That tricky French U! Posted by Josh Dougherty on Jan 6, 2015 in Grammar
There are many tricky parts to learning a foreign language. There’s new grammar, there are new and sometimes bizarre expressions and idioms, and there are of course new sounds. For native English speakers, there are a few sounds in French that are a little difficult to pronounce. And of course, just because you know the letter doesn’t mean it’s pronounced that way or that it’s even pronounced at all, in some cases. Vive le français! This post is going to focus on the French “u” sound. We’re going to take a look at the features of this vowel, how to produce the sound, and then finally there will be a few exercises for you. Vous êtes prêts? (Are you ready?)
The “u” sound in French is une voyelle fermée antérieure arrondie (close front rounded vowel). Ne vous inquiétez pas si vous n’avez pas encore étudié la phonologie (don’t worry if you haven’t yet studied phonology) – we’ll break all those terms down.
- fermé (closed) refers to the tongue’s position. In a closed vowel, la langue (the tongue) is placed very close to le palais (the palate of the mouth). Do not touch the tongue to the roof of the mouth completely. Par contre (on the other hand), an open vowel (une voyelle ouverte) has the tongue positioned as far away as possible from the roof of the mouth. Par exemple (for example), say “kit” and “father.” “Kit” is closed – when pronouncing the “i,” the tongue is positioned close to the roof of the mouth, but it doesn’t touch it. With “father,” your tongue isn’t close to the roof of your mouth.
- antérieur (front) deals with the tongue again. This time, it’s referring to whether the tongue is positioned forward or backward in the mouth. Front means the tongue is positioned as forward as possible in the mouth, but without touching the roof of the mouth, the teeth, or the lips. Pourquoi pas? This would create a constriction, and because the sound would no longer be pure and air can no longer pass freely, it would be a consonant and not a vowel. Postérieure (back) means that the tongue is positioned as far back as possible without creating a constriction. Par exemple, say the words “set” and “goal.” With “set,” your tongue is left toward the front of the mouth. With “goal,” your tongue is pulled back.
- arrondi (rounded) is the easiest one! If your lips are rounded, it’s arrondi. If it’s not, it’s called non arrondi. Par exemple, try saying “croak” and “nut.” When you say “croak,” the o makes you round your lips. When you pronounce the vowel in “nut,” your lips are not rounded.
If this didn’t bore you tears and you’d like to learn more, a simple Google search on phonology can teach you a lot! It’s really quite an interesting subject.
How to Make This Sound
A common mistake with this sound for native English speakers is both how to pronounce the sound and how to distinguish it from the “ou” combination. The reason is because English doesn’t have the same sound as the French “u.“ To accommodate this new sound, we approximate to a sound that we do have: the “ou” combination (such as in the word “soup”). Let’s go a little further. How do we make the “u” sound when it’s not something we grew up saying? How can we train our muscles to do this?
First you need to find a sound in French that you can make — in this case, we’re going to go with the long “e” in English (think of the words “see” or “me”). French has the same sound (think of the word “fini”). Say that sound, and hold it out. Exaggerate it for this exercise.
Notice how your lips are stretched out. This “e” sound is a close front unrounded vowel. The French “u” sound is a close front rounded vowel. What’s the difference? Only the roundness. So that leads to the next and last step: while saying the long English “e,” just round your lips! If you feel like you aren’t getting it right away, really exaggerate that “e” and the lip rounding. Et ça y est – le «u» français! Even with a simple trick, it’s not always easy to make this sound alone without first making the long English “e” — just keep practicing. You’ll get it! Check out the gif below to see the steps in action.
U and OU can be problematic because mispronouncing them can be the difference between “Russian” and “red-headed.” When the “u” is placed after another vowel (such as with au and ou combinations), you don’t need to use the pronunciation trick to say it. However, if the “u” is placed in environment that isn’t directly following a vowel, you’ll need to produce that tricky sound.
In the example above, russe (Russian) and rousse (red-headed)’s pronunciations are different only because of the “o” placed before the “u.” Below is a list of some word pairs whose pronunciation changes depending on the word’s spelling. Try to pronounce them out loud. You can also listen to the recording below.
la hutte (hut)
la bulle (bubble)
la boule (ball)
la rue (street)
la roue (wheel)
la mule (mule)
la moule (mussel)
le loup (wolf)
vous (you formal)
la boue (mud)
tu (you informal)
la puce (flea)
le pouce (thumb)
le jus (juice)
la joue (cheek)
Now that you’ve heard both, let’s see if you can distinguish the two. Grab a sheet a paper and number it 1 to 16. Listen to the recording below, and mark whether you’re hearing u or ou.
The answers are at the bottom of the post. How did you do?
For a little bit more practice, try reading these virelangues (tongue twisters) that focus on the sounds we studied in this post. Start slow, but see how fast you can go!
- Sur la pelouse, la gousse pousse et la poule glousse.
- Quelle cohue dans la hutte! La chihuahua chahute, le chat lutte et chute.
- Sa cousine cousait, causant à Zabou posant son coussin sous son cou.
- Si six cent six Suisses sots sucent six cent six saucisses sans sauce, ça se saura.
- Suzette est sujette aux suçons, Suson suce ses sucettes.
Les réponses: 1. u 2. u 3. ou 4. u 5. ou 6. ou 7. ou 8. u 9. ou 10. ou 11. u 12. u 13. ou 14. ou 15. u 16. ou
Bonne continuation, tout le monde!
Un très grand merci à Guillaume pour les enregistrements!
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