] with [œ] is a way to emphasize the syllable. For instance, pronuncing biberon ('baby bottle') [bibœˈrɔ̃] instead of [bibəˈrɔ̃] is a way to draw attention to the e (to clarify spelling, for example).
In French versification, word-final schwa is always elided before another vowel and at the ends of verses. It is pronounced before a following consonant-initial word. For example une grande femme fut ici [yn(ə) ɡʁɑ̃d(ə) fam(ə) fyt‿isi], would be pronounced [ynəɡʁɑ̃dəfaməfytisi], with the /ə/ at the end of each word being pronounced.
Schwa cannot normally be realized as a central vowel ([œ]) in closed syllables. In such contexts in inflectional and derivational morphology, schwa usually alternates with the front vowel /ɛ/. Compare, for example:
A three-way alternation can be observed in a few cases for a number of speakers:
Instances of orthographic ⟨e⟩ that do not exhibit the behavior described above may be better analyzed as corresponding to the stable, full vowel /œ/. The enclitic pronoun -le, for example, obligatorily keeps its vowel in contexts like donnez-le-moi /dɔne lə mwa/ → [dɔnelœmwa] ('give it to me') where schwa deletion would normally apply, and it counts as a full syllable for the determination of stress. Cases of word-internal stable ⟨e⟩ are more subject to variation among speakers, but for example un rebelle /ɛ̃ ʁəbɛl/ → [ɛ̃ʁœbɛl] ('a rebel') must be pronounced with a full vowel, in contrast to un rebond /ɛ̃ ʁəbɔ̃/ → [ɛ̃ːʁœbɔ̃] or [ɛ̃ʁˈbɔ̃] ('a bounce').
With the exception of the distinction made by some speakers between /ɛ/ and /ɛː/ in rare minimal pairs like mettre [mɛtʁ] ('to put') vs. maître [mɛːtʁ] ('teacher'), variation in vowel length is entirely allophonic. Vowels can be lengthened in closed, stressed syllables, under the following two conditions:
When such syllables lose their stress, the lengthening effect may be absent. The vowel [o] of saute is long in Regarde comme elle saute! where it is final, but not in Qu'est-ce qu'elle saute bien!. In this case, the vowel is unstressed because it is not phrase-final. An exception occurs however with the phoneme /ɛː/ because of its distinctive nature, provided it is word-final, as in C'est une fête importante, where fête is pronounced with long /ɛː/ despite being unstressed in that position.
The following table presents the pronunciation of a representative sample of words in phrase-final (stressed) position:
|phoneme||vowel value in closed syllable||vowel value in
|non-lengthening consonant||lengthening consonant|
The final vowel (most often /ə/) of a number of monosyllabic function words is elided in syntactic combinations with a following word that begins with a vowel. For example, compare the pronunciation of the unstressed subject pronoun, in je dors /ʒə dɔʁ/ [ʒəˈdɔʁ] ('I am sleeping'), and in j'arrive /ʒ‿aʁiv/ [ʒaˈʁiv] ('I am arriving').
The glides [j], [w], and [ɥ] appear in syllable onsets, immediately followed by a full vowel. In many cases they alternate systematically with their vowel counterparts [i], [u], and [y], for example in the following pairs of verb forms:
The glides in these examples can be analyzed as the result of a glide formation process that turns an underlying high vowel into a glide when followed by another vowel: e.g. /nie/ → [nje].
This process is usually blocked after a complex onset of the form obstruent + liquid (that is, a stop or a fricative followed by /l/ or /ʁ/). For example, while the pair loue/louer shows an alternation between [u] and [w], the same suffix added to cloue [klu], a word with a complex onset, does not trigger the glide formation: clouer [klue] ('to nail') Some sequences of glide + vowel can be found after obstruent-liquid onsets, however. The main examples are [ɥi], as in pluie [plɥi] ('rain'), [wa], and [wɛ̃]. Such data can be dealt with in different ways, for example by adding appropriate contextual conditions to the glide formation rule, or by assuming that the phonemic inventory of French includes underlying glides, or rising diphthongs like /ɥi/ and /wa/.
Glide formation normally does not occur across morpheme boundaries in compounds like semi-aride ('semi-arid'). However, in colloquial registers, glide formation can be observed across morpheme or word boundaries: si elle [siɛl] ('if she') can be pronounced just like ciel [sjɛl] ('sky'), or tu as [tya] ('you have') like tua [tɥa] ('[he] killed').
The glide [j] can also occur in syllable coda position, after a vowel, as in soleil [sɔlɛj] ('sun'). Here again, one can formulate a derivation from an underlying full vowel /i/, but this analysis is not always adequate, given the existence of possible minimal pairs like pays [pɛi] ('country') / paye [pɛj] ('paycheck') and abbaye [abɛi] ('abbey') / abeille [abɛj] ('bee'). Schane (1968) proposes an abstract analysis deriving postvocalic [j] from an underlying lateral by palatalization and glide conversion (/li/ → /ʎ/ → /j/).
Word stress is not distinctive in French. This means that two words cannot be distinguished on the basis of stress placement alone. In fact, grammatical stress can only fall on the final full syllable of a French word (that is, the final syllable with a vowel other than schwa). Monosyllables with schwa as their only vowel (ce, de, que, etc.) are generally unstressed clitics, although they may receive stress in exceptional cases requiring separate treatment.
The difference between stressed and unstressed syllables in French is less marked than in English. Vowels in unstressed syllables keep their full quality, giving rise to a syllable-timed rhythm (see Isochrony). Moreover, words lose their stress to varying degrees when pronounced in phrases and sentences. In general, only the last word in a phonological phrase retains its full grammatical stress (on its last syllable, unless this is a schwa).
Emphatic stress is used to call attention to a specific element in a given context, for example to express a contrast or to reinforce the emotive content of a word. In French, this stress falls on the first consonant-initial syllable of the word in question. The characteristics associated with emphatic stress include: increased amplitude and pitch of the vowel, and gemination of the onset consonant, as mentioned above.
For words that begin with a vowel, emphatic stress falls either on the first non-initial syllable that begins with a consonant, or on the initial syllable with the insertion of a glottal stop or a liaison consonant.
French intonation differs substantially from that of English. There are four primary patterns.
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